Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Turkey's High Court Keeps Religion at Arm's Length ; on Friday, the Turkish High Court Banned the Islamist-Led Virtue Party for Allegedly Encouraging Radical Islam

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Turkey's High Court Keeps Religion at Arm's Length ; on Friday, the Turkish High Court Banned the Islamist-Led Virtue Party for Allegedly Encouraging Radical Islam

Article excerpt

"Let nobody be deceived," Recai Kutan declared defiantly, "in Turkey at the moment there is no democracy." A week ago Mr. Kutan was the leader of the opposition in the Turkish parliament. His party, Virtue, held 102 of the chamber's 550 seats after winning more than 15 percent of the vote at the last election. Now, Turkey's democratic credentials have come under the microscope again, following a verdict by the Constitutional Court on Friday banning the Islamist-led Virtue party.

The court's decision reveals a profound debate about how this largely Muslim country should handle the interplay between religion and secular life. And for Turkey, a nation trying to adjust to Western standards of democracy to prepare for possible membership in the European union, banning the largest opposition party points up the ironies it faces.

In a majority verdict, the Constitutional Court found the Virtue Party guilty of encouraging radical Islam and "engaging in activities contrary to the principle of the secular republic." There is no appeal to the move which, in effect, casts aside the votes of more than 5 million Turks.

The head of Turkey's powerful armed forces, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, warned earlier this month that radical Islam is still a danger. "On one day it appears not to exist," he said, "but it always reemerges."

The Virtue Party denies it posed any threat. It made a concerted effort to present a moderate image, and its political platform differed little from other conservative parties. It campaigned against official bans on women wearing the Islamic headscarf in government offices or on university campuses, and it made no secret of its religious inclinations. But party leaders argued that they simply reflected the views of a majority of Turks.

The ban of Virtue was opposed by most politicians, including Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who argued that it could upset delicate political balances at a time when Turkey is struggling to recover from a severe economic crisis. Since February, hundreds of thousands of Turks have lost their jobs, and the local currency has lost some 50 percent of its value. The government needs a period of political stability if it is to carry out the reforms that international agencies are demanding as a condition for nearly US$16 billion in loans.

The verdict against Virtue could have been more severe. …

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