Worlds collide in the struggle for a nation's soul media fear shackles of a 'violent Islam' violent Islam

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The Independent Online
By the standards customarily observed by Turkey's less-than- squeamish private media companies, a bloodless pummelling for a young journalist is rarely newsworthy. Throughout this week, however, Turks have endured repeated screenings of an assault suffered by Isin Gurel, who received facial bruising while covering a demonstration in Sincan, 20 miles west of Ankara.

It was a contentious speech delivered by Iran's ambassador to Turkey, Mohammed Reza Bagheri, which brought Ms Gurel - who was covering a protest against the contents of the Iranian envoy's address - to Sincan. The assault which she suffered has excited the fears of Turkish secularists, who suspect Iran of fostering religious extremism in an attempt to hinder Turkey's increasingly fragile alignment with the West.

This debate has been symbolised by the assault's protagonists. Ms Gurel works for Interstar, one of a handful of punchy and innovative television stations which have sprung up in recent years. Some Turks think that her less telegenic assailant - who fled unhindered after flinging her to the ground - represents another newish arrival in traditionally secular Turkey: violent Islam.

Police inquiries suggest that Ms Guler's attacker was employed by the local council in Sincan. This claim embarrasses not only the council leader, Bekir Yildiz - who invited Mr Bagheri to Sincan - but also the Islamist- inclined Welfare Party, of which Mr Yildiz is a member.

Welfare, whose leader, Necmettin Erbakan, is Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, is in power nationally, and must balance the desires of its most militant cadres with the need to avoid angering Turkey's secular military.

Last Saturday's "Jerusalem Night", a meeting held to express solidarity with Palestinian demands for control of the Israeli capital, has reassured no one. For a start, the meeting coincided with the anniversary of the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's revolutionary leader, to Iran in 1979. The meeting hall was decorated with portraits of prominent members of Hizbollah, the pro-Iranian radical Islamic group, as well as a representation of the Dome of the Rock, a symbol of what some see as Israel's illegal occupation of Jerusalem.

The Iranian ambassador evidently tailored his address to suit his surroundings. He included an oblique call for the introduction of the sharia Islamic law in Turkey, and declared that divine retribution would befall those striking deals with Israel. This was interpreted as a reference to military co-operation agreements which Turkey and Israel struck last year.

Mr Yildiz - who presumably knows that advocating sharia law is at variance with Turkey's secular constitution - seemed to echo the ambassador's remarks. Mr Yildiz was removed from his post and a warrant issued for his arrest: he surrendered himself on Wednesday. As for Mr Bagheri, his mistake was to criticise the agreements between Turkey and Israel. The second of these was signed by a reluctant Mr Erbakan, under pressure from the Turkish military. Yesterday, Oguzhan Asilturk, a senior member of the Islamist Welfare Party said that the ambassador was to leave Turkey. But the ambassador appears far from chastened. "Turkey is a 99 per cent Muslim country," he said. "You are already living according to the sharia," he said after a ticking-off from the Turkish Foreign Ministry..

In the meantime, Mr Erbakan was fending off criticism from sections of his coalition partner, the centre-right True Path party. While Mr Erbakan can rely on the support of Tansu Ciller, the foreign minister and True Path leader, others look askance at the policy of friendship which Mr Erbakan has adopted towards Iran. This policy has also angered the United States, which is considering imposing limited sanctions on Turkey, after Mr Erbakan signed a $23bn (pounds 14bn) natural gas deal on a trip to Tehran.