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Struck Down in Turkey, Islam Coils

Banning of Islamic party by secularists on Friday has 'class component' that could fuel a popular backlash.

Turkey's divisive political war between secularists and Islamists has come to a crucial point, and the battle lines could not be more clearly drawn.

On one side, the all-powerful military and elites are fighting to preserve the secular ideology of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. For them, the legal ruling that shut down the pro-Islamic Refah (Welfare) Party on Friday was a relief, a triumph, the coup de grce of their year-long campaign to stop the "threat" of "Islamic infiltration" in Turkish society.

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But on the other side of this front line, the Islamists say they are fighting for democracy, and for Islam to be recognized at least as an everyday - and official - part of daily life for most Turks.

For them, the high court ruling that banned Welfare's top leaders from politics and closed the party - which won more votes than any other in the last parliamentary elections - is a big setback, but no more. Critics point out that statements by some Welfare officials show that the party has feigned democracy only as a means to gain power.

Judging by the often-exagerrated secular rhetoric, the court decision has averted an Algeria-style bloodletting, or an Iran-style Islamic takeover of Turkey. And though the highly respected military has three coups under its belt, analysts say, this time it got its way in a less violent manner.

But few believe the Welfare Party or its supporters will go away. Necmettin Erbakan, the Welfare leader who was prime minister for a year in 1996-1997 and has now been barred from politics for five years, on Sunday made clear that "this [Islamic] ideal will definitely be materialized by the children of this country no matter what the names of the parties and the organizations will be."

The battle for Turkey's future - and its day-to-day reliance on an ideology six decades old, which strictly separates mosque and state - cuts to the heart of the republic. The military is the self-appointed guarantor of the secular precepts that form Kemalism, but the increasing popularity of Welfare, which has taken advantage of gaps left by corrupt, weak, and out-of-touch secular regimes, may prove to be the Army's toughest challenge.

"This decision has everything to do with the relevance of 'Kemalism' at the end of the 20th century. It is one of the few ideologies left that has not met its catharsis," says a Western diplomat here. "Closing Welfare is a way of ducking, avoiding that defining moment."

Welfare was officially shut down because it violated a law that prohibits any attempt "to change the secular character of the Turkish Republic." The United States and European Union made it clear that the decision was a blow to democracy.

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A popular response?

Critics argue that closing Welfare may give extremists reason to launch a violent response - precisely the result that the military and secular elites say they fear and want to avoid.

Welfare's strong following has come from years of grass-roots political work, running virtually corruption-free local councils, and helping the poor, whose needs have not been met by secular governments.

Both Istanbul and Ankara, the two largest cities, are run by Welfare mayors whose rule has been widely applauded.

With 6 million votes to back it up - some 24 percent of the last vote tally - Welfare has already begun to reinvent itself for the future, deciding among new names - including Virtue - and symbols, and says it will gain even more support.

"The message [of this support] is that gross levels of corruption - black Mercedeses and shopping trips to Paris - have been noticed and are just not acceptable," says a Western analyst. "There is a perception of this elite like Latin America, where most eat potato skins while some eat caviar. In Turkey, this gap is a lot scarier than Islam."

A legacy of mistakes

But even as Islamists work for political rebirth, analysts say, it may be hard to shake their legacy of mistakes made during their rule at the top. Mr. Erbakan was the first Islamist head of state in modern Turkey, but his hard-line rhetoric and actions easily fueled the anxiety of the military and other secular leaders.

Islamic principles would one-day dominate Turkey, he once said, whether the path was "sweet or bloody."

Diplomats and Welfare supporters alike tick off a list of mistakes, including several foreign policy misadventures. In 1996, Erbakan made a high-profile visit to Libya, where he was snubbed by Muammar Qaddafi, and formed a "Development 8" grouping meant to counter the West's G-7. Pulling together countries as diverse as Nigeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Malaysia, the D-8 has now been quietly forgotten.

Erbakan also had an ambiguous view toward Europe and is the first Turkish leader not to visit any Western country - this despite Turkey's important role as the eastern anchor of the NATO alliance and as a trade partner with Europe.

At home, many say that Welfare could have done more for disenfranchised minority Kurds as fellow Muslims. And few forget that the party did nothing - and even nodded its assent - during the recent banning of a pro-Kurdish party.

For many Turks, such actions confirm the risks of Islamic rule - and the original wisdom of Ataturk.

"The alternative is an ideology that is 1,400 years old, so you stick to the 60-year-old one," says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute. The fall of the Ottoman Empire is blamed on the misuse of Islam, he says, so the republic "washed its hands of religion."

But some also argue that, mixed up with the religious debate, is a division between the rich and poor.

"There has always been a class component with Kemalism, which comes from this elite mindset: 'We know what is good for those people,' " says a Western diplomat here.

"These [secular] guys all went to the same schools, and have small circles of friends and enemies," adds a European diplomat. "They are all amazingly out of touch with the society they run."

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