Turkey’s president warns of Islamist threat

Turkey’s president warns of Islamist threat; says army must be kept strong

The Associated Press

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2006

 

ANKARA, Turkey Turkey’s staunchly pro-secular president warned on Sunday of a continued Islamic fundamentalist threat to Turkey and said the military, the traditional guardians of the secular system, must be kept powerful. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer was speaking at the formal opening of the legislative year, his last address to parliament before he steps down as president in May 2007. His words appeared to be aimed at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which has Islamic roots, and against the European Union which has been pressuring Turkey into curbing the military’s powers. Sezer spoke of increased measures that were “rolling back” the gains of the secular republic, and said these were increasing tension in the country. They included the appointment of Islamic-minded officials to key civil service positions, recent statements by officials in Erdogan’s party questioning the definition of secularism and efforts to “make religion part of society and to reflect it in politics.” “The threat of Islamic fundamentalism continues to exist,” the president said. “The secular system must be protected, state organs must be effectively used.” “Keeping the Turkish Armed Forces strong is, and has been, our most important priority,” Sezer said. “The Armed Forces are the guarantee of the existence and continuation of our country and of our political regime.” The military views itself as the protector of Turkey’s secular identity. The fiercely secular generals have staged three coups between 1960 and 1980, and in 1997 led a campaign that pressured a pro-Islamic government out of power. The EU has repeatedly called on Turkey to limit the role of the military in state affairs. The government reacted saying it did not accept Sezer’s remarks. “I don’t agree with the president’s comments that fundamentalist activities are on the rise,” said Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin, who is overseeing the government’s day-to-day working while Erdogan is in the United States for talks with President George W. Bush. “If there are any people or organizations that are engaged in activities to form a state based on religious principles, we the state, the government and the security forces go after them,” Sahin said. Erdogan’s government denies it has an Islamic agenda, but pro-secular Turks charge the government is slowly moving the country toward increased religious rule, threatening the secular state that was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Since taking power, Erdogan showed his commitment to European Union membership by enacted sweeping reforms that allowed the country to start accession talks last year. But he has also stoked secularist concerns by speaking out against restrictions on wearing Islamic-style headscarfs in government offices and schools and taking steps to bolster 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. Although largely ceremonial, the presidency has become a symbol for secularism under Sezer. A former Constitutional Court judge, Sezer has vetoed a record number of laws he deemed to be in violation of the secular constitution and has blocked government efforts to appoint hundreds of reportedly Islamic-oriented candidates to important civil service positions. “The state’s … order cannot be based on religious rules,” Sezer said, citing the Constitution. “Religion or religious sentiments … cannot be used for personal or political gains.” “Those who have been appointed have as much responsibility as those who have been elected in safeguarding the (secular) regime,” the president said.

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