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Turkey: Government Promotes Secularism

  • Joel Blocker

Ankara, 12 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz has taken additional steps this week to reduce Islamic practices and promote secularism, one of the chief guiding principles of the modern Turkish state founded 75 years ago by Kemal Ataturk.

On Tuesday (Feb. 10) Yilmaz ordered his Government to crack down on state employees wearing Islamic dress. This was a practice long officially banned but tolerated --some say encouraged-- when the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party controlled the previous government in Ankara. According to the semi-official Anatolian news agency, Yilmaz warned that, in the words of his order, "anyone who is found disobeying the (dress) code will be punished promptly."

The strictures on dress were relatively mild compared to other recent measures taken by the eight-month-old Government to roll back Islamic influence in Turkey. Backed by the secularist and powerful Turkish military, the authorities have previously curbed religious schools, purged Moslem-minded bureaucrats and moved to end tax breaks for Islamic foundations. Welfare officials say that state subsidies to cities and towns run by the party have been cut off as well.

The Welfare Party itself is due to cease existing early next week when a decision taken by Turkey's constitutional court enters in force. The court ruled last month to outlaw Welfare for acting against the principles of the country's strictly secularist constitution, which bans parties based on religion. It also stripped Welfare leader and former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan of his seat in parliament and barred him from political life for five years.

The official publication of the decision, due on Monday (Feb. 16), will mean that the other 146 Welfare deputies --until now, the largest single group in parliament-- will immediately become independents. In addition, the party's assets will become subject to seizure by the Government.

Erbakan was, in effect, forced to resign as prime minister last June under strong pressure from the military and from Turkey's mainstream media. Yilmaz heads a weak, three-party minority Center-Right coalition government that has nonetheless acted strongly to reinforce secularism and reduce Welfare's support. In the country's last general elections three years ago, Welfare won 21 percent of the vote, more than any other single party.

Perhaps the most important change instituted by the new Government has come in religious education. As soon as he took office, Yilmaz extended from five to eight years the period of compulsory secular education. This meant that children in their early adolescence (12 to 14) --deemed impressionable and thus crucial years-- were barred from attending Islamic schools. The Education Ministry says the measure reduced the number of religious students in this age group by almost a half --from 319,000 to 178,000.

Turkish secularist critics have long charged that Islamic schools teach their students to hold Islam above the country's lay principles. The schools have existed since 1951, when they were established to train preachers.

With the banning of Welfare, Turkish political life is likely to change substantially --but for the moment no-one can confidently say how. Since the constitutional court's ruling, Welfare supporters have maintained a low profile in order, some observers say, n-o-t to provoke harsher actions from the military. But the 71-year-old Erbakan himself has maintained his usual strong rhetoric. He told reporters two days ago that, in his words, "Turkey has become a graveyard of political parties (and is heading) toward fascism." Other Welfare leaders are struggling to find a future identity for the party's supporters. Many of them were attracted to Welfare not out of religious fervor but because it had set up a well-organized system of aiding needy citizens in a society where social discontent has escalated during the past decade. Today, high inflation (more than 100 percent over the past 12 months) continues to erode incomes, while basic services such as health and education remain poor. Corruption is said to have reached the highest levels of the state.

Analysts say that Yilmaz is hoping to use Welfare's demise to consolidate Turkey's fragmented political life and install a period of decisive governing. The closure of the party, Yilmaz said recently, provides what he called "a chance for everyone to re-evaluate his place in government." To achieve such an historic shift, however, Yilmaz will have first to deal sternly with former prime minister Tansu Ciller, leader of the True Path Party, Yilmaz's biggest rival among Turkish conservatives. He has already had some help from a recent government report that severely damaged Ciller's reputation by implicating her and her husband in serious corruption practices.

A stronger government in Ankara could undertake long-needed basic economic reforms. It might also begin seriously to tackle Turkey's notorious human-rights record as well as repair strained relations with the European Union and Greece, its long-time adversary.

But some analysts doubt that Yilmaz is the man to break Turkey's political mode. They say he is an uninspiring leader who since taking office has achieved little apart from curbing Islamic practices. In particular, they fault him for failing to unify the country's Center-Right and provide a period of sound leadership in order to prepare Turkey for early elections --in which, according to the hoped-for scenario, the Islamists would be roundly defeated. Instead, these analysts say, the country's political future remains highly uncertain.