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Last Updated: Friday, 7 October 2005, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
Islam tests secular Istanbul
A visitor walks past a poster depicting a woman wearing a veil made from an EU flag
Modern and conservative attitudes mix uneasily in Turkey
The Turkish city of Istanbul is at the crossroads between the West and the Islamic world. In a secular country where 98% of people are Muslim, what dominates the city - religion or secularism?

With its high-fashion shops, bars and pavement cafes, Nisantasi is the most westernised part of Istanbul. Many of the city's richest and most beautiful people walk these streets.

What are the values of the people here?

"When you look from the outside, it looks like Istanbul is not as glamorous as this," says one guest at a champagne reception at the fashion house Valentino.

"However, I think religion and life standards are two different things... we shouldn't consider Istanbul as a very religious place, and we shouldn't consider Turkey as a very religious country."

Another said she believed that "you can be a religious person, but you can also lead a very modern life".

"I would describe myself as a thinking, working, secular Muslim woman, who is proud of being a Turkish citizen," she added.

Transitional process

But for women around the city's famous Fatih mosque, "religion is the crown on our heads".

This is one of Istanbul's most typically conservative areas.

Here, the streets are packed with men wearing traditional headgear and beards, and in particular, women wearing traditional headscarves.

One explained how she had received guidance in the conservative neighbourhood after she moved there with her husband.

TURKISH OPINION ON RELIGION
Muslims praying on Istanbul's streets
91% say "we are religious people"
55% describe themselves as "moderate"
85% believe someone who does not pray can still be a Muslim
"They all influenced me," she said.

"They also gave me moral and material support."

Sahin Alpay, a lecturer in political science and columnist on Zaman, one of the biggest-selling daily newspapers in Turkey, explained that much of the affected religious zeal in some parts of Istanbul was down to a desire to belong to a community.

He said sociologists believed until the middle of the 20th Century that religion would decline in the face of secularism, but Turkey had proved this was not the case.

"This argument is smashed by the realities of the world," he added.

"Turkey is in between a modern and a traditional society. This transitional process is very difficult for people who move from the rural areas to the cities.

"When they settle in the cities, they are confronted with a lot of socio-economic and psychological problems. And who provides them with solidarity? Not the Turkish state.

"So what happens is that the Islamic solidarity networks come into the picture."

Many Turks are split over what religious direction the country is moving in, in particular since 2002, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice And Development Party came to power.

'Copyright on Islam'

Mr Alpay argues that the last three years have seen Turkey become increasingly secular.

"This party, which has its roots in the Islamist movement in Turkey, has declared that it has fully adopted secularism, fully adopted democracy, and will have no relation, no influence of religion in political affairs," he said.

"You can imagine this is a great advance for Turkey.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
There is division over the direction Mr Erdogan's party is taking Turkey
"By having the former Islamist party changing its position and adopting secularism, I think Turkey has gone a step forward in strengthening its secular regime."

But for others, like writer and artist Bedri Baykam - a staunch secularist, and one of the leaders of a movement dedicated to upholding the secular values of the republic - a soft religious revolution is under way.

For Mr Baykam, the country has been forced "more and more into an anti-secular and pro-Islamic wave" by the government.

He quoted the previous leader of the Justice And Development Party, Necmettin Erbakan - the leader of the first pro-Islamic government since 1923 - who said: "Turkey is going to change its regime towards fundamentalism - the debate is whether it is going to be with blood or without."

He also argued that Turkey's bid for EU membership meant that Europeans were being "led to believe that this is a soft, moderate, Islamic democracy".

"The reality is that we do not want to be called a moderate Islamic democracy. We are, and we want to be, a real democracy, totally secular.

"Islam is our belief, it stays within our hearts or within the mosque. It should have nothing to do with politics."

Mr Baykam said that Turkey's secular people were very respectful towards religion - "it is just that the party of Erdogan want to control, as if they have the copyright on the Islamic lifestyle and the law of Allah".

"They behave as if religion belongs to them, and not to the other parties."


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