Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Talking Turkey: After Banning of Virtue, Nationalism Takes over Where Islamism Left Off

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Talking Turkey: After Banning of Virtue, Nationalism Takes over Where Islamism Left Off

Article excerpt

TALKING TURKEY: After Banning of Virtue, Nationalism Takes Over Where Islamism Left Off

Jon Gorvett is a free-lance writer based in Istanbul.

Eight years ago this July, in the central Turkish city of Sivas, 33 writers and intellectuals were burned to death in a hotel fire started by a fundamentalist mob.

The "Sivas incident," as it became known, was one of the worst political massacres in recent Turkish history. Until then, some secular, mainly leftist, public figures had been subject to periodic armed attack from religious extremists, but with Sivas, it seemed that this age-old conflict had erupted into a major new form. The alarm bells started to go off--not just in Ankara, but in the U.S. and Europe, too.

Concurrent with this apparent upsurge in fundamentalist violence, in the early 1980s it seemed political Islam also was becoming unstoppable. In 1984 the pro-Islamist Welfare Party won control of Istanbul in the municipal elections. A year after that, the party swept to national victory, forming a government in coalition with an opportunist center-right party. Necemettin Erbakan, for years the bogey man of Turkey's staunchly secular military and bureaucratic establishments, became prime minister.

Now, however, a few years down the road, the picture seems a quite different one. In late June, the Constitutional Court banned Welfare's successor, Virtue, with hardly a ripple appearing on the Turkish political pond. Never mind that Virtue was the country's largest opposition party, with some 100 deputies in the 550-seat parliament, nor the fact that its mayors run both Istanbul and Ankara city halls.

While the court judges had timed their decision so that it would be announced after the markets had closed on a Friday evening, it seemed they needn't have bothered, for when the markets reopened Monday morning, they showed every sign of being more buoyant than they had been for weeks.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, not a single protest was held, while the most Virtue leader Recai Kutan could do was say he was "bitterly disappointed" before leading a silent walk-out of Virtue deputies from the assembly.

Virtue was banned on the grounds that it had become the "center for fundamentalist activity." Five of its deputies were given personal bans as well, disqualifying them from parliament and leaving one--the wine-drinking, non-headscarf-wearing Nazli Ilicak--open to military court action for criticisms of the generals made while under parliamentary immunity. The non-banned Virtue deputies retained their seats but became "independents," losing all their positions on parliamentary committees. Leadership of the opposition passed to the one party remaining, Tansu Ciller's True Path--a group which barely managed to get enough votes to ensure any representation at all at the last general election.

"Deputy chief constitutional judge Hasim Kilic said a day before the verdict that this was a political case," wrote the respected columnist Cengiz Candar in the daily Yeni Safak. "He then added that they were trying to make this political case fit the legal terms. The fact is that the social reality of the six million Turks who voted for Virtue is now being ruled out."

Columnists and commentators generally were united in their condemnation of the closure decision. Virtue had gone out of its way to distance itself from any fundamentalist activity, had always played by the quirky rules of Turkish democracy, and had most likely even succeeded in pulling into peaceful political activity social groups which in other circumstances or countries might have turned to more violent extremes. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said the court ruling had "upset" him deeply, while the other party leaders also expressed their disagreement with the decision.

So who wanted Virtue closed? Mainly, it seems--aside from the more extreme secularists in the military and the bureaucracy--it was Virtue itself that was most interested in being banned. …

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