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To Save Its Democracy, Turkey May Destroy It

June 15, 1997|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam" (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster), covers global issues for The Times

ISTANBUL — Turkey, the West's gateway to the East, a pivotal member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the buffer against many of the last rogue states or authoritarian regimes, is at a precipice perhaps unparalleled in its modern history. Last week, the crisis reached the point that the army appeared prepared to overthrow the government. After weeks of believing the generals couldn't or wouldn't repeat what they had done in 1960, 1971 and 1980, popular wisdom is now beginning to believe they'll do it again--in 1997. Maybe soon.

The problem? Democracy.

At the core of a complex dispute is a key issue: Does democracy have to be secular?

The military contends it does. At a series of emergency briefings with judges, academics, journalists and civic leaders last week, the top brass repeatedly cited Article 2 of the Constitution, which says Turkey is a secular state. And Article 4, which says Article 2 can never be changed. And subsequent laws that assign the army to protect this secular state.

Yet, in the 1995 democratic elections, which were weighted in favor of traditional parties, the largest bloc of voters cast ballots for an Islamist party called Refah, or Welfare. It won 22% of the vote, which translated into almost a third of the seats in Parliament. After protracted wrangling, Welfare leader Necmettin Erbakan formed a coalition with the True Path Party of former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller.

Suddenly, the most secular state in the Muslim world had an Islamist prime minister with an agenda at least partly tinged with Islamist overtones.

The result has been an escalating sense of panic in both traditional political and military circles. Since February, the military has launched a progressively tight squeeze of Refah in the form of several ultimatums. The latest has been dubbed the "last warning" by the Turkish press. Last month, the state prosecutor added to the pressure by filing suit in the country's constitutional court to have Refah outlawed, somewhat late in the political day, for being a religion-based party operating in a secular state.

In an attempt to defuse the crisis, Erbakan agreed Friday to cede the top job to his secular coalition partner. Ciller, now deputy prime minister, would become prime minister under this arrangement. But it is little more than a cosmetic swap, since Erbakan will take her portfolio and the foreign ministry. Refah would remain in power.

The real danger in Turkey today, however, is not Refah. Rather, it is that either the military or the constitutional court will act on the pretext of preserving Turkey as a secular state. Because the price will be democracy. And in the end, Turkey will be no safer or more stable. Probably the opposite.

Indeed, just how much of a "threat" Refah really represents for Turkey is seriously debatable.

By standards in the United States, a land of personal freedoms and parochial schools, the majority of items on Refah's agenda are petty or non-issues: allowing girls to wear head scarves to school if they prefer; permitting children to go to religious schools through middle school; allowing those with Islamist beliefs to remain or rise in the military. On the horizon was a looming debate over changing the day of rest, in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, from Sunday to Friday, the Muslim Sabbath.

To curb what they view as the threat of Islamic militancy, the generals have gotten involved in the minutia of daily civilian life--demanding that private Koranic instruction be brought under government control, that the activity of Islamist groups be restricted, that school dress codes be secular and that the numbers of pupils in religious schools be cut. The army has also demanded that military officers with Islamist leanings be retired. On each issue, Erbakan has agreed, albeit reluctantly, then moved slowly in implementation.

That doesn't mean Refah's rise has been particularly welcome on several fronts. But events and patterns of the past 18 months do need to be put in perspective, then a cost-benefit ratio calculated, before tolerating drastic steps that would amount to a bloodless coup d'etat or an undemocratic court edict.

Refah's campaign rhetoric, for example, did often range from inflammatory to downright worrisome. It was critical of U.S.-led Operation Provide Comfort against Iraq, which is based in Turkey, and of past Turkish governments for being U.S. lackeys. It talked of a foreign policy leaning eastward to Asia rather than westward. It opposed joining the European Customs Union, a step on the road to membership in the European Union. It talked instead of an Islamic common market, an Islamic NATO and an Islamic currency.

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