Turkish Military in New Power Play

ANKARA (Associated Press)–Turkey’s top general on Monday accused the Islamic-rooted ruling party of nurturing fundamentalism, in harsh commen’s that may indicate a renewed resolve by the military to force its way into the center of the country’s political life. Turkey’s generals, who are empowered to defend the nation’s secular traditions, have carried out three coups since 1971 and last pressured an Islamic government to quit less than a decade ago. "Aren’t there those who at every opportunity express the need to redefine secularism? Are they not in the most senior positions of the state?" Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said in a speech. "If you cannot answer ‘no’ to these questions, then there is a threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey, and every measure must be taken against this threat." His commen’s appeared to be a direct response to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was quoted Monday as saying in the United States that Turkey faced "no threat of Islamic fundamentalism." Erdogan met Monday with President Bush in Washington for talks about Turkey’s fight with autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels. The military suspects the government is allowing a creeping Islamization in this predominantly Muslim country governed by strict secular laws that separate religion and state. It fears that if left unchecked, Islamic fundamentalism will lead to a theocracy like that in Iran under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The government has appointed Islamic-minded officials to key civil posts, and governing party members have questioned the definition of secularism. Military leaders suspect the government is prioritizing an Islamic agenda over Turkey’s bid for European Union membership. But many Western observers _ including EU officials weighing Turkey’s candidacy _ see the military as just as much a threat to democracy as Islamists. The generals are accused of promoting a dangerous breed of nationalism, advocating strict controls on civil liberties, and cracking down on Kurds. Despite outside criticism, the military enjoys widespread veneration in Turkey _ a factor that complicates Erdogan’s efforts to rein it in. There was wide public support for the last military coup in 1980, which ended street fighting between leftist and right-wing militants. The military staged two other coups, in 1960 and 1971, and in 1997 pressured an Islamic government out of power. In Ankara on Monday, few critics of the military could be found. "The military is fulfilling its duty, they’re not interfering with democracy at all," said Kenan Sayilgan, 34. "I expect them to make their voice heard more in the near future. They are just responding to the actions of the government." Seeing EU membership as the final project in Turkey’s modernization, the military grudgingly accepted reforms recommended by the 25-nation bloc that reduced its hold over the National Security Council, a forum of military and political leaders often used by generals to impose their will on the government. However, the military has chafed at EU deman’s that it withdraw 40,000 troops from EU-member Cyprus and extend minority rights to Kurds. Since taking office in 2002, Erdogan has spoken out against restrictions on wearing Islamic-style headscarfs in government offices and schools and bolstered religious schools. He tried to criminalize adultery before being forced to back down under intense EU pressure. Some party-run municipalities have taken steps to ban alcohol consumption. The government has even inserted religious references in school text books _ such as claims that washing before Islamic prayers would increase the number of red blood cells. "This example shows that it is worthwhile to be cautious against fundamentalism in this country," Sedat Ergin, editor-in-chief of daily Milliyet, told CNN-Turk television on Monday. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist, said Sunday that the government’s actions were "rolling back" the gains of the secular republic. Erdogan’s party swept elections in 2002 and is still the leading contender next year, but he may find himself preoccupied with trying to contain the military’s anger. He urged the military not to overstep legal boundaries set by the constitution, according to commen’s published Monday by the state-owned Anatolia news agency. "The Turkish armed forces must act according to this definition. It cannot step outside of that," Erdogan said Sunday in a speech at Georgetown University. Buyukanit dismissed criticism that he was threatening democracy. "Which action of the military is undemocratic?" Buyukanit asked. "I am a soldier, and I am carrying out the duties given to me by laws. As soldiers, we have nothing to do with politics. However, if there are those who are disturbed by our assessmen’s on security and the regime, it is up to them."

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