Accessibility links

Breaking News

Turkey: Constitutional Court Battles For Secularism

By David Swanson

Istanbul, 6 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Citing attempts to subvert the secular foundation of the country, Turkey's Constitutional Court in January closed the religious Welfare Party (RP). But, the recent establishment of the Virtue Party (FP) by former Welfare Party parliamentarians has raised eyebrows in Ankara. The result, party officials say, is the start of a campaign to weaken the new party's power base, and target its leadership.

Istanbul Mayor Tayip Erdogan says, "the shadow of politics has fallen on Turkey's judicial system, threatening the country's democratic regime." Erdogan was speaking Tuesday at a dinner given for members of the foreign press in Istanbul. Erdogan is a Virtue Party member, and a leading candidate to replace former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who is banned from politics.

Elected in 1994, Erdogan was sentenced last month (Apr 21) by the State Security Court (DGM) in Diyabakir to ten months in prison and a stiff fine for an Islamist speech he made last year in the southeastern province of Siirt. Erdogan had quoted from a poem by Ziya Gokalp, a leading Turkish nationalist and thinker. The court convicted Erdogan of inciting religious hatred, when he quoted the poet's line: "the minarets are our bayonets, the domes are helmets, the mosques are our barracks."

Erdogan was convicted by a Security Court, but many other mayors are threatened by the Interior Ministry, which has the power to remove those it considers subversive.

If the Court of Appeals upholds the decision, Erdogan will be sent to prison and removed from office. Barred from politics, his political career could be over, and his hopes to lead a new generation of political Islamists in Turkey destroyed. In addition, Erdogan was seen by many to be the most likely person to lead the Virtue Party as its chairman.

This is not the first time, however, Erdogan has been cited for inflammatory rhetoric. On another occasion, he stated that "democracy is only an instrument for us (until we come to power)," and "my reference is Islam."

The court's decision has brought harsh criticism from many, including Chairman of the Virtue Party parliamentary group, Lutfi Esengun, who said that the "nation's sovereignty is oppressed."

In a recent article, Hasan Cemal, a journalist for Sabah newspaper wrote that, while he cannot agree with Erdogan, "expressing ideas should not be considered a crime to be punished with prison sentences, however, extreme these ideas may seem."

On the same day that the court's decision against Erdogan was announced, a group of some 16 Islamist businessmen were detained and brought in for interrogation under suspicion of having links to political Islam. Speaking after the event, Erol Yarar, Chairman of MUSIAD, the pro-Islamist Independent Businessmen's Association told reporters that the businessmen "were taken from their houses at four in the morning by anti-terrorists police squads and brought to Ankara for questioning." They were later released.

In another case, Ankara's State Security Court Prosecutor has filed charges against former Welfare Party (RP) parliamentarian Hasan Huseyin Ceylan for inciting hatred, in stressing religious differences in a campaign speech he made in 1993.

And, Erdogan is not the only Virtue Party mayor with legal problems at the moment. Sukru Karatepe, the Mayor of Kayseri is currently serving a five-month sentence in Yahyali Prison. Karatepe was convicted of criticizing Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey's secular governmental policy. Karatepe has, however, kept the title of Mayor while his case is under appeal.

Erdogan is the most prominent of more than 200 mayors and other officials - elected and appointed - who are targets of an army-backed campaign against Islamists. The number of investigations leaped last month, after a meeting of the military-dominated National Security Council, where generals gave Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz a list of officials considered untrustworthy. Prosecutors are also reviewing tapes of radio and TV broadcasts, especially by stations considered pro-Islamist. They say they will close those that "motivate the masses to change the democratic legal order."

Erdogan's case has helped focus the nation's attention on the secular-Islamist debate. He is a national figure and hero to millions of Islamist-oriented voters. At a recent news conference, which turned into a rally of sorts, thousands of supporters shouted "we are wherever Tayip is."