300,000 Protest Islamic Hue of Turkish System
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
April 15, 2007
ANKARA, Turkey, April 14 — Tens of thousands of people filled the
central streets of Turkey's capital on Saturday to protest what they
see as an increasingly Islamic tint to their government.
A presidential election is approaching in Turkey, and the protesters
were voicing their opposition to the head of the leading party in
Parliament, with its Islamist roots, taking the post.
"We don't want to become another Iran, another Afghanistan," said
Hanife Sahin, a retired nurse, stooping under the red tent formed by a
Turkish flag that ran like a river over the crowd.
News reports said demonstrators numbered as many as 300,000, an
unexpectedly high turnout for a gathering that was initially expected
to draw only harder-line nationalists. The numbers underlined the
deepening divide within Turkish society over the role of Islam in
Turkey, a country whose very charter scrubbed the government clean of
"Believe me, all of Turkey is here," said a 27-year-old market
researcher, as teenage boys draped in Turkish flags jostled her.
But there are two Turkeys now. Turkish society is opening a lively,
sometimes painful, debate on its past for the first time since 1923
when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stamped out public religion to create the
Turkish state. That has divided society and focused attention on the
contest over the presidency, which controls the military and is the
country's most important post safeguarding secularism.
Officials from the ruling party, Justice and Development, known by its
Turkish initials, AK, have kept their religious background away from
the process of government over the four years since they were elected.
Still, the guardians of Turkish secularism have grown increasingly
vocal, before the election, in accusing the ruling party of bringing
their religion into politics before the election.
On Friday, the current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, gave his final
speech before a military audience in Istanbul, warning that the
country's secular system faced its most serious danger since the
founding of the state. The secular establishment Mr. Sezer represents
has several times in Turkey's short history ousted ruling parties it
deemed too religious.
That sentiment was splashed on banners and spoken through loudspeakers
at the protest on Saturday.
After four years in power, the party had made Turkish society more
accommodating to Islamic piousness, many people said. A gaggle of high
school girls ticked off the reasons they did not want the party and
its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to take the presidency.
More women are wearing head scarves, said Ecem Karanfil, a 17-year-old
in a T-shirt and jeans. "We want to feel comfortable dressing the way
we want," she said.
Her friend said she sensed something suspicious in the attractive new
design of religion textbooks being given out in their high school. "I
am wondering why," she said, as a pretzel seller squeezed by, his
wares stacked in a pyramid on his head.
A 65-year-old woman who had come from Izmir, a town in western Turkey,
said she was annoyed at what she saw as the new state laxness allowing
state workers to take time off for prayer on Fridays.
"I go to the post office on Friday, and I can't see a single person at
their desk," she said, sounding indignant.
A small thing had caught Ms. Sahin's attention. A government official
had recently suggested increasing the number of letters in the Turkish
alphabet to 32 to allow the language to better accommodate Arabic
sounds. "I've done pretty well with 29 so far," she said, smiling.
Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.
WVNS Editor's Note:
When I was in Turkey I did meet a lot of people with this viewpoint -
it is the viewpoint of those most willing to talk to Westerners.
Typical NYT slant of course. The majority viewpoint seems to vary
according to region. The strongest supporters of the Islamic movement
seem to be women, and the areas under Islamic party control offer far
more safety and mobility to the women. In the secular areas, Islam is
regarded like a "mens club" - in the same areas, only men are seen
walking on the streets while women stay in certain neighborhoods. In
the secular areas, women only walk in pairs or else with their
husband. In the political Islam areas, Islam is viewed as a vehicle
for societal participation by women. Where there are hijabs, there are
women without men strolling around leisurely in all the parks and city
streets. So as a woman, I tend to favor the Islamic areas. The "right"
to wear jeans and T shirts seems to include the understanding that
women will stay home and watch TV. But even in these sexist, secular
areas, people seemed to think I was their idea of a "cool" Muslim, and
told me that if all the Muslim activists were modern and relaxed like
me, they would become Islamic too. The issue seemed to be at core an
east-west short circuit of the brain more than a religious issue. It
must be very strange to be a housewife with her daughters who are not
allowed to go out, to sit at home watching sleazy soap operas and
disco parties on TV. It is such a culture clash that I can understand
some population segments of people being confused as to how to
incorporate the modern world. And then at the other end of the
spectrum there are the women who insist on wearing black burqas and
making people nervous. There seems to be a difficulty choosing a
"moderate" or "reasonable" means of Turkish self-expression. The fact
is, wearing jeans and a T-shirt does not express Turkish identity and
neither does wearing a burqa, which is an imported fashion too. My
impression was generally positive among both the pro-Islam and
anti-Islam folks, they all seemed to be reasonably nice people. The
anti-Islam folks were still really good Muslims and the pro-Islam
folks were open minded and non-fanatics.
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