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May 09, 2003

Next Headache: Schizophrenic Turkey
By K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey from August 1992 to April 1996. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies.

Tensions building up between Turkey's secular elite, led by its powerful armed forces, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamic roots, ever since the latter's electoral triumph last November, have up to now remained under check. This was because of Turkey's preoccupation with more important matters, such as an admission date into the Europe Union, a United Nations-led attempt to resolve the Cyprus problem and the United States efforts to persuade Turkey to join in the war against Iraq.

With these issues now either resolved or in limbo, the first battle lines between the two sides were drawn on April 23 when President Ahmet Sezer, a former head of the Constitutional Court, and the top military brass led by General Hilmi Ozkok, refused to attend a reception at parliament house hosted by its speaker, Bulent Arinc of the AKP, to mark National Sovereignty and Children's Day, as hostess Munnever Arinc planned to wear a Muslim head scarf. The opposition, left of the center People's Republican Party (RPP), also boycotted the reception. A last-minute announcement that Mrs Arinc would not attend the reception came too late.

Since the establishment of the secular republic in 1923, Ottoman and Islamic dresses have been forbidden in public places. Many an Islamist women has lost her job or place in university, and some women their seats in parliament, for defying this regulation.

On April 30, a statement issued after a meeting of Turkey's National Security Council (NSC), underlined secularism as one of the basic pillars of the Turkish Republic. Reiterating that its "vigilant protection cannot be over-emphasized", it urged the AKP government to protect the secular state. The NSC is Turkey's highest policy-making body and is composed of the chief of general staff (CGS) of the armed forces and top military commanders, the prime minister and his senior colleagues and is chaired by the president of the republic. The CGS is next in protocol after the prime minister and forms one of the three centers of power, along with the president.

In 1997, Turkey's first-ever Islamist prime minister, Najemettin Erbakan, then heading a coalition government with a secular party, was made to resign by the armed forces for his failure to curb growing Islamic fundamentalism. In 1971, the military members of the NSC had forced premier Suleiman Demirel to resign for his failure to implement land and other radical reforms and curb left-right strife. The military also intervened directly in 1960 and 1980, when politicians had brought the country to an impasse.

But after cleaning up the mess created by the politicians and getting a new constitution in place, the armed forces, self-styled custodians of Kemal Ataturk's legacy of secularism, as usual, returned to the barracks. Ataturk had forged the secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman empire after its defeat in World War I. "

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