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11 November 2002

Under Ataturk’s portrait

Mihir Bose finds more headscarves and less raki as Turkey's secular state faces creeping Is

By Mihir Bose

It was as I took the ferry from Bandirma to Istanbul, two days before Turkey went to the polls and handed a landslide victory to the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), that for the first time I began to understand the creeping Islamisation that the secularists of the country fear.

I had looked forward to the ferry ride: two hours in a large comfortable boat sipping drinks as we sailed the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul. But the waitress behind the bar was horrified when I asked for a drink and, shaking her head, said: “No, no, no sharab [the Turkish word for drink].”

I finally found a passenger who spoke English, but the explanation he gave was curious. Instead of Islamic rhetoric justifying the ban on drinks, there were some odd social reasons and a very apologetic tone. He said there were no drinks because it was a short ferry ride, there were women and children on board and the ship would dock in a part of Istanbul that is a strong Muslim area.

I had also noticed on the ferry two rooms reserved for prayers, one marked “women”, another “men” – indeed, I had stumbled on the men’s prayer room while looking for the loo. Throughout the trip, I noticed a steady stream of women wearing headscarves disappearing into the women’s prayer room. While many of the female passengers wore headscarves, there were also women who did not; many of these flaunted their blond hair colouring and walked past the prayer room without a glance.

In Istanbul, as I spoke to some friends, the pieces fell into place. The Istanbul municipality, which operates ferry boats such as the one I had taken, is controlled by the AKP. Its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had first come into political prominence as mayor of the city. The ban on drinks was clearly part of party policy.

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The prayer rooms, however, seemed a new development. Their existence surprised even these sharp-eyed monitors of any slide away from secularism, and one of them said: “If AK [as the party is known] get in, that is what we will face – creeping Islamisation.”

Until then, as I visited several parts of the country in the week leading up to the election, I had formed the strong impression that Turkey, the only secular Muslim country in the world, had mastered the art of divorcing religion and state.

My visit to Gallipoli had illustrated this perfectly. The little pension in Helles, overlooking the huge Turkish memorial commemorating the country’s victory over the British and the French in the First World War, was run by a man who appeared to epitomise the western concept of a secular Muslim.

The former head gardener of the Commonwealth war graves in Gallipoli, his walls were festooned with photographs of him with the Queen and Margaret Thatcher on their visits to Gallipoli, and his visitors’ book was replete with names of Australians, for whom Gallipoli is a shrine.

As we sat drinking red wine, he told me how he coped with Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting that has just begun throughout the Muslim world. For Ramadan he gave up drinking and also fasted during the day, eating only during the hours of darkness, as Islam dictates. But lest I mistook his strict diet for religious zeal, he patted his stomach and said that he always lost five or six kilos in weight: he made this supreme religious observance sound like the Muslim equivalent of Carol Vorderman’s detox.

His wife did not drink – she kept saying “sharab haram” (drink is evil) – but she gurgled with pleasure as her husband described their wedding day some 50 years ago when raki, the Turkish national drink, flowed.

Even the supporters of the AKP that I had met had been keen to emphasise that their support was not on religious but secular grounds: through the AKP they would rescue Turkey from its worst economic crisis in a generation; and the AKP leader, Erdogan, has, they pointed out, the reputation of being unsullied by the corruption that taints most Turkish politicians.

But on one thing they were all agreed. For all the Islamist leanings of the AKP, there was no questioning of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk is the man who created the Turkish republic in 1923, and ushered in its secular constitution under which women who wear headscarves cannot go to university or work for the public authorities.

Although Ataturk died in 1938, through excessive drinking of raki, his presence in modern Turkey is almost suffocating. His picture is mandatory in public places and I saw him everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except at a motorway cafe on the way to Gallipoli. When I mentioned to the owner that I saw no evidence of the great national hero anywhere, he looked very flustered and scratched his head. Then, immediately, he asked one of his assistants to drape a very large Turkish flag over the cafe’s window, to atone for his lapse.

On the Islamist party-controlled ferry boat, I also failed to see the obligatory picture of Ataturk; on the other hand, here I could not escape the very prominent memorial to Adnan Menderes, the prime minister executed by the army in 1961 and now seen as a populist Islamist predecessor of Erdogan.

In the great battle between religious orthodoxy and secularism, these examples may seem trivial; but, in Turkey, where the 1923 revolution stressed the need to break away from the lifestyle imposed by orthodox Islam, these are the pointers to where the new Islamist government will lead the country.

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