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Turkey's secular establishment fears Prime Minister Erdogan and his party will Islamicize Turkey from within (AFP)
With Turkey's Constitutional Court due to rule on whether to ban the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development (AK) party, the country's political fault lines are growing deeper.
They pit the AK against Turkey's decades-old secular establishment, which includes the military and parts of the judiciary. Each side accuses the other of operating a "deep state," or shadow government activities. The secularists accuse the AK party of quietly seeking to overhaul Turkey's secular order, while the ruling party says the secular establishment will do anything to maintain that order -- even a coup d'etat or murder.
The crisis deepened when a dozen people accused of being members of the establishment's "deep state" were arrested on March 21, including 83-year-old Ilhan Selcuk, a well-known secularist journalist of the "Cumhuriyet" newspaper and a fierce government opponent, as well as Kemal Alemdaroglu, a former president of Istanbul University.
Most were later released, but not Dogu Perincek, the head of the tiny Turkish Workers' Party. He remains detained on charges of being in a terrorist group and "possessing classified documents."
Officials deny the arrests were linked to the crisis surrounding the AK, which the state prosecutor has requested be banned along with its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey's highest legal body, the Constitutional Court, is due to decide soon whether to take on the case by the prosecutor, who accuses the AK of seeking to undermine the constitution's strict separation of religion and politics.
But Bernard Kennedy, an Ankara-based British writer on Turkey, says many Turks and the media view the arrests as a bid by the AK party to respond to its secular critics. He describes the arrests as "apparently a form of retaliation on the part of the government."
Turkish police say the arrests were part of an ongoing investigation into Ergenekon, a shadowy ultranationalist group accused of inciting antidemocratic activities aimed at toppling Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government.
The probe was launched in June 2007 after the discovery of explosives in an Istanbul home. Prosecutors have charged 39 other people in the case, including retired soldiers, journalists, lawyers, and underworld figures.
Ergenekon is believed to be behind the assassination attempt of Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel literature laureate, and the killings of ethnic-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro, as well as of several Kurdish politicians.
Ergenekon allegedly has links higher up in the state and military elite known as the "deep state". The term is widely used to describe renegade members of the security forces said to act outside the law in order to safeguard the Turkish state.
Reports say police are probing whether the suspects were involved in acts of political violence aimed at discrediting the AK.
People took to the streets to protest after police raided the home of the elderly Selcuk in the early hours of March 21.
"We have such worries: the Ergenekon probe is being manipulated by some elements in the government, which is a very worrisome development," says Yusuf Kanli, a columnist for the "Turkish Daily News." "We have some suspicions that are not substantiated. But an 83-year-old journalist [was] detained in his house. His detention at 4 a.m. in such a manner was a humiliation which we had difficulty to understand."
Meanwhile, the AK said on March 24 that it would seek to amend the constitution to make it impossible for the Constitutional Court to ban political parties.
Prosecutor Takes On Ruling Party
Turkey's political establishment remains deeply divided over the current crisis. Government opponents claim the AK is creating its own deep state that seeks to "Islamize" Turkish society.
Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya's March 14 indictment cites AK's efforts to ease the strict secular ban on the Islamic head scarf in universities. Other "evidence" is said to range from the AK-run Istanbul city council's censoring of bikini ads to an AK official's observation that "asking a pious girl to remove her head scarf is akin to telling an uncovered one to remove her underpants."
Kanli calls the prosecutor's view "farfetched and exaggerated." The journalist says the real problem is a pitched ideological battle between secularists and Islamists that shows no sign of letting up. "The problem is that secularists perceive secularism as some sort of religion. Islamists try to advance their aim. They try to infiltrate more and more into the state establishment. The head-scarf case and others are just symbols of this," he says. "And the two sides are not reconciling in any way."
Some analysts see the current turmoil as the old guard's attempts to cling to power amid the new guard's rise, which is supported by religious rural communities and the urban working class.
Role Of Turkey's Military
The Turkish military, judiciary, and intelligentsia have traditionally defended secularism, which is enshrined in the country's constitution.
The Turkish military's General Staff sees itself as the guardian of Turkish secularism, as laid down by the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in the 1920s. The General Staff has long opposed the AK's wide-ranging conservative agenda of social, economic, and political reforms, including the head-scarf initiative.
It is yet to be seen whether the General Staff will get involved in the crisis.
Reports say Turkish generals threatened a coup last year ahead of presidential elections that eventually brought Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a head scarf, to the country's top post.
Turkey has seen four military coups in the last half-century with the most recent one in 1997, when the first Islamist-led government was ejected after it began investigating links between the army and organized crime.
British writer Kennedy does not rule out the possibility of a military coup. "I think the general public would feel it could potentially happen again," he says. "Even though it is less likely than in the past because now there are many more sources of power and authority, and it's been a long time since there was a military coup. [The] media can't be controlled as it was in the past. There is a strong business community that would not want any intervention by the military because it would spoil their business relations with the Western world amid [Turkey's] hopes to win [EU] membership."
Whose Side Is Business On?
The country's business elites have joined the military in denouncing the most recent arrests.
Arzuhan Yalcindag, the president of TUSIAD, Turkey's main business lobby, said last week that shutting down parties is "not compatible with democracy." TUSIAD says the current polarization is causing social trauma and "reactions and counterreactions are making things worse."
Timur Kocaoglu, a professor at Michigan State University in the United States, tells RFE/RL that the statement represents a significant change for TUSIAD, which has previously praised the Erdogan government for its efforts to stabilize the economy.
"This demonstrates that Turkey's entrepreneurs and big industrialists sense a great risk because the two sides' fight could lead to a dangerous situation which may even include a civil war or a military coup," Kocaoglu says.
Some observers see another reason behind the TUSIAD's new position. "The Economist" wrote last week that a new and pious class of Anatolian entrepreneurs, who have thrived under the AK, have challenged the old elite. One such group, Calik, which employs Erdogan's son-in-law, has acquired a media conglomerate whose assets include a television channel, ATV, and the third-biggest daily, "Sabah."
"The Economist" quoted one Western banker, referring to Turkey's traditional secular elites, as saying that "the reign of the Bosporus princes is over." Yet that may be a premature conclusion, as the pitched battle between Turkey's competing "deep states" is showing no sign of abating.