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Turkish leaders try to counter growing fundamentalism

The upsurge of Muslim fundamentalism in Turkey and an intensive campaign supported by some of its neighboring Islamic countries for the all-out Islamization of the country is causing concern among leaders, politicians, and intellectuals here. President Kenan Evren, in a widely televised tour of conservative provinces, warned against attempts to restore theocracy in Turkey -- a danger he called as serious as communism and fascism. Mr. Evren appealed particularly to the conservative masses in the rural areas to distinguish between normal religious practices and fanaticism. Evren's efforts are the result of growing reports of instances of religious fundamentalism. These include:

The headman of a village near Denizli in western Turkey who banned the watching of television in coffee shops during the time of prayer.

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``Those people should be in the mosques and not in the coffee shops when the muezzin calls the community to prayer,'' he said. He ordered a $50 fine for those who disobey his order.

In one Istanbul district, a Muslim preacher appealed to women during his sermon to stop reading newspapers and watching televison, because they depicted women ``dressed improperly or undressed.''

In the city of Izmir, speakers at a rally of the newly established pro-Islamic Welfare Party pledged to set up a new order in Turkey, where ``not even the fingernails of women would be seen in public.''

For those Turks who favor Westernization -- started more than 60 years ago by Turkey's first president, Kemal Ataturk -- these are grave signs of a ``reactionary'' campaign, designed to destroy the secular and modern structure of the nation.

But for the ``conservative'' Turks this is a normal manifestation of the nation's spiritual tendencies. They feel it is well in line with the broad concept of secularism and provides for freedom of conscience and the right to maintain religious traditions.

Minister of the interior, Yildirim Akbulut, has said that secret extremist organizations ``linked to foreign countries'' have been conducting activities designed to provoke ``an Islamic revolution.'' But, Mr. Akbulut told the Turkish parliament recently, ``The government has the situation under control. . . .''

Security departments around the country have been told to keep a close watch on cases of Islamic fundamentalism. Books, leaflets, and other literature advocating an Islamic revolution and an end to secularism have reportedly been distributed in many parts of the country. An independent member of parliament, Rustu Sardag, has said Iran is behind most of these activities and that the Khomeini regime is systematically conducting a propaganda campaign against Turkey's secular system.

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There are also reports of a rapid growth of sectarian activities banned under existing laws. Several religious sects have reportedly established underground centers and schools. In some areas these sects are said to be imposing their own rules on the inhabitants.

However, while Evren and the opposition publicly express their concern over these developments, Prime Minister Turgut Ozal seems less worried about the situation.

``There is no serious threat of extremism,'' he said. ``The government is quite sensitive on this issue. There is no point launching a public debate on . . . secularism, because this can hurt the feelings of the true believers.''

Mr. Ozal is a devout Muslim, but has liberal ideas. However, his Motherland Party relies to a great extent on grass-roots, pro-religious, conservative support. The party, which holds the majority in parliament, has rejected a motion for a debate on the issue of the resurgence of religious extremism. Ozal also oppposed the debate and warned against attacking Islamic countries and their leaders, as has recently been the case in the press.

``This can jeopardize our relations with these countries,'' he said. ``Their system is their internal affair. But if they are involved in some activities in Turkey, then our authorities can always prevent them from doing so, in accordance with our laws.''

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