- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

ANKARA, Turkey.

The first spring after opening the European Union accession talks came with a surfacing identity crisis in Turkey. The standard question of whether Turks are compatible with the European Union no longer dominates the debate over Turkey’s future. Now it’s Turks vs. Turks.

The “nation state” is at stake, and a future Turkish civil war is possible. The unrest could incite religious fighting among Muslim Turks, and could impact European countries with Muslim populations.

Since the Islamists came into power, those who don’t support them have suspected they would try to move the country away from its secular principles. The increasing number of women wearing veils has raised questions about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intentions for the country’s future. But last Wednesday, when a gunman stormed into Turkey’s top administrative court shouting “I am a soldier of Allah” before killing one judge and seriously injuring four others, it created a new political divide between traditionally secular Muslims and fundamentalist Muslims.

Secular Muslim Turks rallied in the streets of Ankara in numbers the city had never before experienced. Ordinary people gathered in front of the courthouse, and an estimated 100,000 people visited the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey. During the funeral the next day, thousands shouted, “The prime minister is the murderer” and chanted “Turkey is secular, and will remain secular.” Even women in headscarves chanted.

Tragically, Turkey is still confused over the headscarf issue. Alpaslan Aslan, the 29-year-old gunman, is a registered lawyer with the Istanbul Bar Association. He said he targeted those judges because they ruled in favor of a ban on Islamic headscarves in government institutions and universities. Mr. Erdogan urged people not to jump to conclusions until Aslan’s identity and connections are revealed. But Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said the attack “targets the Republic — particularly its unchangeable principles of democracy and secularism.”

Sumru Cortoglu, the head of the court the gunman stormed, said the attack was a result of “encouraging and careless remarks by state authorities” over the headscarf decision. “They will soon interfere in the sacredness of our homes, too,” Mr. Erdogan said after the ruling, even though he knew full well that at no point in Turkey’s history did the courts ever interfere in civilian life.

In this country, where almost 98 percent of the population is Muslim, Mr. Erdogan raised as an “Islamist politician” and promised the veiled women he would lift the headscarf ban. Although he has the majority to pass any law at the Turkish Grand National Assembly, so far he has chosen not to confront the military that guards Turkey’s secular democratic regime by attempting to change the constitution.

Mr. Erdogan claims that Turkey needs to redefine its idea of secularism. If the country’s geography were different, he could try to persuade people that his desire has nothing to do with changing the country’s direction. But Turkey’s Arab neighbors, who claim to be the authorities over Islam, oppress women by veiling them. Neither the Saudis, the Sunni capital, nor the Iranians, the Shi’ite capital, have a democratic record when it comes to the headscarf. And as long as the”neighborhood” remains the same and these countries do not accept reform in the interpretations and translation of the Koran, it would be naive to talk about adopting American secularism.

Members of the Justice and Development Party quickly denounced a group of men and women who stood to pray on a Friday at the Subasi Mosque in Istanbul because the women did not wear headscarves. If Mr. Erdogan really supported an American-style democracy, he would have confronted his fellow party members and said they promote “freedom of religion” in Turkey and that they have no right to judge people because of what they wear — or do not wear.

The debate grew even more intriguing when Dr. Mualla Selchuk, the only woman member of the high board of the religious affairs, wrote an article for her institution’s official magazine arguing that women should be able to pray without headscarves. Her article was censored. The current Islamist government does not believe that Islamist interpretations need to be reformed. Instead, they confuse the totally separate messages of Islam and Islamists.

At the funeral of Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin, there was anger against those who call Mr. Erdogan and his party “moderate Islamists.” In the crowd’s eyes, everyone in Turkey is a Muslim. But the way the United States singles out Mr. Erdogan, coupled with the crowd with the headscarves, speaks volumes to them. They see the United States as a threat to Turkey’s secular regime.

Even more troubling, an Iranian official told me that Mr. Erdogan asked to visit the White House because he has to send the message to his grassroots. This official had no doubt that Turkey would not stay neutral in the case of a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran, and Mr. Erdogan’s supporters agreed with the Iranians.

The next time President Bush meets Mr. Erdogan, Turkey’s seculars will watch carefullyto see if Mr. Erdogan has regained the White House’s support.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.


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