Receb Tayyob Erdogan, the ‘Islamist’ mayor of Istanbul, was sentenced to ten months’ imprisonment on April 21 after being convicted of inciting ‘hatred based on religious differences’ by a special security court sitting in Diyarbakir. The court’s three judges, who included a senior military officer, jailed him despite the fact that even the state prosecutor argued that Erdogan had done nothing wrong.
The court’s decision is part of an ongoing campaign against the influence of Islam in public life and politics. Later the same week, the mayor of Kayseri began a jail term for a similar offence. A few days earlier, 16 businessmen in Kayseri were arrested and questioned for financially supporting the local Islamic movement. The same week, 185 people were arrested in the Kurdish south east of Turkey for marching in protest against government attempts to enforce its ban on government employees from wearing hijab.
Erdogan was prosecuted on the basis of a speech he gave in Siirt, near Istanbul, in December last year, in which he quoted from a poem by the Turkish nationalist leader Zia Gokalp (d. 1924). The extract he quoted included the lines "the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets, and the believers our soldiers." Erdogan argued that this passage was from a well-known Turkish poem and represented an appeal for peace, not war. Even the state prosecutor agreed, telling the court that it is normal for expressions such as these to be used in this country, which is 99 percent Muslim.’
The fact that Erdogan was still convicted and sentenced to jail clearly indicates that the prosecution was politically motivated. Erdogan was a senior member of the now-dissolved Refah Party, and has been mentioned as a future leader of its successor, the Fazilat Party. His highly regarded performance as mayor of Istanbul is often cited as an an example of what Islamists could do if properly granted power in central government.
Erdogan appealed against the conviction and remains free pending further hearings. Over 5,000 people demonstrated outside his mayoral office the day after the conviction, demanding that it be overturned, a fact which is unlikely to have reassured his persecutors.
Sukru Keretepe, the mayor of Kayseri in central Turkey, and also a former Refah member, began serving a one-year on April 24. He was also convicted of inciting hatred based on religious differences’ -- this charge is used as an a catch-all to prosecute any anti-secular’ activities. Keretepe’s offence was to have criticised Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’, the founder of Turkey’s secular ideology, in a 1996 speech. He had expressed pain and regret that his position obliged him to attend a ceremony honouring Ataturk.
The Keyseri businessmen were rounded up by anti-terrorist police in a series of pre-dawn raids on April 20, and held for questioning. Erol Yarar, head of Musiad, the Islamic employers’ federation, said that they were the founders of an Islamic insurance company in Kayseri, and their arrest was intended to deter others from financially supporting the Islamic movement. The 16 businessmen were reported in the local press to have given financial donations for the development of political Islam.’
The continuing crackdown on Islamic activists reflects a growing fear of the popularity if Islamic leaders and groups. Erdogan, who has been mayor of Istanbul since 1994, is highly regarded for his administration of the city, particular for his concern for addressing the problems of ordinary people. The crackdown on Refah, which culminated in its being shut down in January and former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan being banned from politics, has also not slowed the Islamic movement’s momentum. Its effective successor, Fazilat, is now regarded as the most popular party in the country. Few people doubt that it would gain the largest number of seats in Parliament were elections to be held now.
The question of how to counter this growing Islamic threat’ is now tearing the secular establishment apart. In March, following popular protests against Reffah disbandment and Erbakan’s banning, the military issued a veiled threat that it would take over power itself if prime minister Mesud Yilmaz’s government does not take effective action. Yilmaz responded by openly warning of the damage a military coup would do to Turkey’s standing and saying that secularism must be promoted through democratic and constitutional means.
Yilmaz’s job is not made easier by the ambitions of other secular politicians. On April 23, Yilmaz was forced by Republican Peoples Party (RPP) leader Deniz Baykal to promise to establish a caretaker government when the Parliament returned from its summer recess in October, pending elections in March. The RPP has long been demanding early elections, while Yilmaz has been saying his government needs to stay in office until the elections are formally due in 2000, in order to enact and implement effective anti-Islamic measures. It appears that Baykal finally lost patience and threatened to withdraw his Republican People’s Party’s support from Yilmaz’s fragile coalition if his terms were not met. It is still unclear whether Yilmaz will be able to hold on until March, as other coalition partners have said they would not support the proposed caretaker government.
Whenever the elections are held, however, one thing is clear. All Turkey’s secular parties, and the military which sees themselves as the guardians of Mustafa Kemal’s secular legacy, have a common interest in preventing Fazilat from doing well. As the elections grow more and more imminent, the pressure on Turkey’s Islamic movement will increase and friction between popular Islam and the elites’ secular extremism is likely to grow. Where this will lead remains to be seen.
Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1998