TALKING TURKEY: The Islamist Agenda in Turkey; Democracy
When Islamic leader Necmettin Erbakan surged to power in Turkey in June 1996, it was on a platform of Islamic-based, anti-Western populism for a new "Just Order" and rapprochement with the rest of the Muslim world. As prime minister for less than a year, Erbakan, 71, made no basic changes in Turkey's secular, pro-Western policies but nevertheless alarmed the country's disparate secular forces.
Today, with their leader forced out of office and banned from politics, his Refah (Welfare) Party closed and the drive against suspected Islamic extremists continuing, Turkish Islamists have reorganized themselves in a remodeled Fazilet (Virtue) Party, under the banner of Western-style democracy.
The beleaguered Islamists have embraced a new strategy, portraying themselves, with some justification, as democrats and victims of a rigid anti-Islamic system. Despite, or perhaps because of, the continuing crackdown on alleged Islamist radicals, Fazilet has come out as the country's number one political party in most polls, just as was Erbakan's Refah Party before Turkey's military-led establishment forced him to resign as prime minister and closed down his party.
With early elections called for next April, I decided to take a closer look at the Islamic agenda. What are the aims behind the democracy slogans? How does Fazilet's program differ from Erbakan's policies, which stirred such broad hostility? What are the chances of accommodatation between the leaders of the Islamic movement and the secular establishment?
During a six-week visit to Turkey last summer (1998), I talked to a wide range of Islamic activists and found little echo of the old anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-Europe rhetoric. Instead, many Islamists are now asking for basic American rights: freedom of religion, assembly, enterprise, speech and dress. They have apparently concluded that some aspects of Western democracy would be a panacea to their problems and are in the realm of the possible as Turkey continues to press for membership in the European Union.
Both the United States and the European Union countries were strongly critical of the closure of the Islamist party at the beginning of the year, calling it a setback for Turkish democracy and Turkey's bid for EU membership. Foreign diplomats I talked to subsequently said political as well as religious Islam have been making gains, in part because of an overreaction by Turkey's secular authorities. These observers predict that if Islamists become the target of an indiscriminate witch-hunt, their popularity will be enhanced and they could very well win the next elections.
Turkey's secular rulers tend to dismiss the democratic pretensions of the Islamists as a ploy to tranquilize the laic community while they attempt to regain political power. But civil and military authorities differ on how to handle the Islamic challenge.
Last summer (1998), the military leadership increased pressure on the secular government it had installed to take firmer measures against political Islam, described as "the gravest threat" to the secular republic. Civilian leaders, however, have suggested that religious fundamentalism should be curbed through democratic means and that the military should keep out of politics.
ARMED FORCES PREVAIL
As usual in Turkey, the armed forces have prevailed. (The army has carded out three coups in the name of restoring political order since 1960, and led the movement to force Erbakan to resign last year.) Under continued pressure from the military, investigations have been stepped up into the activities of the Islamic municipalities and businesses and more court cases opened against prominent Islamists, including Erbakan.
In routine retirement ceremonies at the end of August, outgoing generals again asserted that Islamic fundamentalism continued to pose the primary threat to the state and that the Turkish armed forces were there to safeguard the country's democratic and secular institutions. The new chief of General Staff, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, has pursued the same line, warning Turkish society to be "cautious toward those who want to install an Islamic order."
But the Islamist movement, led by Fazilet, has clearly learned lessons from the Erbakan experience. Firebrands whose violent rhetoric was enough to get Refah closed have been excluded or hushed.
Although Erbakan still hovers in the background, the new image of Fazilet is all democratic moderation as the party seeks mainstream status. Islamic mayors have switched their discourse from religion to democracy and redoubled efforts to get things done before the coming elections. Even the Islamic businessmen's association has established some distance from religious parties and has embraced democratic competition.
Abdullah Gul, former minister of state in Erbakan's government and former deputy chairman of Welfare Party, is now a member of parliament with the new Fazilet Party. The softspoken 48-year-old Gul, with bushy moustache and academic air, spoke confidently of Fazilet, which has inherited most of Refah's deputies to become the leading group in parliament. He said that in barely six months the party has put in place a new nationwide organization with branches in every city and town.
"Their operation backfired; we are already the number one party in all the polls," Gul told me in an interview in Fazilet's parliamentary chambers. "The people see we were oppressed and they know we are honest."
In broad strokes, Gul talked about Fazilet's agenda. "This is not a religious party; we are open to all citizens, not only religious people." (In a conversation two years earlier, he had described Refah as an "Islamic-oriented party.")
Highlighting differences between Fazilet and the defunct Refah, Gul noted that the new party has three women on the executive board. (Refah had been criticized, even within the party, for not allowing women to become candidates or members of the executive.)
In foreign policy, there are even bigger changes, Gul stressed. "In the past, Refah was reluctant to join the European Union. We now want to become a full member. We realize that without integration into Europe, democratic standards of human rights cannot be achieved in this country."
The Fazilet MP stressed that "We want to increase relations with the United States and strengthen our traditional links." (By contrast, U.S. relations had not been a priority of Refah, which had looked first to renew ties with Muslim countries like Iran and Libya.)
Gul explained that the United States has shown "more understanding" than Europe of Refah's problems and that the American press had been very critical of "the anti-democratic action" against Refah.
Praising American religious freedom, he said: "We want the same freedoms in Turkey, including freedom for non-believers. We don't want to impose our beliefs. The people are Muslim but minority rights should be respected."
Gul said his party favors "normal relations" with Israel but suggested there could be "a grass-roots reaction to artifically close ties with a government which appears to be blocking the peace process." (Relations between the two countries have flourished since the signing of a military training agreement in February 1997 engineered by the army commanders and widely condemned by the rest of the Islamic world.)
Erbakan's creation, the Developing Eight (D-8), which groups predominantly Muslim countries, has been "misunderstood," Gul insisted. "We never thought of it as an alternative to the European Union but only as a way to increase economic cooperation."
Viewed as a leader of the younger generation of Islamists, Gul gave high priority to "the civilianization" of the administrative structure. (In the past, secularists have suggested that the armed forces should be subject to civilian authority, as in most Western democracies, but the premise has been shot down by the military.)
Trained as an economist, Gul was critical of the failure of the secular government to reduce inflation, create jobs and improve income distribution. Pointing out that two-thirds of the budget goes to interest payments, Gul claimed that Erbakan's government had begun to solve the problem by decreasing the internal debt. Inflation had started to drop and interest rates had come down to 70 percent from 160 percent, but now were back to 100 percent.
The Fazilet deputy took a firm stand on a key Islamic issue: the ban on headscarves at universities, to go into effect this fall. Noting that the Qur'an stipulates that a Muslim woman should be covered in public, Gul said his party would defend the right of university students to wear headscarves.
An increasingly important player on the Turkish scene, MUSIAD -- the Independent Industrialists' and Businessmen Association -- was founded by a group of young Islamic businessmen in 1990 as a counterpart to the powerful secular-oriented Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association. MUSIAD's declared aim was to promote commercial development "without sacrificing moral values" and increase economic links among Muslim countries. By 1997, MUSIAD had become a significant force, with 3,000 members and 28 branch offices around the country and 30 focal points overseas.
Not long after the National Security Council, dominated by Turkey's top military command, delivered its Feb. 28, 1997 ultimatum to Erbakan to curb radical Islamic activities, the campaign began against MUSIAD. Two important Islamic business groups were charged with smuggling gold and foreign currency into the country, allegedly to fund Islamist activities. Later, in public denunciations of radical Islam, the Turkish General Staff accused 100 "Islamist bosses" of funding some 30 radical organizations. Military sources indicated that the army had established a blacklist of Islamic companies, including leading members of MUSIAD.
Following Erbakan's resignation in June 1997, the anti-Islamist campaign seemed to ease somewhat. But early this year the courts went into action. The Refah Party was shut down, Erbakan barred from politics for five years and several mayors put on trial for violating secular principles.
In mid-April, the authorities arrested 20 members of MUSIAD on charges of diverting insurance funds to religious activists. (They have since been acquitted.) In May, MUSIAD's chairman, American-educated Erol Yarar, was brought before the State Security Court in Ankara on charges of "inciting hatred." The prosecutor also asked for the closure of MUSIAD for violating the law on associations.
Omer Bolat, MUSIAD's secretary-general, called the charges against Yarar and the organization baseless. "If there is justice, rule of law and basic human rights, he will be acquitted and the case against MUSIAD dropped," Bolat said in an interview at MUSIAD'S Istanbul headquarters. Suggesting that the aim of the court actions was to encourage members to quit MUSIAD, he said there had been a score of defections but MUSIAD had gained 55 new members in a strong show of solidarity.
Denying any organic links with the banned Refah Party or its successor, Fazilet, Bolat stressed that none of the MUSIAD members are in politics and said they vote for different parties.
The MUSIAD official said the organization was pursuing plans to hold the largest private fair ever in Istanbul in late November (1998), with participation of 600 Turkish and 150 foreign exhibitors and 100,000 visitors from 60 countries. He was equally optimistic about the organization's long-term aims to increase the number of members to 5,000, with 40 branch offices and 40 overseas focal points by the year 2000.
Other centers of Islamic influence under attack lately are the municipalities. Erbakan's Refah Party won municipal elections in 1994, taking 400 city halls including the country's capital Ankara and Istanbul. By and large, the local Islamist administrations have proved to be efficient and relatively free of corruption, and many incumbents are expected to win next year's elections unless they are found guilty of excessive religious zeal. In the military-pushed drive against radical Islam, prosecutors are said to be investigating some 300 municipal governments for alleged Islamist activities.
The most visible municipal leader under fire is Tayyip Erdogan, 44, the charismatic mayor of Istanbul, often mentioned as a possible successor to Erbakan. Last spring, Erdogan gained even wider popularity when he was sentenced to 10 months in prison by a Diyarbakir State Security Court for reciting an "inflammatory" poem. While the court's decision is under appeal, Erdogan has begun to campaign for re-election on a "platform of democracy."
MAYOR GOKCEK OF ANKARA
Melih Gokcek, 50, mayor of Ankara, is hardly anyone's idea of an Islamist leader with his penchant for flashy ties, having studied journalism and begun his political career with the Motherland Party. Breaking with Motherland's leader Mesut Yilmaz in 1991, Gokcek joined Refah, the party "closest to my nationalist and conservative views." Elected mayor of Ankara in 1994, Gokcek turned to Fazilet earlier this year when Refah was shut down. From the start of his term as mayor, Gokcek has been the center of controversy.
"I could be in the Guinness Book of Records," the mayor said, acknowledging he has received 200 court orders "for political reasons." The main allegations, which he denies, are that he offered tenders for municipal works to religious foundations and that religious courses were taught in his community training centers.
Other suits involve the failure to pay for sculptures, commissioned by the previous mayor, that Gokcek calls "pornography." He has also been in constant litigation with journalists and claims to have won 100 libel suits. (He did not say how many cases he's lost.)
Gokcek's main complaint against the central government is that 50 percent of his budget was cut off last year and 35 percent this year to pay for the city's debt on big projects like the light rail system -- which, he said, in other countries would be subsidized by the state.
Nevertheless, he can present an impressive record of accomplishment: the start of operations of the light rail and subway (begun under the previous administration); construction of a $550 million waste treatment plant and 876 miles of sewage pipes; doubling natural gas users to 300,000; resettlement of 10 percent of the 1.2 million people living in shantytowns; doubling green space to 4.5 square meters per person; resurfacing most roads and repaving most sidewalks; construction of 23 under/overpasses to ease traffic; completion of infrastructure for the vast Yenimahalle industrial district to open by year's end; construction of six football fields, two big parks, 200 small ones and 200 fountains and pools. Social works include: 50,000 free meals distributed daily; 15 mobile health centers; a center for the elderly.
Employees are free to wear anything from miniskirts to headscarves at Ankara City Hall, the mayor said, adding that his wife does not cover her head and has not been pressured by Fazilet to do so. Like other Islamists, he fears confrontation if the authorities try to enforce the headscarf ban at the universities.
The Fazilet mayor admires the religious freedom he saw during an official visit to the United States last year. "There church and state are separate; here it's the opposite," he said. "The state controls the mosque. The Religious Affairs Department personnel are government employees. The state minister in charge of religion prepares the same text to be read in all the mosques.
"If we had real democracy, our problems would be solved," the mayor said, predicting that under "normal circumstances" his opponents could not win the forthcoming municipal elections. Pointing to a recent poll in Ankara, he said Fazilet stood first with 25 percent; the Social Democrats next with 17 percent and the right-wing National Action Party third with 12 percent.
"But," he stressed, "nobody knows what the military will do."
After talking to these and other members of the Islamic movement, however, this writer can only hope that Turkey's secular society, including the armed forces, will seize this opportunity to come to terms with its religious community. Fazilet's middle-of-the-road leadership, the business-minded leaders of MUSIAD, mayors like Erdogan and Gokcek have not been accused of violent offenses. They should be encouraged to integrate fully into the democratic process.
That seasoned secular politician, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, put it best not long ago, responding to the army's continued warnings of a "fundamentalist" threat. "Fundamentalism can be prevented not by restricting democracy but by expanding democracy," Ecevit said, adding that the real way to fight fundamentalism is to fight poverty, corruption and injustice.
Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.
Photo (The mosque near the Dolmabahce Palace)…