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Monday, 4 November, 2002, 08:56 GMT
Turkish pro-Islamic party on the rise
Children in slum district of Istanbul
Slum children receive aid from the AK Party
William Horsley

Turkey is unique, a secular democracy in an Islamic nation.

It is a key strategic ally of the US which borders Iraq. It cannot be allowed to fail - hence the massive loan from the International Monetary Fund which is saving Turkey from defaulting on its international debts.

Meryem - 18-year-old woman who wears a headscarf
Meryem cannot go to university in a headscarf
But the US, the IMF and others will soon be dealing with an entirely new set of faces following the victory of the AK (Justice and Development) party in Sunday's election.

Its a party with Islamist roots, founded earlier this year, which has been putting a strong emphasis on social welfare, and local activism.

In Istanbul's Gazi slum district, 18-year-old Meryem spoke of her grievances, which are sending her and thousands of others into the arms of the AK Party.

She suffers discrimination because of her attachment to a symbol of her faith.

"I wear an Islamic headscarf because the Koran says women should cover themselves," she says.

"When we were told to take off our headscarves I was in despair, but there is no way out."

Card players in coffee house
Workers' coffee houses are AK recruiting grounds

Meryem was forced to give up her place at a university.

She is also barred from any government job, as Islamic-style headscarves are banned in all state institutions.

Most Turks now see the army-imposed ban as wrong.

Grassroots network

In a crowded coffee house in Gazi the local AK Party chief, Yavuz Subasi is making many new recruits among the slum-dwellers.

Tanks on the streets
The army ousted the last pro-Islamic government

After years of economic crisis, most are out of work and desperate.

The state provides no effective welfare. But the Justice and Development Party has a grassroots network which gets food and other basics to the most needy.

And it promises to end the corruption and mismanagement in politics which have thrown millions into poverty.

The Turkish lira has collapsed to about one fifth of its value three years ago.

Foreign investment is scarce. The outgoing prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, saw his coalition government collapse from in-fighting and multiple scandals.

He hinted that if the AK Party won the election, the army might step in again - as it did five years ago - to safeguard Turkey's secular modernity.

Sharia sympathy

The AK Party's deputy leader, Abdullah Gul, was in the strongly Islamic-flavoured government headed by the Welfare Party which was ousted by the generals in 1997.

Abdullah Gul
Gul: Committed to secular creed of Ataturk

"When the army gets involved in politics we don't like it. We will do our job and they will do theirs," he told me.

The Welfare Party flirted with fundamentalism by seeking a leadership role for Turkey in the Islamic world, and showing sympathy for parts of Sharia law.

Mr Gul insists that the newly-formed AK Party is committed to the secular creed of Kemal Ataturk, known as the "father of modern Turkey".

But AK does want to lift the ban on wearing Islamic scarves in state buildings.

"It's not good that a Turkish girl who wears a scarf cannot go to university in Turkey, but she can in London, Paris, Bonn or Washington," says Abdullah Gul.

Pressure on EU

The AK Party has an unexpected ally in the European Union, which has laws upholding religious freedom.

Women wearing headscarves in market
Millions of Turks feel forgotten or scorned
Recently, the Justice and Development Party helped to vote through parliament a package of liberalising reforms aimed at speeding up Turkey's application to join the EU.

It commits Turkey to abolishing the death penalty and recognising the language rights of its Kurdish minority.

The changes in the law were timed to put pressure on EU leaders before a summit in December, when they must decide whether to accept Turkey's application to join this "European club".

Turkey now sternly demands a date for accession talks to begin, despite its chronic economic and administrative problems.

The AK Party's victory comes as millions of Turks feel forgotten or scorned - especially the young, the very poor, the Kurds and the Islamists.

They have stopped listening to the politicians' empty promises.

Turkey faces a narrow road to a more secure future.

The BBC's William Horsley
"A new party offers Islam with modernity and aims to take power soon"
Turkey's election

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10 Aug 02 | Europe
07 Aug 02 | Europe
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