Fundamentalist Attack in Turkey Turkish Secularism Faces New Challenges

Turkey has long been seen as role model for Islamic nations wanting to curb fundamentalism. But a recent attack on several Turkish judges has the country in turmoil. Turkish secularism hangs in the balance.


The young woman who stood at the entrance to the Bayrak Barracks in Ankara wore her long blonde hair uncovered. She introduced herself as the new director of the garrison's kindergarten. But when the soldiers took a look at her ID card, they hesitated. The woman in the photograph was wearing an Islamic headscarf -- and in the strictly secular state of Turkey, women are not allowed to cover their hair when they work in public posts. The guards denied the woman entrance and reported the incident to their superiors.

It was the beginning of a long legal dispute which ended in defeat for the 32-year-old elementary school teacher Aytac Kilinc. Ever since then, she's had to teach in a village school -- which she was transferred to as punishment. This February, the country's highest administrative court reached a verdict that students can't reasonably be expected to see their teacher wear a headscarf -- not even on the way to school -- since this would be a "violation of the principles of the legal order." Policemen had observed Kilinc in her neighborhood and found out that she left the house wearing a headscarf.

But while the controversial verdict against Kilinc attracted massive attention across the country, it was what happened next that turned the case into international news: the six judges dealing with the case were in a meeting, and suddenly a man stormed in shouting "I am a soldier of Allah!" Only one of the judges managed to take shelter under a table when the man opened fire. The others were injured -- seriously in some cases. Mustafa Yücel Ozbilgin was struck in the head by a bullet; he died several hours after the attack.

Eleven gunshots fired at secularism

The attack seems to have been both religiously and politically motivated -- a bloody crime that has shaken the country to the core. It threatens Turkey's delicate balance between religion and state-imposed secularism.

The killer, 29-year-old Alparslan Arslan, cried out "Allahu Akbar -- God is great!" as he was handcuffed. He is said to have given the headscarf verdict as the reason for his attack. Investigators found clippings from a fundamentalist Islamic newspaper in his car. The newspaper featured a photograph of the judges with the caption, "That's them!"

"Eleven Gunshots Fired at Secularism," was the headline in the popular daily Miliyet -- the killer had fired 11 shots from his Glock handgun. Many Turks see the murder of the Ankara judge as an "attack on our secular republic," as President Ahmed Necdet Sezer described it. Sezer is considered an ardent defender of the strict secular system imposed by the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

One of the immediate results of the attack was a mass demonstration in the Turkish capital of Ankara as tens of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate in favor of secularism, which excludes religion from the state's everyday activities. Images of Atatürk were plentiful. Led by judges and attorneys, they flocked to the monumental Atatürk mausoleum in the heart of the city with many kissing the stone on his grave and crying as children sang patriotic hymns.

Political camps

For more than three years, political stability -- not always the norm -- reigned in Turkey. The economy enjoyed a lasting boom, and the government pursued its program of reform with an eye to joining the European Union. Now the country is experiencing serious turmoil. All of a sudden, the political camps are squaring off once again. On one side stand the defenders of the secular order -- the Kemalists from the ranks of politicians, judges and military men. On the other side stands the moderately Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A power struggle has begun between the republic's old elites and the new religious forces in Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP). The critics of the AKP accuse it of wanting to strengthen the influence of Islam in the political system, despite the Western reforms that have been pushed through. The party, which has ruled with an absolute majority since 2002, is faced with serious difficulties. Do early elections -- as the press has been speculating -- and dramatic electoral losses lie ahead?

The funeral service for the dead judge became a public vote of no confidence in the Erdogan administration. "Down with the government!", "Erdogan -- Murderer!" and "Send the mullahs to Iran!" were some of the slogans shouted by the crowd. Plastic bottles were hurled at government ministers along with insults.

The prime minister made no appearance. He was visiting a party meeting in the tourist town of Antalya on Turkey's southern coast. For many, this was a sign of weakness -- and an insult. Not so long ago, in contrast, Erdogan made a routine public appearance at the funeral of an officer who had driven over a landmine laid by the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK).

But the public funeral became a demonstration of strength -- broadcast live on national television -- for the military, which sees itself as the upholder of public order. The general staff was welcomed with applause and uniformed soldiers carried the corpse of the murdered judge.

The country's secular forces accuse the government of having aggravated tensions by its criticism of the headscarf verdict. They accuse it of having sown the seeds of the attack. "Those politicians and journalists who irresponsibly encouraged people to criticize court decisions share responsibility for the attack," the president of the highest administrative court, Sumru Cörtoglu, stated in a declaration on behalf of the country's judicial bodies.

"The annihilation of the secular republic"

The headscarf has become the ultimate symbol in the conflict between the country's secular and religious currents. No other issue is as explosive socially and politically and no other issue provokes such strong emotional reactions.

Not long ago, the prime minister engaged in a public debate with former president Süleyman Demirel in public. The latter had stated that those who wanted to wear a headscarf during their university studies could always go to Saudi Arabia. The often irritable prime minister erupted: Demirel himself should go to Saudi Arabia, he barked back.

Demirel had touched on a sensitive nerve -- Erdogan's political failure on the headscarf issue. His party, after all, once promised its voters to at least moderate the country's strict ban on headscarves.

Neither students nor teachers, nor doctors or public employees are allowed to cover their hair. The ban also applies to the wives of leading AKP politicians who wear headscarves -- such as Erdogan's spouse Emine and the wife of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, Hayrünnisa. They're not invited when President Sezer holds state receptions -- and for months a heated debate discussion has been going on in Turkey as to whether Erdogan could be allowed to become President -- which seems to be his ambition -- given that his wife wears a headscarf.

Until now, the government's secular strategy has been both rigorous and successful. Turkey seemed to have dealt with the growing danger of fundamentalism more successfully than any other Islamic country.

But now, just when a moderate Islamic government is actively chasing membership in the European Union, fundamentalist forces are recruiting new supporters -- and collaborating with right-wing nationalists. "Their goal is the annihilation of the secular republic, the destruction of the reform laws," wrote Hürriyet.

The gunman Alparslan Arslan also comes from a fundamentalist background influenced by a blend of radical Islam and nationalism. The modern clothes he wore during the attack -- a beige business suit and a light blue shirt -- were merely a disguise. His hair was trimmed fashionably.

He obviously prepared the attack meticulously. He was seen in the court building the day before the attack -- as a lawyer, he had free access. A court assistant came by just as he was trying to open the door of one of the judge's chambers. "Do you need help?" the man asked. "No, I was just checking something," Arslan mumbled and walked away.

He came back the next day. The Glock handgun he was carrying wasn't spotted at the security checkpoint and the security cameras weren't working that day either. Nothing stood in Arslan's way as he went to meet the judges.

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