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Protests in Turkey highlight old tensions between secularism and Islam

Protests in Turkey highlight old tensions between secularism and Islam

The possibility of an observant Muslim president is pitting Turkey's deeply secular military and civilian establishment against its religiously oriented ruling party in a fundamental struggle over national identity.
At least 700,000 people marched against Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's candidacy in Istanbul Sunday, waving the red national flag and invoking Turkey's long secular tradition. Powerful generals are hinting they may step in. Many Turks are calling for early elections in the hope of replacing the parliament, which elects the president and is dominated by Gul's pro-Islamic party.
The protesters fear that Gul would use the presidency _ a post with veto power over legislation _ to assist his ally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in chipping away at the separation of state and religion. For example, secularists want to preserve a ban on Islamic head scarves in government offices and other public places; Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, once appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to wear the scarf to a university.
"We don't want a covered woman in Ataturk's presidential palace," said Ayse Bari, a 67-year-old housewife at the Istanbul protest. "We want civilized, modern people there."
The Turkish stock market plunged 8 percent in early trading on Monday, and the lira slid against foreign currencies in a reaction to the political tensions. Erdogan was scheduled to address the nation Monday night, and analysts speculated that he would stress his government's loyalty to secularism.
The current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is a strong secularist who acted as a check on the government.
On Friday, opposition lawmakers boycotted the first round of parliamentary voting for Gul and appealed to the Constitutional Court to annul the process. That night the military threatened to intervene in the presidential election and warned the government to curb Islamic influences.
"It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the sides in this debate and the absolute defender of secularism," the military said in a statement. "When necessary, they will display its stance and attitudes very clearly. No one should doubt that."
A day later, the government, showing confidence unknown in past civilian administrations, rebuked the military and said it was "unthinkable" for the institution to challenge its political leaders in a democracy.
"It is out of the question to withdraw my candidacy," Gul said Sunday.
A decade ago, the Turkish military sent tanks into the streets in a campaign that forced the pro-Islamic prime minister to resign. Now Turks are wondering again how far the armed forces will go to settle another power struggle between their government and the secular establishment.
"Turkey is secular and will remain secular!" shouted thousands of flag-waving protesters, many of whom traveled to Istanbul from across the country overnight.
The demonstrators sang nationalist songs and demanded the resignation of the government, calling Erdogan a traitor.
The heart of the problem is a conflict over Turkey's national identity that has brewed since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an army officer in World War I, founded the secular republic after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He gave the vote to women, restricted Islamic dress and replaced the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet.
But Islam remained potent at the grassroots level, and some leaders with a religious background portrayed themselves as an alternative to the secular establishment.
"This government is the enemy of Ataturk," said 63-year-old Ahmet Yurdakul, a retired government employee, invoking the memory of Ataturk. "It wants to drag Turkey to the dark ages."
The pro-secular military's threat to intervene in a disputed presidential election could also damage Turkey's troubled efforts to join the European Union, which has urged the Muslim nation to reduce the political influence of the army.
"We hope that one day Turkey can join the European Union, but for that, Turkey has to be a real European country, in economic and political terms," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on CNN's "Late Edition."
Police, who said the demonstrators numbered around 700,000, cordoned off the area and conducted body searches at several entry points.
More than 300,000 took part in a similar rally in Ankara, the capital, two weeks ago.
Much has changed, however, since Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan resigned on July 18, 1997, ceding power to a pro-Western coalition partner in what was labeled a "soft" coup. Under the current government, Turkey has reined in inflation and implemented reforms backed by the EU.
These ingredients, signs of a maturing democracy, suggest the military would be very reluctant to topple the elected government of Erdogan, a drastic step that could represent a return to a chaotic, polarized era that most Turks would rather forget. Yet, if it feels pushed, few doubt that the military will challenge the politicians.
The court's ruling on whether a quorum was present at the vote on Friday is expected soon. A ruling for the government could lead to a second round of voting on Wednesday _ Gul is the only candidate and is expected to prevail by a third round planned for May 9. A ruling for the opposition would stop the vote, possibly leading to early general elections.
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Associated Press writers Benjamin Harvey in Istanbul and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-03-06 15:29 GMT+08:00