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Turkey struggles to remain on secular path

Protesters in Turkey have risen up in recent weeks, expressing fear that Islamic influence could grow, altering their country's identity.
Demonstrators march with Turkish flags and a huge poster of modern Turkey's founder Ataturk during a pro-secular rally in Manisa, western Turkey, on Saturday.
Demonstrators march with Turkish flags and a huge poster of modern Turkey's founder Ataturk during a pro-secular rally in Manisa, western Turkey, on Saturday.Ismail Sahin / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It was dawn Saturday, and a still ascendant full moon shared the sky with a pale light. Young and old, students and retirees -- together, defenders of Turkey's eight decades of resolute secularism -- had already arrived for the trip. There were posters and portraits of the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, signs quoting his aphorisms, pins intoning his principles.

Their messages were the same. "Turkey is secular and will remain secular," one of the placards read.

Through the morning, hundreds, perhaps thousands, flocked from Istanbul and other Turkish cities to the seaside town of Canakkale, along the Dardanelles, one of a series of demonstrations every week or so to rally the ranks of secularists defending their ideology with the fervor of faith. The journey was part homage, part pilgrimage and part mobilization, as contestants in a mounting struggle over Turkey's identity seek to draw the lines ahead of a July 22 election, one of the country's most important ballots in years.

Atmosphere of distrust
Since it was founded in 1923, this republic of 74 million has been the most avowedly secular and modern of Muslim countries. Even today, at least publicly, no party questions those principles decreed by Ataturk in the devastating aftermath of World War I -- neither secularists from across the spectrum nor the religiously rooted Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which captured a majority in parliament in 2002.

Rather, the debate is often propelled by suspicions and fears, talk of hidden religious agendas, complaints of reflexive secular intolerance and questions that boil down to "what if," namely what if Erdogan's party fully controls a state whose institutions -- the military, courts and civil service -- deeply distrust his intentions?

"It's clear what's about to happen," said Kivilcim Kilicarslan, a 41-year-old theater actress, draped in a red Turkish flag.

For Kilicarslan, the rally began on the bus as it headed to Canakkale, its windows adorned with six portraits of Ataturk.

"Long live Ataturk's republic!" she shouted in the aisle.

Passengers joined her in nationalist songs and anthems from Turkey's founding days. She thrust her fist in the air, and others clapped. An elderly woman looked to the quiet back of the bus and grimaced. "Hey, young people, are you sleeping?" she asked.

"Turkey woke up," Kilicarslan shouted to them, "and the imam fainted."

‘The republic is in its worst moment’
For five hours, the bus passed through the pine forests and rolling hills of Thrace before disgorging its passengers in Eceabat, across the Dardanelles from their destination. They were met by a plethora of hawkers selling resonant paraphernalia: flags with the traditional star and crescent, others emblazoned with Ataturk, and caps offering him fealty: "My father, we are in your footsteps," they read.

"I'm a daughter of the republic, and the republic is in its worst moment," Kilicarslan said as she walked to the ferry.

Labels are notoriously fickle in Turkish politics -- a confused array of sometimes indecipherable right and left. Opponents of Erdogan's party often criticize the United States and Europe in the same breath. A streak of fierce nationalism occasionally courses through their remarks: that Erdogan's economic reforms are selling the country to foreign interests, that political reforms -- allowing broadcasting in Kurdish, for instance -- are empowering the country's minorities and undermining the ideology Ataturk insisted on.

But symbolic gestures -- prayers in public places and proposals to criminalize adultery -- matter. Especially upsetting to Kilicarslan was Erdogan's choice for president, Abdullah Gul, whose candidacy was effectively canceled by Turkey's high court this month. It was less his politics, though those made her suspicious; it was more the idea of his veiled wife becoming the first lady.

"Maybe it's symbolic, but it frightens me," she said. "We aren't against religion, but if the head scarf goes to the presidential palace, then the Turkish republic is over. Secularism is over." She shook her head. "We don't want to become Saudi Arabia."

A generation of conflict
The contest over religion in politics in Turkey has lasted a generation. The government closed down predecessors of Erdogan's party in 1998 and again in 2001. Many trace the rise of those parties to the 1980s, when they contend that Turkey's late president, Turgut Ozal, created a more permissive environment, allowing Muslim foundations and charities to flourish and making possible Islamic access to broadcasting. In particular, he saw in "moderate Islamism" -- a mix of capitalist norms with religious mores and culture -- a way to appeal beyond Turkey's borders, particularly to Central Asian states emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"For us, mild Islamists don't exist. It's just a transition to radical Islam," insisted Bedri Baykam, a critic of Ozal's approach and an activist with the Ataturk Thought Association, a group that organized the bus caravan and helped plan the rally.

"People think the destination of our train is Brussels, Paris or Luxembourg," said Baykam, a 50-year-old painter with hair that rivals Beethoven's, woven with shocks of gray, whose inspirations span Ottoman calligraphy and pop icons like James Dean. "In reality, this train is headed full speed toward Iran and Saudi Arabia. Full speed. At this point, we are fighting for our freedoms."

At midday, the ferry carried the protesters to Canakkale, across the Dardanelles. Nearby was the ancient city of Troy. So was Gallipoli, where Ataturk helped create his almost mythical status as a war hero by defeating the Allies at a battle during World War I. A story remains famous. When a soldier complained that a lack of supplies and ammunition was preventing the force from fighting, Ataturk is said to have responded: "I am not ordering you to fight. I am ordering you to die." Tens of thousands did.

Fears of an Iranian shift
"Tayyip," passengers chanted, addressing the prime minister, "look at us. Run away while you have the chance."

"When you look at Iran, they, too, had a modern lifestyle before -- culture and everything else. Suddenly, it changed," Tugrul Ergin, 27, a student, said aboard the ferry. "If we don't hold on to Ataturk's principles, I think we'll face the same future."

Ergin and the others joined the rally, already in full swing. The street was awash in Turkish flags; others draped from balconies, as if marking a parade route. Martial songs evoked Ataturk's era and the war that led to Turkey's founding. "I was shot at Canakkale," one went. A minute of silence was marked for the soldiers who died in that war, observed by all but crying children. Handwritten banners addressed Erdogan's ruling party. "Be the same in both words and practice," one warned.

"We will never accept you who are helping those trying to divide our country," the speaker declared.

"We are here to shout, 'Enough is enough!' "

The national anthem followed. Its first words are "Don't fear." But fear was perhaps the defining sentiment this day.

"This is the first time I've done something like this in my life, but there's a time when you have to stand united against the religious ones," said Ugur Kahan, a 21-year-old medical student in Edirne, carrying a Turkish flag.

Preying on the uneducated?
Like others, he invoked the examples of Iran and Saudi Arabia. He accused the ruling party of exploiting the religious sentiments of the uneducated: "This is not a lie. A third of the people in this country are uneducated." In a sentiment heard often, he hoped the military -- as it has done four times since 1960 -- would step in if the ruling party decisively won this summer's election.

"Sometimes it's like surgery," he said. "You have to harm your patient to heal him. I hope things don't come to that point, but if I have to choose between living in a country ruled by Islamists and a country ruled by the military, I'll choose the military."

By late afternoon, the demonstrators -- by appearances well off, smartly dressed and seemingly urban, hardly a veil in sight -- began to trickle away. As they left, vendors hawked what was left of their flags, fluttering in a breeze off the Dardanelles. On the curb sat Fatma Durmaz, a 27-year-old computer technician who had boarded the bus in Istanbul at dawn. A lazy smile crossed her face.

"It's good to be with people with the same thoughts, the same feelings and the same excitement," she said.

Durmaz worried about what was ahead. "Islamic law," she feared, "and that would change everything, from A to Z."

"But we won't let it happen," she added. "We won't let them do what they want."