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Allure of islam signals shift within turkey { November 28 2006 }

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November 28, 2006
Pope’s Visit to Turkey Highlights Tensions

ANKARA, Turkey, Nov. 28 — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey this morning and held talks with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had finally agreed to meet him publicly just 24 hours before.

Mr. Erdogan greeted the Pope as he stepped off his plane, and then held a brief meeting with him at the Ankara airport before leaving for the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, Reuters reported. The Pope remained in Turkey to visit religious leaders.

The elaborate last-minute choreography pointed to the deep divide that has festered within Turkish society since the foundation of the modern Turkish state after the first World War: Should Turkey face eastward, toward its Muslim neighbors, or westward, toward Europe?

In the past five years, Muslims here have repeatedly felt betrayed by the West. The United States began holding Muslims without charge at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; it invaded Iraq and abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Turkey’s hopes of entering the European Union have dimmed. The pope made a speech citing criticism of Islam.

Turkey — a democratic Muslim country with a rigidly secular state — is at a pivot point. It is trying to navigate between the forces that want to pull it closer to Islam and the institutions that safeguard its secularism. Turkey’s pro-Islamic government is constrained by rules dictating secularism established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s revered founder.

The extremes jostle on Istanbul’s streets, where miniskirts mix with tightly tied head scarves and lingerie boutiques stand unapologetically next to mosques.

“There are two Turkeys within Turkey right now,” said Binnaz Toprak, a professor of political science at Bogazici University.

The pope’s visit falls squarely on that fault line, and highlights a slow but steady shift: Turkey is feeling its Muslim identity more and more. The trend worries secular Turkish politicians, who believe the state’s central tenet is under threat. In late October, a senior officer of Turkey’s army — which ousted a government it saw as overly Islamic in 1997 — issued a rare warning to that effect.

Others say the threat is overstated, but acknowledge that Turks do feel pushed eastward by pressures on their country from America and Europe. A poll by the Pew Foundation in June found that 53 percent of Turks have positive views of Iran, while public opinion of Europe and the United States has slipped sharply.

“Many people in Turkey have lost hopes in joining Europe and they are looking for other horizons,” said Onur Oymen, an opposition politician whose party is staunchly secular.

It has been more than 80 years since religion was ripped out of the heart of the new Turkish state, which was assembled from the remains of the Ottoman Empire, the political and economic center of the Muslim world for centuries. But the portion of Turks who identify themselves by their religion has increased to 46 percent this year, from 36 percent seven years ago, according to a survey of 1,500 people in 23 cities conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an independent research organization based in Istanbul. That is a trend that has emerged in countries throughout the Muslim world since Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’m here as a Muslim,” said Fatma Eksioglu, who was sitting on the grass next to her sister in downtown Istanbul on Sunday at a demonstration of about 20,000 people opposing the pope’s visit. She did not belong to the Islamic party that organized the gathering, she said, adding, “When it comes to Islam, we are one.”

But in a paradox that goes to the heart of modern Turkey, a stronger Muslim identity does not mean that, as in Iraq, fundamentalism is on the rise, or even that more Turks want more religion in their government. Indeed, the number of Turks in favor of imposing Shariah law declined to 9 percent from 21 percent, according to the survey, which was released last week.

Perhaps the most powerful factor pushing Turks toward the east has been a series of bitter setbacks in talks on admission to the European Union. To try to win membership, the Turkish government enacted a series of rigorous reforms to bring the country in line with European standards, including some unprecedented in the Muslim world, like a law against marital rape.

But the admission talks have stalled. And while the official reason involves the longstanding Greek-Turkish dispute over Cyprus, most Turks say they believe the real reason is a deep suspicion of their country’s religion.

Indeed, in 2002, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, said Turkey’s admission to the union would mean “the end of Europe.” Nicholas Sarkozy, the French presidential hopeful, has made his opposition to Turkish membership a campaign issue. Even the pope, when he was still a cardinal in Germany, said publicly that he did not think Turkey fit into Europe because it was Muslim. That talk has begun to grate on Turks.

“It hurts me that the E.U. expects Turkey to be something it’s not,” said Nilgun Yun, a stylish 26-year-old eating a chocolate muffin in a downtown Istanbul cafe on Sunday.

Her position, shared by many of her friends, was simple: “Accept me as I am. We are Muslim, and we will remain Muslim. That’s not going to change.”

Mr. Oyman, the Turkish opposition politician, said criticism of his country was tougher than ever. “You cannot believe how they accuse Turkey on Cyprus and other issues,” he said in a telephone interview from Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of European parliamentarians. “Our European friends are playing a very shortsighted game.”

The shift has begun to affect trade. While Europe is still Turkey’s largest trading partner, business with other neighbors, including Syria, Iraq and Iran, has picked up substantially in recent years, said Omer Bolat, the head of one of the country’s largest business associations, whose members are mostly pro-Islamic. He put the growth at about 30 percent from just 3 percent in 2000.

“It is risky for a country with respect to foreign policy to have dependence on one partner and market,” he said in English, sitting in a sleek conference room overlooking a bustling trade fair that showcased Turkish goods. “Now Turkey is opening its muscles, its horizons.”

The policies of the Bush administration have deeply worried Muslims, he said, before rushing off to speak to the Pakistani ambassador, who had arrived at the fair.

“The United States used to be paradigm of freedom and rights,” he said. “But since the Republican period, the U.S. policies have been so detrimental in Muslim eyes.”

In just four years, Mr. Erdogan has managed to get inflation down to historical lows and growth rates to all-time highs. The growing prosperity has eased the integration of religious Turks into the country’s secular society, which is still suspicious of advocates of Islam, as well as of Mr. Erdogan.

“This group of people that was more religious has relaxed,” said Ms. Toprak, the professor. “They are now visible. They go to restaurants they would never have gone; they go to posh shopping malls.”

“It was a struggle to get a piece of the pie,” she said. “Now they have one.”

Even so, the increased religiosity, or at least identification with religion, could eventually present a serious problem for Turkish society. There are already rumblings. A killing of a judge whose court had ruled that a nursery school teacher could not wear a head scarf, even away from school, alarmed Turkey’s secularists. Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, head of the Turkish Army, has referred to a rising threat of fundamentalism on at least four occasions since he took up his position in late August.

Mr. Erdogan’s closely watched government had attempted to limit liquor consumption in public places, but later backed down. It also tried to make adultery a crime, but relented.

Some Turkish officials play down the possibility of real damage to secularism, but say that European suspicion does Turkey no good.

The delay with Europe, for instance, “fans up the disappointment, the disillusionment,” said Namik Tan, the spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry. “People say, ‘Why are they doing this?’ ”

That is why public officials, including Mr. Erdogan, have shrunk from the visit by the pope, who symbolizes, in the eyes of Turks, a disdain for Islam and the unfair exclusivity of the Western club. A cartoon in a Turkish newspaper last weekend showed two public officials belly laughing at the bad luck of those Turkish officials obliged to meet him. (The senior official appointed to be his formal guide has the portfolio of youth and sport.)

But the meetings are happening. Despite growing pains, a neglected Kurdish minority in the south, a thin skin for any reference to the Armenian genocide, and failure to scrap a law that makes insulting Turkishness a crime, Turkey stands out as lively democracy in a larger Middle East riddled with restrictions, and its acceptance by the West is a test case for others, officials said.

Muslim countries, Mr. Tan points out, are watching.

“Turkey is a beacon for those countries,” he said. “Don’t forget, if we fail, then the whole dream will fail.”

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Ankara, and Ian Fisher from Rome. Sabrina Pacifici contributed research.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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