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Turkey Teeters as Islamists Challenge Old Secularism

A Mideast nation struggles to find a middle ground

FROM the plush green grass of Istanbul's Bosporus University to squalid slums where sewage runs freely through the street, a fervor for change has come over Turkey.

The country is in the midst of a religion-fueled identity crisis. It's trying to figure out whether it should be Western, Islamic, or whether it's possible to find a middle ground -- a model that Turks say does not exist in any other country.

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For the past 70 years, mostly Muslim Turkey's government has been controlled by a secular social, economic, and political system called ''Kemalism,'' named after the man who secularized the nation.

Under political and religious pressure, that system has eroded in the past decade, particularly so under Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's goverment. The move to dismantle Kemalism is energizing some and frightening others.

Angry secularists rioted over the government's failure to protect them from fundamentalist attacks last month.

''The political establishment is throwing overboard principles of Kemalism that have guided Turkey for the last 70 years,'' says a European Union official based in Ankara. ''The problem is there is no new vision, no new state philosophy being developed at the same time.''

Western diplomats see Turkey as a crucial regional player, stabilizing the turbulent Middle East to the south, the Caucasus to the west, and the Balkans to the east. With Mrs. Ciller visiting the United States this week in search of political support from the Clinton administration, some Western observers here say the US should wink at Turkey's ongoing 35,000-troop incursion against Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq.

''Turkey, for all of its faults, has done more for world peace in this region in the last 50 years than any other country,'' says one Western observer. ''Consider her neighbors -- Iraq, Iran ... it's the plug on the fundamentalist barrel. She's an amazingly pivotal country. If we sell her out, God knows what we might be entertaining.''

The problem, Turkish analysts say, is that Ciller is not filling the ideological vacuum she is creating as she enacts reforms. Corruption also remains a stubborn problem in her government.

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''I don't see public opinion viewing her as the person who will take us to the 21st century,'' says Mehmet Ali-Birand, a popular television journalist on trial for questioning the integrity of the Turkish military in one of his reports. ''She promised us flowers and beautiful skies and couldn't deliver, but she doesn't have a rival.''

Until the early 1980s, Turkey was intermittently ruled by the Turkish military or followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.

Ataturk -- his posthumously awarded name meaning father of the Turks -- declared Turkey pro-Western, nationalizing nearly all of the economy, and squelching ethnic groups in the hope of creating a ''Turkish'' nation.

But following a 1980 military coup, a true multiparty system began to develop in Turkey. In order to keep conservative parties in a coalition government, the Turkish government has recently begun using state funds to finance religious schools and the building of more mosques in Turkey -- a move bitterly criticized by secularists.

''[Ciller] pursues policies that help the fundamentalists,'' says Husnu Ondul, secretary general of the Ankara-based Turkish Human Rights Association, the largest human rights organization in Turkey. ''In the 1995 budget, an amount was spent on religious affairs that is more than the amount spent on the ministries of environment, tourism, transport, energy, and natural resources combined.''

Secularists say this government funding has fueled the growth of religion in Turkey, the main beneficiary of which has been a fundamentalist party known as the Welfare Party.

The WP stunned observers last March by winning municipal elections in Turkey's largest cities. The party opposes NATO membership and Turkey's entrance to the European Union. It also leads most opinion polls. WP leaders say the party's support stems from a public longing for a return to religion.

But residents of Baltimani, a mostly poor neighborhood in Istanbul, say they, too, are searching for a middle ground in politics and religion. ''We shouldn't deny the fact that we are Muslims,'' resident Haydar Dieur says, ''but being fundamentalists is wrong.''

Students at Bosporus University summed up both the expectation and unease hanging over Turkey as it sorts its new role. Students say they want a new Turkey that doesn't fit the traditional labels of Western or Eastern, secular, or fundamentalist.

''There is no model for us to follow,'' says Mehmet Ahioglu, a student.

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