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Home Articles Articles Focus on Turkey - articles from 1998

Focus on Turkey - articles from 1998

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ANKARA, Feb 22 - Turkey's Islam-based Welfare Party ceased to exist on Sunday after losing a bitter fight with the secular establishment over the role of Islam in public life.

"The verdict is published and the party officially closed down now,'' a Welfare spokesman said outside party headquarters in Ankara.

Publication in the official gazette gave legal force to a constitutional court verdict issued last month, ending an anxious limbo for both the Islamists and their critics.

The verdict shuts down the party and imposes heavy restrictions on Welfare leader and former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, the 71-year-old architect of political Islam in Turkey. He and four other Islamists lose their parliamentary seats. Erbakan is barred from political leadership for five years and is expected to hand over the reins of leadership to a younger man.  The veteran leader, who has survived two previous party bans, may also face charges of sedition and contempt of court. Some 150 Welfare deputies now have no party affiliation. They will, however, still comprise the country's largest opposition group in the 550-seat chamber and are expected to vote as a bloc. Erbakan, modern Turkey's first Islamist leader, resigned as prime minister last year under a barrage of criticism from the secularist military and mainstream media.

A series of largely symbolic challenges to the established order Welfare made during a year in power in coalition with conservatives greatly alarmed the vigorously secularist armed forces. The court found that the party had attempted to subvert Turkey's strict secularist principles while in power.

``The Welfare chairman and some of his assistants and deputies...were understood to have used democratic rights and freedoms as tools in order to remove democracy and bring in Sharia law,'' state-run Anatolian news agency quoted the verdict as saying.

The Welfare headquarters in Ankara was quiet on Sunday, but Turkish journalists at the scene said they expected police to arrive to seal off the building. Under Turkish law, the assets of an outlawed party are subject to seizure.

NATO-member Turkey is overwhelmingly Moslem but officially secular. Its legal code severely restricts the influence of religion on public life.

But the Islamists have vowed to press on and dozens of Islamist mayors gathered in Ankara to plan a replacement party.

"As of today the deputies and the party organisation...will start work on determining who will take on the new mission and who will be the new leader,'' Welfare General Secretary Oguzhan Asilturk told a press conference.

The prosecutor who brought the closure case against Welfare has already said that any party that purports to be a replacement for Welfare could face the same fate.

Erbakan last week began canvassing supporters in the search for a new leader. The mainstream media report a split between the party's liberal and conservative wings over the best candidate, but the party's inner workings remain shrouded in mystery. Asilturk was flanked by Tayyip Erdogan, Istanbul mayor and a front-runner for leadership from the progressive wing of the party, and Recai Kutan, a former energy minister seen as a conservative close to Erbakan.  Erdogan was later among a group of mayors who visited Erbakan's home to offer condolences on the formal closure.  Welfare says it intends to appeal against the ban, both to the European Court of Human Rights and to Turkish courts.

The European Union expressed concern last month over the implications of the verdict for democracy in Turkey, but reaction was muted in comparison to an earlier move to ban what was then the leading Kurdish party and jail a number of its MPs.

In December the EU put Turkey's membership application into cold storage, citing human rights and democratisation as high on a list of problems.

Copyright 1998, Reuters News Service

ISTANBUL, TURKEY, 26-FEB-1998: Pro-Islamist students wear headscarves as they gather in front of the university on Istanbul's Beyazit Square, February 26 to protest against the school's strict secular dress code. It was the third day of protests by students seeking readmission to campus despite a directive barring Islamic-style beards on men or headscarves on women. Following the recent protests, the Rectorate of Istanbul University announced February 26 that headscarved and bearded students will be allowed in with a proper student ID card. Banner (L) reads: "We will resist."

Just days after the Islamist Welfare Party was officially disbanded, the Turkish state is finding that there is more to imposing strict secularism on a Moslem society than a court order.  The country's top generals met with the government in a session of the National Security Council (MGK) on Thursday to review the implementation of an 18-point plan to curb Islamist activities forced through by the military a year ago.

Meanwhile grassroots supporters of Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz' Motherland Party (ANAP) were up in arms at the latest effort to impose a secular dress code on students and teachers across the country.

And thousands of young women in headscarves and bearded young men laid siege to the University of Istanbul this week in protest at a directive barring students in Islamic attire from the campus. They forced the university Rector to back down on Thursday and retract the decree he had issued only Monday. The three-party coalition of Yilmaz' minority government ran into trouble over a similar reminder of the ban on headscarves issued by the education ministry to students and teachers earlier this month. According to Turkish press reports, the circular was prompted by a government board charged with implementing the MGK's action plan in the civilian sector.

"Students and teachers of all schools must dress in a modern, non-extreme and neat fashion in accordance with the principles of the republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk," the circular said.  The directive limited the wearing of headscarves even in the religious Imam Hatip schools to Koran classes and threatened disciplinary action against teachers who failed to comply.  The ministry followed up the warning by launching investigations against 265 teachers across the country this week.

The move prompted widespread unease among traditionally-minded supporters of the ANAP who argue that headscarves should at least be allowed in the Imam Hatip schools where the future clergy are trained.

"Obstructing the right of believers to live, work and be educated as they want in the name of secularism is a reactionary attitude", ANAP deputy leader Agah Oktay Guner said Thursday. But Education Minister Hikmet Ulugbay, a member of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), stuck to his guns.

"The directive will be implemented word for word," he told a meeting of ministry officials on Wednesday, alarming the ANAP parliamentary group assembled to discuss the fall-out at grassroots level.

While Ulugbay is receiving letters of support from women's rights groups, Yilmaz has had to promise his party he will intercede with the military in the MGK meeting. But Yilmaz treads a fine line, as his minority coalition depends on the outside support of the vehemently secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), which is liable to oppose a softer approach. Meanwhile Islamist students scored a victory in the row over the dress code at Istanbul University.

After three days of demonstrations against the ban on headscarves and Islamist-style beards on campus, the university backed down, saying that the controversial regulation would not be enforced until further notice. The school's principal, Kemal Alemdaroglu, attributed the about-face to technical reasons, citing delays in printing and distributing the student ID cards required for access to campus and issued only to students shown in the photo without headscarf or beard. The Islamist demonstrators had been joined in recent days by left-wing students protesting the military's hand in the dress regulations.

"The MGK can be proud of you," the protesters shouted at Alemdaroglu. "Freedom for education, end to dictatorship!" Sources said the headscarf issue was taken up during Thursday's MGK meeting but its official communiqué made no mention of it.

Copyright 1998 by Agence France-Presse


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