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Turkey: A Divided Country Struggles For Identity

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Downtown Istanbul (file photo) (AFP) May 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Islamic head scarf or miniskirt? In a nutshell, that's the choice Turks face as they head toward early general elections on July 22.


"It is quite likely that this [election] will be a plebiscite on whether there should be more religion in society or not," says David Barchard, a veteran Ankara-based analyst and former correspondent for "The Financial Times." And the chances are that a majority will say yes to that, and therefore the Justice and Development Party, the AK party, will go up."


The general elections had originally been set for November 4. But Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of the Islamic-rooted AK ruling party on May 2 proposed early polls, after Turkey's highest court invalidated the first round of a presidential election held last week.

Secular Turks, particularly women, who are attached to their Western-style freedoms and lifestyle.

A Million People In The Streets


The secular opposition, fearing that the government's candidate for president would tilt the country closer to Islamic rule, had boycotted the first round of voting in parliament. Without the required two-thirds quorum present in parliament, the Constitutional Court ruled that the election was invalid.


The court ruling also came after nearly 1 million people took to the streets of Istanbul last weekend to protest the government's presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, and after a stern warning by the military that it would step in to preserve Turkey's strict secular order if necesary.


Gul is a former Islamist and his wife wears the Islamic head scarf -- a relative rarity in secular Turkey.


Yet despite the massive protests and the military's warning, the AK party remains Turkey's most popular party -- and Erdogan its most popular politician.


Barchard, like many analysts, sees Turkey's religious-secular divide in culture and demographics. He says Erdogan's supporters are mainly rural, religious Turks or those who have moved from the countryside in recent years to sprawling big cities such as Istanbul,


"Turkey is a country of 72 million people," he says. "About 40 percent used to live on the land. Only about one in four now actually works in agriculture, and about a million a year move to the cities. So there's a huge pendulum swing away from traditional, conservative, rural society toward a new urban society. But of course as we've seen in other parts of the world -- and one does think of Iran in the 1970s -- that doesn't necessarily mean that they've become Western and modern in their outlook. In some cases, they are radicalized, because their main point of reference is the mosque."


The Secularist View


While Barchard is quick to note that the AK party has pursued a very moderate line in government, observers point out that it has also tried -- and failed -- to criminalize adultery and allow students from Islamic schools to enroll in universities.


Barchard says that's alarming to secular Turks, particularly women, who are attached to their Western-style freedoms and lifestyle. In practical terms, Blanchard says that means people want to be able to wear whatever they want to wear, drink and eat whatever they want, and support women's rights.


One million Turks came out into the Istanbul streets on April 29 (epa)

"My view is that although their reading of their situation is sometimes overdrawn or perhaps even hysterical, that they are natural concerns," Barchard says. "They don't want to live in a society like the Arab world. They want to live in a more European-style society, and they think they could be on the verge of a drift into Islamic law, Islamic education, and those kinds of things. That may or may not be case, but these people want Turkey to remain a secular society."


He adds, however, that many of those protesting for secularism are not necessarily wealthy urban elites, but mosque-going Muslims. It's just that they have a different vision of religion's role in society.


"There's no doubt that some secularists are people who regularly attend Friday prayers, but they perhaps don't go in for the totalistic version of the faith, which regulates every aspect of daily life," Barchard says. "And I think it should also be pointed out that these aren't simply upper-class people -- these are not just snobs. Many of the people demonstrating in Istanbul were clearly coming from lower-income groups. And I know that all over Anatolia, they may be fading in Turkish provincial society, which is becoming more religious, but many secularists are simply ordinary people, right down to the village level."


Rural-Urban Divide


But the division between city dwellers and rural folk remains real, says Hakim Ozgen, Turkey correspondent for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.


Ozgen says the countryside and those newly arrived in the cities still put their faith in Erdogan. Moreover, Ozgen says, they feel Erdogan, once jailed for his Islamist beliefs, was dealt with unjustly by the country's elites, particularly the military.


"It was a reaction of the people to bring him to power," Ozgen says. "Of course, there are some religious people also there. But mainly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul before, and he was able to collect the votes of people who came from [rural] Anatolia."


Erdogan and his AK party are expected to win a second term after five years of strong economic growth since coming to power in 2002.


The AK party has also announced plans to hold a referendum to change the constitution to elect the president by popular vote. But opposition parties say it's too late to make constitutional changes.


The presidency carries symbolic significance in Turkey. It was first held by the founder of the modern republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The president also has veto and appointment powers and is head of the army.

Islam In A Pluralistic World

A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)

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CONFERENCE ON ISLAM: A major international conference on Islam concluded in Vienna in November 2005 with strong appeals from prominent Muslim leaders to recognize international terrorism as simply "terrorism." Political figures from Islamic countries, including the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, argued that it should never be labeled "Islamic" or "Muslim" terrorism because Islam is based on peace, dialogue, and tolerance. "Salaam" -- meaning "peace" -- was the key word of the three-day conference, titled "ISLAM IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD."
Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai used the word in their remarks to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam. Other speakers quoted passages from the Koran to the effect that all men and women, regardless of faith, are creatures of God and should live in peace with each other without discrimination...(more)



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Listen to Afghan President HAMID KARZAI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
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Listen to UN special envoy LAKHDAR BRAHIMI's complete address to the Vienna conference (in English):
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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.

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