Turks take dim view of Islamists' rising profile

Liberal disquiet has turned to protest, writes Christopher de Bellaigue
Ankara - "Parasites," is how Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey's Islamic- inclined Prime Minister, described several million of his compatriots on Monday. Mr Erbakan and his Welfare Party do not approve of a growing number of Turks who have taken to extinguishing their lights for a minute at 9pm each night.

The protest, which began modestly, but is spreading fast, was originally intended to express liberal Turks' disquiet at corruption within the state. However, government sensitivity - curious , since Mr Erbakan's Welfare Party remains largely unimplicated in allegations of skulduggery - has made it a symbol of an acrimonious debate between secularists and Islamists.

Tactless comments by Mr Erbakan's justice minister, Sevket Kazan, have propelled Turkey's Alevis (Alawites), a religious minority numbering around 15 million, to prominence within this debate.

Mr Kazan's mistake was to describe the 9pm protesters as players in "a game of candle-snuffing".

Turks recognise this as an allusion to Alevi religious ceremonies, which in times of oppression took place in darkness. These involve both male and female family members. Mischievous Sunnis - who pray in seclusion from women - joke that the Alevis take advantage of the darkness to indulge in incest. But unlike Mr Kazan, few say so in public.

Mr Kazan's stock with Turkey's Alevis, who ally syncretist Islam with liberal politics, is already low. A lawyer by profession, Mr Kazan once defended religious zealots when they were accused of burning to death 37 Alevis and sympathisers in the town of Sivas.

Alevi groups say they hope the Justice Minister will appear in court on charges of "fomenting division", a serious accusation in Turkey. His indiscretion has already cost him friends in Welfare's coalition partner, the True Path Party.

Besides enraging the Alevis, Mr Kazan's comments have focused attention on tensions between Islamists and more secular-minded Turks.

Earlier this month, these tensions boiled over in Sincan, 25 miles from Ankara. The town's Welfare Party mayor had endorsed a call by Iran's ambassador to Ankara for the imposition of the Sharia, Islamic law, in Turkey. Two days later in Sincan, a female television journalist was assaulted by a municipal employee. Then on 4 February Sincan's dawn calm was disturbed by the rumble of 30 tanks and armoured cars through the streets. "A routine manoeuvre", winked the top brass, who cite a constitutional obligation to protect the republic's secular status. Sophistry, reply Turks, who were reminded of coups which took place in 1960 and 1980.

They were not alone; on Wednesday, Madeleine Albright, the United States Secretary of State, said she hoped Turkey would remain secular. The US has been worried by Mr Erbakan's overtures to Iran, whom it is trying to isolate internationally.

Despite Welfare's best efforts to plant the pious inside the civil service, the bulk of Turkey's state apparatus, led by the military, appears to have resisted Islamic revivalism. Only this month, pressure from the military and some True Path ministers persuaded Mr Erbakan to abandon measures designed to make Turkey a more Islamic place. These included proposals to build a large mosque in Istanbul's Taksim Square and to allow female civil servants to wear Islamic-style headscarves at work.

Islamists have become increasingly frustrated and there are claims that Sunni fundamentalist groups are using a rapid increase in gun ownership to prepare for violent conflict. However, the army remains determined that Turkey will not become like Iran. Dimmed dining rooms at nine o'clock indicate that many Turks agree.