- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2001

ANKARA, Turkey Turkey's Islamic movement is heading toward a split, with reformers looking to form a new party that will be less offensive to the country's strictly secular regime.
This follows a court ruling that banned the pro-Islamic Virtue Party for anti-secular activities after it decided to field female candidates who wear head scarves the fourth such ban in three decades
"From now on, we should make politics to win," said Abdullah Gul, a leading member of the reformists, setting the stage for a showdown between centrists and traditionalists.
The division comes amid a fall in the popularity of the Islamic movement.
The Islamic party has seen its share of the national vote fall from 21 percent just a few years ago to 15 percent in the last election. That drop came amid intense pressure from the military against the party, which did not call for an Islamic state but sought a relaxation of secular laws like the head scarf ban.
No date has been set for new elections, but they could take place as early as next year.
Reformists are already grouping around Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the charismatic former mayor of Istanbul, who is promising a more Western-oriented party that would focus on community work. The Virtue Party had been extremely successful in municipalities, where it provided services such as free ambulances for pregnant women and pencils for schoolchildren.
Hard-liners are likely to group around traditional Islamic leaders like Necmettin Erbakan, the 73-year-old politician who has led the movement for the past three decades.
Mr. Erbakan, who served as prime minister in 1996, tried to expand ties with Muslim countries and visited Libya and Iran, angering secularists. He was forced to resign in June 1997 amid pressure from the military.
Mr. Erdogan has said the reformists will avoid confrontation with the secular establishment and pointed specifically to the dispute over Islamic-style head scarves. Government employees and university students are barred from wearing the head scarves, a ban that the pro-Islamic party has always opposed.
Virtue deputy Merve Kavakci was thrown out of parliament after she entered wearing a head scarf. As part of the court ban, she was barred from politics for five years.
"We will not field deputies with head scarves; we will not even field them for city hall councils," Mr. Gul said.
Former Virtue leader Recai Kutan said Tuesday he would do what he could to prevent divisions in the party from deepening.
"Our party has been closed, but we are not defeated. … We take our strength from our unity and togetherness," Mr. Kutan said at a news conference. He said he plans to announce the formation of a new party within two weeks.
But only 25 of the party's 100 lawmakers attended the news conference, private NTV television reported, underlining the difficulties Mr. Kutan faces as he tries to keep the Islamic movement together.
"They have the democratic right to form a separate party, nobody can deny it," Mr. Kutan said of the reformists. "But our supporters won't look favorably on such a separation."
Reformers feel that they have been blocked from power by traditional pro-Islamic leaders such as Mr. Erbakan.
"We have deep respect to those who brought the cause to this day, but now they should retreat to their corner," said Abdullatif Sener, another reformist.
A court banned Mr. Erbakan's Welfare Party in 1998 and also barred Mr. Erbakan from politics. He is expected to lead a new party from behind the scenes.
Some secularists fear that Mr. Erdogan's softer tone is just a cover for more militant goals. In the early 1990s, Mr. Erdogan said in a newspaper interview, "Democracy for me is not an objective but an instrument."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide