TALKING TURKEY: The Islamist Agenda in Turkey; Democracy

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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. …