Turkish General Cautions Government on Islam

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s powerful military has accused the country’s prime minister of encouraging "anti-secularist activities” in its first public attack on a new government it views with suspicion for its Islamist roots.

Prime Minister Abdullah Gul–whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power in November polls that devastated established mainstream parties–last month entered formal reservations when signing a military order expelling several officers from the armed forces for Islamist agitation.

General Hilmi Ozkok–chief of the armed forces General Staff–chose a reception late on Wednesday to upbraid Gul. It was the first open sign of friction between the military and the AKP–which insists it will never bring religion into politics.

"The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have for long years been seen as the obstacle to anti-secularism and thus been seen as a target,” Ozkok said. "Anti-secularists have resorted to all methods to infiltrate the TSK and the TSK have developed defensive reflexes and methods against these attempts.”

The Supreme Military Council meets twice a year and issues orders expelling usually non-commissioned officers on charges of Islamist agitation. Gul entered reservations about expulsions last month–complaining they allow no appeal.

"The place and means of voicing opposition on this matter should not have been the Council itself,” Ozkok–dressed in unfamiliar civilian clothes–said. "This exceptional circumstance has undoubtedly encouraged those involved in anti-secular activities.

AKP had no immediate comment on the general’s remarks.

The friction comes at a time when both the government and military are under pressure as the United States pushes for support in any attack it might launch on neighboring Iraq. Tensions might only complicate a decision that could have broad consequences for the power balance between the party and the military as well as for the NATO country as a whole.

The AKP has been at pains to present itself since its election as a strictly democratic pro-Western administration. It has put enormous effort into promoting the country’s European Union ambitions and worked constructively with markets and the International Monetary Fund over a $16 billion reform plan.

SUSPICIONS RUN HIGH

But the AKP was formed from the moderate wing of two parties banned in the past for Islamist activities and suspicions in the army and other conservative areas of the establishment run high.

Commentator Mehmet Ali Birand saw Ozkok’s remarks as "setting down a red line” that AKP should not cross. "When I spoke to him afterwards–he (Ozkok) presented his remarks simply as a defense of their way of handling things–not bravado–not criticizing the government or politicians.”

But Birand saw hazards in Gul’s action and in tentative moves to question bans on the wearing of headscarves–a symbol of piety in Muslim women’seen by conservatives as a challenge to secularism if worn at state institutions including universities.

"They (the AKP) shouldn’t pick such conflicts,” he said.

"They’ll dig their own grave. They should stick to the economy.”

The army spearheaded a campaign that unseated Turkey’s first Islamist-led government in 1997. The generals see militant Islam as the greatest threat to the country and may be worried by AKP’s large majority in parliament and–on the international stage–the party’s acceptance by Turkey’s US allies.

Ozkok also implicitly warned the government against allowing the wearing of headscarves in public institutions.

"We respect the religious faith and the manner of its expression in the private lives of individuals. We criticize no one for their belief–non-belief or manner of worship,” Ozkok said. "However–we should not be expected to tolerate the use of these (privileges) and in particular the headscarf–as a symbol and action aimed at eroding the republican traditions.”

The AKP argues that people should be allowed to wear headscarves as they wish as a basic human right. That argument enjoys firm support in the party’s provincial strongholds.

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