- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2005

NICOSIA, Cyprus — A series of pro-Islamic statements and decisions by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have considerably chilled his relations with the country’s military leaders.

In a confidential memorandum available to some diplomats, the military guardians of Turkey’s secular system apparently cautioned the prime minister against damaging the country’s image and its European aspirations. In October 2004, the European Union agreed to start membership negotiations with Turkey likely to last a number of years.

Warnings have also been issued by some of the leading Turkish civilian secularists, who feel that Mr. Erdogan has yet to shed his Islamic sympathies from the days when he belonged to a now-banned religious party.

Particularly alarming was Mr. Erdogan’s proposal that Turkey’s “Ulema,” or a council of Islamic scholars, decide on the advantages or disadvantages of the ban on the wearing of head scarves by female university students.

While the headgear is part of Islamic tradition, the government considers its wearing at universities and official functions as a political provocation, clashing with Turkey’s European ambition.

The council of the Ulema lost its official role when secularism was established in Turkey in the 1920s, and Mr. Erdogan’s reference to it alarmed secular forces, both civilian and military.

Equally alarming to some was a decision to build a mosque in an Istanbul park and permission for regional administrators to regulate the consumption of alcohol according to their wishes. Until now, sales and consumption of alcohol were banned only in areas within 50 yards of a mosque.

According to Ankara commentator Burak Bekdil, such acts “are at odds with Turkey’s European aspirations” and show that “Erdogan speaks from the heart, which has remained Islamic.”

Following its approval of Turkey’s candidacy, the EU issued a favorable report on the country’s economic reforms, but cautioned that more had to be done to stamp out torture and “ethnic discrimination” — meaning the treatment of the restive Kurdish minority.

Rioting and clashes with police recently cost four lives among the Kurds in southeastern Turkey, spreading the unrest to some suburbs of Istanbul. Last week, Mr. Erdogan traveled to the town of Semdinli, where the population accused security forces of summary executions. Mr. Erdogan pledged a thorough investigation of the charges.

“Hate will bring nothing for us,” he said. “Let’s be calm in the face of these incidents.”

At the same time, human rights activists have accused Turkey of violating its newly revised legal code by going ahead with the trial of a book publisher and author on charges of “denigrating the state.”

The publisher, Fatih Tas, recently printed the book “Spoils of War” by U.S. author John Tirman, which contained interviews with Kurdish rebels, considered by Turkey to be terrorists.

Facing similar charges is novelist Orhan Pamuk, who wrote about the Armenian genocide during the last stages of World War I, an atrocity Turkey denies.

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