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Turkey’s secular establishment grows impatient with Islamic government

February 28, 1997

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ Turkey’s secular establishment is growing increasingly impatient with an Islamic government that is striving to increase Islam’s hold on this NATO-member country.

A statement by President Suleyman Demirel earlier this week, saying that he would dissolve Parliament and call for elections if he had broader powers, showed his discontent.

``If people on the street are saying, `Any government but this one’ ... it is a sign of anger,″ Demirel said Monday in an interview with Hurriyet, a daily newspaper.

Turkey is governed by a coalition including the Islamic-inspired Welfare Party led by Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and the center-right True Path Party. The partnership is just eight months old but already the Welfare Party, its senior member, has caused alarm.

To the dismay of supporters of the secular system, the government rearranged work hours to fit fasting times during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Its proposal to build a huge mosque in Istanbul’s liveliest downtown square and to allow female civil servants to wear Islamic head coverings were further challenges to secular traditions.

The party now wants civil servants to be granted time off so they can pray every afternoon for 15 minutes.

Such efforts fly in the face of the secular structure of this Muslim country, which has separated religion and government since 1923.

Demirel has become increasingly vocal, giving interviews to the Turkish media almost daily _ something he did rarely in the past. And he is not the only one speaking out.

Admiral Guven Erkaya, the naval commander, said recently that radical Muslim movements were a bigger threat to Turkey than the Kurdish separatists fighting in the south.

The army last month sent tanks rolling through the streets of Sincan, a small town just outside Ankara, after its mayor, a Welfare Party member, organized a pro-Islamic regime rally.

``We did a tune-up on democracy,″ Gen. Cevik Bir, the military’s No. 2 official, was quoted by Turkish newspapers as saying during a visit to Washington last week.

The army regards itself as the protector of Turkey’s secular traditions. Erbakan has been a frequent critic of Turkey’s pro-Western policies and its key role in NATO.

Turkey has the second largest military in NATO and an army of 750,000. The military has staged takeovers three times since 1960, with the last military-led government running from 1980-83. The interventions generally have been welcomed by the public.

Demirel, a former prime minister whom the military twice removed from office, has spoken firmly against another coup.

``The army is also part of this society,″ Demirel said in another recent interview. ``If the people are unhappy, it is normal that the soldiers will be unhappy too.″

But two major newspapers reported on Thursday that Demirel sent a letter to Erbakan urging him to back off from hard-line Islamic policies.

Although both Demirel’s office and Erbakan denied the report, it is likely that the president warned Erbakan verbally.

The military members of an influential advisory council were expected to query Erbakan about his intentions during a meeting Friday, newspapers reported.