Fundamentalist Party’s Power Grows In Turkey Conservative Group Imposing Strict Muslim Rules On Oncesecular Cities
From city hall to the slaughterhouse, Turkey’s main Muslim fundamentalist party is putting an Islamic stamp on this city of 12 million people.
No alcohol is served at historic cityowned coffeehouses. Firefighters may have full beards. Women clerks at city hall wear headscarves. Municipal cafeterias close during the Muslim fast of Ramadan. The city slaughterhouse butchers animals in accordance with Islamic law.
Things are similar in Ankara. The capital’s new mayor, Melih Gokcek, removed nude statues from parks. “I spit on art of this sort,” he said.
A year after winning big in local elections, Turkey’s fast-rising Refah (Welfare) Party is flexing its muscles.
Already with 38 seats on the 450-member Parliament, Welfare doubled its vote to 19 percent and captured 26 mayoralties in elections a year ago March.
Now the party is hoping to build support for national elections, which will take place sometime in 1996. Under Turkey’s election laws, it could become the largest single party in Parliament, with just another 5 percent of the seats.
“If the government really wants democracy, it has to get used to the idea of the Welfare Party,” said a government official, Mehmet Metiner. “Otherwise there will be friction - or a tendency to turn into another Algeria.”
Fundamentalists here don’t have the public support or violent bent of their brethren in Algeria, where a vicious war between Islamic rebels and the army has claimed more than 30,000 lives in three years.
Turkey also has a tradition of democracy and secular government established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. He suppressed religious garb and schools and changed the alphabet from the Koran’s language, Arabic, to Latin. Turkey followed his Western path into NATO and association with the European Union.
But Prime Minister Tansu Ciller’s center-right coalition is burdened by economic woes and criticism from the West for Turkey’s occupation of northern Iraq in the latest offensive of its 11-year war against Kurdish rebels.
Growing poverty and disenchantment with established parties tainted by corruption scandals are driving more and more voters into Welfare’s arms.
Welfare favors leaving NATO, aban doning a much-vaunted agreement with the European Union to lower trade barriers, an Islamic common market and greater use of Islamic law.
Those like Metiner say they just want Turkey to allow people to practice their religion freely. But the cracks in Turkey’s secular edifice alarm Turkey’s uppermiddle class and intelligentsia.
They took heart when the culture ministry quashed Istanbul’s Mayor Tayyip Recep Erdokan’s plans to build a mosque in central Taksim Square, where Ataturk’s statue stands proudly.
But an ominous note sounded in March. Members of the strongly prosecular Alawite Muslim sect rioted in Istanbul in response to attacks on coffeeshops in their neighborhoods. Police fired on the rioters, killing at least 17.
Radical Islamic groups claimed responsibility for the attacks, though police have not identified the culprits. Alawite anger was directed at fundamentalists and the Sunni Muslim majority.
The Alawites, about a third of Turkey’s 60 million people, long have felt slighted by the majority Sunni. They don’t follow strict Sunni rules like segregating the sexes or eschewing alcohol.
Now there is a feeling it is time to figh back, said Reha Camuroglu, an Alawite spokesman at the sect’s main center in Istanbul.
“There is an Alawite problem in Turkey,” Camuroglu said. “After these clashes, they have heard us.”
As he spoke, a Sunni mosque minaret a few yards from the complex blared out the call to prayer from loudspeakers pointed at its courtyard.