Turkey’s secular fundamentalist establishment struck the country’s Islamic movement another blow on January 16, when the Supreme Court voted by 9-2 to ban the Refah Party for being Islamic and to banish the Party’s leader, Necmettin Erbakan, from politics for five years.
Turkey’s secular constitution, repeatedly tinkered with by the military, bans the mixing of religion and politics and the country’s establishment has repeatedly acted to thwart the Turkish people’s natural desire for their country to be run along Islamic lines. The banned Refah Party is the largest single party in parliament, and Erbakan was prime minister from December 1995 until June last year, as head of a coalition government with the True Path Party.
The supreme court verdict - which was not unexpected - comes after an eight-month trial which had begun even before Erbakan resigned as prime minister under pressure from the military. Speculation is now rife as to how the Refah Party members will re-organize. Although the Party will be disbanded, most of its parliamentary deputies will retain their seats. Only Erbakan and five other senior deputies are being expelled from parliament and banished from politics for five years.
A new Party under which Refah activists may organize has already been formed, under the name Fusillade (Virtue), but it is unclear that this is how Refah members will choose to proceed. Other options include re-organizing under several different Party headings. However, the State prosecutors who brought the case against Refah have vowed to similarly pursue and shut down any successor political parties which may be established. Erbakan and his advisers are proceeding cautiously and discreetly to minimise the risk of any further action against them.
However, Erbakan’s own position is particularly vulnerable now. Once his expulsion from parliament is formalised, he will lose immunity from prosecution and there have been calls that he should be charged with crimes against the State for his pro-Islamic stance while in office. Even if the State chooses not to take this extreme and provocative step, he would remain vulnerable to prosecution for breaching the terms of his ban from politics should he continue to be involved in Refah Party’s successors. With Erbakan now 71 years old, the establishment’s intention is clearly to end his political career before he can do them any more damage.
The question then arises about the movement’s future leadership. While speculation is rife and dangerous, among those tipped to take over are Receb Tayyib Erdogan, the 43-year-old Mayor of Istanbul, and Abdullah Gul, a senior Parliamentary Deputy who served as Refah’s ‘shadow foreign minister’ in Erbakan’s last government, while the post was held by True Path leader Tansu Ciller. Refah activists emphasize, however, that all the talk of power struggles and schisms is merely media mischief-making designed to make the Party’s situation even more difficult, and that the Party leadership remains united and committed to working together.
This verdict is the latest part of a clear campaign by Turkey’s secular establishment - guided from behind the scenes by the country’s military which sees itself as the guardian of Mustafa Kemal’s secular legacy - to cleanse the country’s public life of all Islamic influence. The present campaign can be dated back to Erbakan’s period as prime minister.
It appears that the establishment permitted Refah to take office in the expectation that, once in office, Erbakan would prove as incompetent and unpopular as Turkish governments usually do, and public support for Refah and the Islamic movement generally would ebb away. However, this did not happen, partly because of widespread understanding that Erbakan was hamstrung in office by obstruction of the military and his alliance with Tansu Ciller’s True Path Party, and partly because of Refah’s successes in local government - since the 1994 municipal elections, the Refah has controlled over two-thirds of Turkey’s local councils, and is generally accepted to have done a good job, reducing alcohol consumption, shutting down brothels, easing restrictions on Islamic activities and improving social services for the poor.
Even while Erbakan was prime minister, and despite his growing popularity, the establishment acted to restrict his policies and limit his freedom of action. The military, which largely controls foreign policy and co-operation with the military establishments of other countries, refused to accept his policies and continued to develop relations with the US and Israel.
In domestic affairs too, supported by president Suleiman Demirel, a campaign was started against the ‘threat of Islam.’ Erbakan’s efforts to make it easier to live as a practising Muslim, for example by reducing the working hours of government offices during Ramadan, were treated as threats to the State. This campaign reached a peak during Erbakan’s premiership when tanks were rolled through the streets of Sincan in February last year, as a warning to Islamic activists following a local Yaum al-Quds meeting addressed by the Iranian ambassador. Shortly after this, Erbakan was forced by Demirel and military leaders to accept a ten-point plan designed to suppress Islam.
This was the first of several recent actions to be described as a ‘soft coup’ against the growing Islamic movement. Erbakan’s removal from office in June was also described the same way, and now the banning of the Refah is being similarly described. This provides a clue to the establishment’s strategy.
While the military has not hesitated to actively take over the government in the past - Turkey has had military coups in 1960 and 1980 - it is clearly reluctant to do so again, not least because the growing popularity of the Islamic movement is reflected also among conscripts. Instead, the establishment as a whole - not just the military - are working to a salami strategy ‘of reducing the Islamic movement’s freedom of action slice by slice,’ using quasi-legal and constitutional means.
Such strategies are being implemented not only at the national political level; at various other levels too, the Islamic movement is being attacked. Several senior activists have been arrested and jailed. These include Nuruddin Sirin, editor of the Islamic daily newspaper, Salam, who was jailed for 17-and-a-half years in October for alleged membership of an armed group; Bekir Yildiz, a former mayor of Ankara’s Sincan district, jailed after the Yaum al-Quds function last year, and Sukru Karatepe, Mayor of Keyseri, sentenced to a year in jail in October for criticising Mustafa Kemal.
Sisters wearing hijab have also been prevented from attending some universities, and a draft parliamentary bill was published on January 19, by which the activities of Islamic financial institutions would be limited and controls put on businesses which favour dealing with other Muslims or finance Muslim charities and groups from their profits. Such domestic measures apart, the government is also making its links with the US, Israel and other anti-Islamic governments even closer, to the extent of undertaking joint military exercises with the US and Israeli navies in the Mediterranean Sea early last month (January 5-8). Turkey’s rulers seem determined to openly and actively participate in the west’s battle against the Islamic movement, internationally as well as internally.
How this campaign against the Turkish Islamic movement will develop, and how the movement will respond, remains to be seen. But it seems clear already that many of Turkey’s people are increasingly unhappy with the establishment’s suppression of Islam and all the more sympathetic with the Islamic movement as a result of these developments.
The establishment’s democratic facade has been severely damaged and its true colours are plainly visible. But it is fighting the tide of history which is moving in Islam’s favour across the Muslim world. At this time of the year in particular - as the Ummah celebrates the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran - it is instructive to remember the fate of the last regime which allied itself so closely and openly with the enemies of Islam in the region.
Muslimedia: February 1-15, 1998