Turks Struggle with Islam vs. Secularism Growth of Fundamentalism, Killings of Secularists Undercut Democracy

By Aliza Marcus, | The Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 1990 | Go to article overview

Turks Struggle with Islam vs. Secularism Growth of Fundamentalism, Killings of Secularists Undercut Democracy


Aliza Marcus,, The Christian Science Monitor


WHEN it comes to finding a job, Fatma Bostan, a graduate student studying public administration at Turkey's elite Bosphorus University, should not have a problem.

Well-educated and fluent in English, this 25-year-old woman seems to offer most of the skills a potential employer would want.

But there is one problem: In accordance with Islamic law, not a wisp of hair peeks out of the scarf well-wrapped around her head and neck, and over her clothes she wears a long, loose coat.

"People look at me and are scared, and I know it won't be easy for me to be hired," says the soft-spoken woman. "But society can't break people from their past, and I believe the Koran tells the truth about the way I must live. One day, I think it will be the same for everyone in Turkey."

Ms. Bostan's predicament exemplifies Turkey's struggle with its religious heritage. Ever since 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led the shift to a secular state, Turkey has managed to strike a balance between its religious values and a Western-style political system. But it is this very balance that many Turks now believe is in danger, and they point to people like Bostan as proof of this.

"What I am frightened of is that in 10 years, Islamic students who have been able to flourish precisely because of our tolerant atmosphere will be in power and they will be there to actually suffocate this tolerance," says a professor at Bosphorus University who asked that her name not be used.

Although few people believe Turkey is in imminent danger of an Islamic revolution, analysts point to a trend of greater agitation by Islamic groups in the past nine months. Four prominent secularists have been murdered.

In early September, Turan Dursun, a religious scholar well-known for his critical writings on Islam, was killed after receiving hundreds of death threats. His murder followed those of Muammar Aksoy, a law professor and chairman of the Association of Kemalist Thought (named after Ataturk), and Cetin Emec, a columnist and former editor at Hurriyet, a leading newspaper. Emec, before his death, had written articles critical of Islamic activities.

All three of the murders are presumed linked to Islamic fundamentalists, though police have not pinpointed suspects.

But few people believe Iran was behind Dursun's murder, or the others. Instead, they question Turkish government policies that, while not actively promoting Islam, tacitly permit fundamentalist activities to flourish.

The opposition Social Democratic Populist Party has launched an investigation into antisecular activities within government agencies, focusing on the interior and education ministries.

"There are certain violations by certain public sector groups and we need to study the dimensions of the threat," says a government spokesman who did not want to be identified. "We have always had certain groups interested in having a religious state in Turkey and now the question is: Have they really become stronger and more influential? …

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