asiaNet Human Rights
Turkey is a leading example of an Islamic nation with secular state structures. Images seen elsewhere in the Islamic world of angry young bearded men shouting defiance at the United States are unimaginable in Turkey these days, even though many Turks harbor resentments against perceived injustices committed by the United States against the Muslims.
Statements made by the leaders of the two mainstream Islamist parties have been subdued. "It would be wrong to equate terrorism with Islam, which is a faith advocating peace and fraternity," said Felicity Party leader Recai Kutan. Meanwhile, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the popular former Islamist mayor of Istanbul, has cautioned against "rash action that may lead to further bloodshed."
The September 11 events have helped fuel a growing realization that a political message based purely on Islam will not be tolerated either by Turkey's military establishment or by a disillusioned electorate. Even in its heyday in the 1990s, the Islamist party never managed to poll more than 25 percent of the total vote, and today voter apathy has been further attenuated by widespread revulsion at the endemic corruption perceived to infect the whole political system, Islamists included.
Political Islam has been on the defensive here since February 1997, when Turkey's staunchly secularist generals - alarmed by the sight of bearded and turbaned religious leaders at the Prime Minister's dinner table - forced a coalition of Islamists and center-right politicians to step down. Since then, the Constitutional Court has shut down both the Islamist Welfare Party and its successor, the Virtue Party. The latter organization itself has split into a number of feuding factions.
Keen to capture the mood, Erdogan and his newly formed Justice and Development Party have attempted to project an image of moderation and all-embracing social liberalism. "I have changed," insisted Erdogan in August, appearing to publicly renounce videotaped speeches dating from 1994, when he seemed a fiery advocate of an Islamic form of government.
The events of September 11 have caught Turkey and political Islam in particular at a crossroads. Parliament has just begun debating a series of amendments to the constitution, which, if adopted, will go some way towards softening the restrictions on freedom of expression in place since the aftermath of the 1980 military coup. One proposal put forward by an all-party working group would make it much more difficult to shut down political parties.
In its current form, the constitution bans, among other things, activity aimed at undermining the secular nature of the Republic, whether this involves the use of force or not. For example, the Virtue Party was banned last June because it was held to be in agreement with the actions of one of its deputies, who unsuccessfully tried to take the oath wearing a headscarf. Similarly, women wearing headscarves are prevented from attending university lectures or working in government offices.
Liberal political commentators have been arguing for some time that the Constitution should distinguish between those who espouse an Islamic lifestyle and those who would resort to violence to force that lifestyle on the entire country. It is a point that even the leading businessmen's club, TUSIAD, largely made up of secular-minded millionaires, has been pushing. Until 11th September, an eventual accommodation between moderate Islam and the secular body politic seemed possible.
"Suddenly, no one is so sure any more," said one leading TUSIAD member, "What if the generals have been right all along, and even the outwardly moderate Islamists are really all Osama bin Ladens in sheep' clothing?"
That has been the long held view of militant secularists like Bedri Baykam, a celebrated artist and fierce public critic of Islamic fundamentalism. "The 11th of September has been a reality check," says Baykam.
"Just as they did after the generals' ultimatum in 1998, the Islamists will now lie low for a while," Baykam continued, "But they are still a huge threat, despite their protestations that they have changed, and the bleating of the liberal intelligentsia. We must never let down our guard."
Legislators will be challenged to find a constitutional balance that maintains stability. A hardening of Turkey's secular establishment towards even moderate Islamist sentiment, combined with a potential US response to the attacks that is seen to target Muslims, may create a deep divide in society. Such a split could promote the radicalization of Muslims here.
Ali Erginsoy is a freelance journalist
specializing in Turkish affairs.