Quake Calls Turks to Religion Muslims See Temblor as a Message from God and a Challenge To

By Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 8, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Quake Calls Turks to Religion Muslims See Temblor as a Message from God and a Challenge To


Scott Peterson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The Islamic call to prayer does not come from this Turkish mosque anymore: The minaret and its speakers toppled over in the earthquake, first shearing off the zinc gutters and then smashing one of the prayer areas.

The spot where worshipers once placed their shoes before going in to prayer is gone, too.

But the first Friday - the Muslim holy day - after the Aug. 17 earthquake saw swarms of new devotees to mosques across the hardest- hit area of northwest Turkey, an industrial heartland in a stridently secular state.

"The people are feeling different now," says the imam of this mosque about the apparent rediscovery of faith as Turks cope with the earthquake's aftermath. "They are trying to tell God they are sorry."

Since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, there has been tension over his secular ideal and the religious reality that most Turks are Muslim. The post-earthquake boost for religion is just the latest shift in that uneasy standoff.

In this region of collapsed buildings, countless backhoes chew at rubble where more than 15,000 people died. The 200,000 left homeless camp in public parks and beside highways in makeshift tents. Amid the destruction, many blame Turkey's militantly secular policies and believe - with a fire and brimstone vigor - that this was divine retribution.

"In the Koran, the prophets say that if people do not accept believers, the last event will be a natural disaster, an apocalypse," says the imam.

He asked not to be named, saying that the concerted government efforts to keep Islam out of political life meant that "they are watching for the noise of every mosquito."

Embracing religion to help cope with disaster is "only natural," analysts say, but many doubt whether that will turn to more political support for divided Islamists. It may just mean more mosque-goers.

"This time, the Turkish government was slow and inadequate, and this is a temporary reaction because when help is not coming, you turn to God," says Hasan Koni, a professor of international relations at Ankara University. Islamists began the antisecular "propaganda," he says, and on Saturday the Turkish military started in with its own "counterpropaganda."

"People had many losses, so they had to pray. Religion has become very fashionable again," Mr. Koni says.

Though this may be a minority view, even among devoted Muslims elsewhere in Turkey, it has gained currency. Former Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who was forced from office in 1997 for violating secular laws, called the earthquake a "divine warning."

But for Turkey's establishment, secularism itself is an article of faith. "Secularism is the most sensitive aspect of the regime in Turkey - if it collapses, the whole regime collapses," Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has said. "It's the Achilles' heel.

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