Two senior Islamic activists in Turkey were given long jail sentences by an Ankara state security court on October 15, on trumped up charges. Nuruddin Sirin, editor of the Islamic daily Selam, was jailed for 17-and-a-half years, and Bekir Yildiz, a former mayor of Ankara’s Sincan district, was jailed for four years. Both are members of Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Party, regarded as Islamically fundamentalist by the country’s secular establishment .
The sentences were announced even as Muslimahs were continuing an on-going protest outside Istanbul University against the university authorities’ refusal to register them for the new academic year unless they remove their hijab for ID card photographs. News is also awaited on a legal challenge to Refah’s legality as a political party, which has been challenged in court on grounds that Refah is too Islamic. Political parties based on Islam are forbidden by Turkey’s secular constitution.
Coming together, these and other similar events are indicative of a general crackdown on Islam, Islamic activism and activists since Necmettin Erbakan was forced to resign the premiership in June and was replaced by Mesut Yilmaz, leader of the Motherland Party. The university protests were continuing as we went to press.
Nurettin Sirin was charged with being an agent of the Lebanese Hizbullah and Yildiz of ‘aiding and abetting an armed gang’ and ‘provoking hatred and animosity among people.’ The charges arose from a Yaum al-Quds (Al-Quds Day) meeting in Sincan in February, at which Yildiz, then the mayor of Sincan, shared a platform with the Iranian ambassador Ali Reza Bagheri and called for the liberation of Jerusalem.
The meeting was blown out of all proportion by Turkey’s secular establishment as a pretext for attacking Refah’s ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and Erbakan’s tolerance of it. The Iranian ambassador was expelled from the country and tanks were paraded through Sincan’s streets as a show of power. Later in the month, Erbakan was forced by president Suleiman Demiral, and military leaders to accept a ten-point programme designed to suppress Islam. This has been described as a ‘soft coup’ against the democratically-elected government, compared to the military’s ‘hard coups’ of 1960, 1971 and 1980, but only postponed his inevitable demise.
It had been widely expected that the realities of Erbakan’s government would reduce public support for his Refah Party. This was reasonable in view of the Turkish history - few parties have increased their popularity while in office. But it did not happen.
Erbakan came to power in December 1995 on 22.7 percent of the vote. Support for his Refah Party had been increasing steadily since its surprise showing of 18.8 percent in the March 1994 local elections brought the spectre of Islam to the forefront of Turkish politics. Even so, he could only come to office with the unexpected help of Tansu Ciller, and archrival, and her True Path Party, which had campaigned largely on the basis of keeping Refah out of power.
According to the coalition agreement, Erbakan was to hand power to Tansu Ciller, leader of the True Path Party in July this year. It is widely speculated that one of the reasons he was forced from office just weeks before this date was to deprive him of the credibility of completing his term. Perhaps the most worrying thing for the generals is that, despite such tactics (or perhaps even partly because of them), opinion polls suggest that the Refah Party may even increase its share of the vote to over 30 percent if the elections were held at this time.
The widespread understanding that Erbakan was hamstrung in office by the restrictions of the State is only part of the basis for his continuing popularity. The success of his Party in local government is also a major factor. Since the 1994 municipal elections, the Refah Party has controlled over two-thirds of Turkey’s municipal councils, and is generally accepted to have done a good job, improving social services for the poor, easing restrictions on Islamic activities, reducing alcohol consumption and shutting down brothels.
The severity of the sentences handed down to Nurettin Sirin and Bekir Yilmaz, and the crackdown on Islamic students, indicate the increasing concern of Turkey’s secular establishment at the ‘danger’ of Islamic political ideas and activism. However, Refah activists expect that the sentences may be reduced on appeal to a higher court, which is expected to be heard within the next month or two. A political point having been made by the sentences’ severity, the establishment is likely to want to minimize the sympathy factor which the sentences would promote if confirmed.
However, the establishment’s problem is of how to oppose a political trend which seems to increase however they try to counter it. A major concern now is the spread of Islamic ideas and support for Refah among the military, particular in the ranks and among junior officers. This concern was first raised in 1987, when a large number of cadets were expelled from military academies for Islamic activities. Since then, the officer corps in particular has been subject to periodic purges. Any officer who prays, or whose wife is known to pray, is viewed with suspicion.
The situation is even more serious among the other ranks. Turkey’s army consists largely of conscripts who serve for eighteen months at a time. The popularity of Refah, particularly among Turkey’s poor, is reflected also among these conscripts. The question of whether they would support a military coup against a Refah government, or to prevent Refah from coming to power, is now frequently debated. The police are similarly distrusted by the military, also because their commitment to secularism is doubted.
The military bigwigs who see themselves as guardians of Mustafa Kemal’s secular legacy, and depended on by the west and Israel to ensure that Turkey ‘does not go bad’, are increasingly concerned by these developments. But their support of Mesud Yilmaz at this time smacks of desperation.
Yilmaz, who was only voted into power in July by a narrow majority in the Parliament after frantic politicking, manipulation and bribery by Demiral acting on behalf of the generals, has been premier twice before, for five months in 1991 and three months in 1996. His credibility and support are nil. On October 20, he held a press conference to mark 100 days in power, at which he presented a 40-page document outlining his achievements so far. He decided not to mention the achievement of simply staying in power. But few expect him to last the two years until the elections are next due.
Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1997