Tuesday, 27 July 2004

Turkey's Mullahs

“Minarets are our bayonets, domes are our helmets, mosques are our barracks, believers are our soldiers.”

No, these are not the words of some mad Iranian mullah or crazed al-Qaeda suicide bomber, uttered before he makes his twisted contribution to humanity by blowing himself and, unfortunately, others to smithereens.

On the contrary. These edifying lines are part of a poem composed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of the Middle East’s only secular Muslim state, Turkey. Erdogan recited these lines at a political rally in 1999 when he was mayor of Istanbul, earning for himself several months detention for breaking Turkey’s secular laws.

Erdogan was in France last week as part of his charm offensive to have Turkey accepted into the European Union. After leaving the Elysee Palace where he lunched with President Jacques Chirac, the Turkish prime minister assured reporters that his government had done almost all that was necessary to meet the EU’s main legal, judicial and legislative requirements.

However, Europe may get more than it bargained for if it accepts into the fold a Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership. The Turkish prime minister currently heads the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that was elected in November of 2002 with 34 per cent of the popular vote, garnering 365 of the 550 seats in Turkey’s parliament.

Since that time, Erdogan has taken pains to explain that the AKP is a conservative political party and not an Islamist one. Some observers of Turkish politics, however, have long suspected the Turkish prime minister of Islamist leanings, especially since he and other leading AKP members once belonged to a banned Islamist party.

And events in an Erdogan-ruled Turkey are beginning to bear this out.

Last May, amidst huge controversy, the AKP passed a law, fundamentally changing the country’s education system in favor of the Islamists. In essence, the law facilitates the entrance of students from the country’s religious schools into Turkish universities.

The religious schools, called ‘Imam Hatip’, were originally formed to produce imams for Turkey’s mosques. Now, defenders of Turkey’s constitutionally guaranteed secularist society regard them as nursery schools of Islamic radicalism. The Imam Hatip offer a religion-based education very different from that offered in Turkey’s public schools with their secular values. The religious schools now even accept girls who do not wish to submit to the public school ban on the wearing of religious head scarves. (The wearing of religious headgear is actually prohibited in public everywhere in Turkey.)

Secular observers believe the new law is part of a subtle, long-term Islamist strategy to eventually seize control of positions of power in Turkey by graduating large numbers of university students with religious school backgrounds. Erdogan himself is a graduate of an Imam Hatip. His daughter, however, studied in the United States where wearing a Muslim head scarf in school is legal.

A second major development that has observers worried about the spread of Islamist influence in Turkey is the curtailing of the army’s political power. The Turkish army has been a bulwark of secularism since modern Turkey was founded as a secular state in 1923 and has close ties with America. It came out of the barracks in 1997, for example, and deposed the government for failing to curb the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.

However, a law passed last summer reduced the political power of the National Security Council, a very important executive body made up of the president, prime minister, army chief of staff and their advisors. Prior to this, the NSC played a policy-making role; it is now only an advisory body. This move was in keeping with the European Union’s demand to reduce the army’s political role in order to bring Turkey more in line with European political standards.

The AKP was probably only too happy to oblige the EU. AKP members have even begun to criticize the army’s annual purge of Islamist-leaning officers.

While not happy with developments, the Turkish army has accepted its reduced role, since it realizes Turkey’s people overwhelmingly want to join the EU, viewing membership as a cure for their country’s economic woes. However, army representatives have stated it will defend secularism and protested the new education law. Its representatives also refused to attend a parliamentary function, hosted by the parliament’s AKP speaker, after they learned his wife intended to wear the banned head scarf. Erdogan’s wife and the wives of AKP cabinet ministers avoid attending state functions for fear of offending the army and other secularists.

Turkish secularists have also watched with concern as the AKP appoints people with Islamist tendencies to positions of power. The AKP government has also sent a missive to Turkish embassies, instructing them to support an organization and schools with Islamist agendas.

However, fear of the army, the Turkish constitution and Turkey’s desire for EU membership will prevent an open Islamisation of Turkey. After all, the AKP has no desire to experience the fate of the 1997 government. But the laws the AKP puts into place today, over time, may produce a political entity that will change the face of the Middle East – and, unfortunately, not for the better.

Stephen Brown

This article first appeared on FrontPage Magazine