- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Turkey’s ambition to join the European Union is undergoing severe strain, with writers facing trials for “insulting” the nation and Islamic alcohol bans increasingly adopted throughout the country.

Warnings about measures incompatible with Turkey’s EU membership application have multiplied. Prominent press critics have accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of betraying the country’s secular tradition.

Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party “is slowly wrapping the Islamic blanket around us,” wrote the influential mass circulation Hurriyet daily, referring to the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

On a recent visit to Australia, Mr. Erdogan’s wife, Emine, covered her head with an Islamic head scarf, banned in Turkey’s official buildings as a provocative political message. Mr. Erdogan’s explanation that Turkey’s “ulema,” or Islamic scholars, should have the last word in the matter further shocked the secular circles.

The prime minister “speaks from a heart which has remained Islamic,” said Ankara’s commentator Burak Bekdil.

Haluk Koc, a senior member of the Republican People’s Party, said: “Turkey should not be a state ruled by ayatollahs.” Islamic elders lost their official status after the creation of the secular republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s.

To an outcry by economists that banning sales of alcohol would damage Turkey’s lucrative tourism industry, with about 20 million visitors a year, Mr. Erdogan retorted that it would also stop drunkenness among the local population.

“This should not be a matter for discussion,” he said.

The ban on sale and consumption of alcohol has taken effect in parts of Istanbul and the Antalya resort area, with local mayors having the final word on the measure. Until recently, the ban applied to alcoholic beverages only near mosques.

Equally alarming to the strongly secular news media and the military elite are efforts to impose Muslim dietary laws. For example, the state standards institute has announced that special documents will be issued certifying whether foodstuffs conform to Muslim requirements.

For now, the vigilant and still influential armed forces have kept out of the growing debate on whether Muslim measures are compatible with Turkey’s secular spirit. However, the military reacted when a member of Mr. Erdogan’s AKP suggested moving military buildings out of the center of Ankara, the capital.

In a formal communique, the armed forces general staff noted the proposal “with concern and dismay” and said that such a measure would remove the army “from the eyes and hearts of the Turkish people.”

The military, which regards itself as the ultimate guardian of the republican system, has made no comment so far on the forthcoming trials of several writers on charges of either “insulting the state” or “insulting Turkishness” when they wrote about the World War I massacres of Armenians or the victims of the current Kurdish unrest.

One of them is Orhan Pamuk, a novelist whose trial was adjourned last week until February to allow the Justice Ministry to determine whether the procedure is compatible with the recently changed penal code.

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