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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 August 2006, 18:59 GMT 19:59 UK
'Islamist conspiracy' fear in Turkey
By Paul Henley
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Turkey has long been valued by the West as a secular Muslim ally but now one former military officer tells the BBC that secularism is under threat, and that the army won't stand for it.

General Haldun Solmaztuerk, former
General Solmaztuerk talks of Islamist groups infiltrating the army
Haldun Solmaztuerk is a former brigadier general in the Turkish army.

He has seen active service in the direst days of guerrilla war in the Kurdish south-east, as well in Somalia and in Bosnia.

As he watches an elderly woman inch her way up a marble staircase on an extremely hot day in Ankara, he is moved to tears.

"It's nearly 40 degrees today. And here there are people of all ages and backgrounds - small children, old people who can barely walk, climbing these steps because they want to pay their respects.

"You see, we owe everything to this man," he says.

The man he is talking about died nearly 70 years ago.

But the presence of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, "Father of the Turks", is still felt very keenly.

"Without Ataturk we would not have any Turkish Republic," says the general.

Symbols of unity?

We walk between stone lions guarding a half-mile long avenue which leads to the distinctive white and red of the Turkish flag and his hero's grandiose mausoleum.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's Mausoleum
Ataturk founded the republic and became its first president
"We are in the heart of that republic now.

"It is a symbol not just of power, but of unity, of the whole nation together without any differentiation between ethnic origins," he says.

Symbols of such unity seem a little over-optimistic in today's Turkey, marked as it is by the regular bomb attacks of separatist Kurdish groups.

In the towns and villages of the south-east, where support for the outlawed armed gangs of the PKK runs high, local officials sit with what must be permanently gritted teeth beneath the de-rigueur portraits of Ataturk.

But there is another perhaps more significant reason why the Father of the Turks deeply divides his 70 million "children".

And it is about more than ethnic difference. It has to do with religion.

Divisive figure

The briefest search of the name Ataturk on the internet reveals website after website of invective, as well as praise.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Ataturk turned Turkey into a new Europe-looking nation
"He was truly an enemy of Allah to the core," writes one Islamist thinker.

Ataturk made Turks look West, not East, for their cultural and political inspiration.

As well as giving women the vote and introducing the Latin alphabet for the written Turkish language for the first time, he formed the secular state with a divide between religion and government enshrined clearly in law.

The ban on women wearing headscarves in public institutions, which he is seen to have inspired, endures as one of the issues that most incites bitterness, even violence, in Turkey today.

For General Haldun Solmaztuerk, Ataturk's principles have never been more politically relevant.

General Solmaztuerk retired from the military last year, but he sees himself and his country as involved in a daily battle with forces he says are trying to destroy the gap between mosque and parliament and ultimately make Turkey an Islamic state under Sharia law.

"The enemy,"he says, "is a way of thinking, of subjecting political decisions to religious rules.

"I believe I am in line with values held dear by the EU and all Western democracies."

Religious roots

Turkey's government strongly denies that it wants to undermine secularism.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Mr Erdogan has disavowed the hardline Islamic views of his past
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an eager proponent of Turkey joining the European Union, recently stressed the need to "strengthen democracy, secularism... and the rule of law."

But there is an increasing number of people in Turkey who doubt his secular credentials.

His government has its roots in a party banned several years ago for allegedly trying to Islamise the country.

His so far unsuccessful efforts to ease the headscarf ban, to promote religious vocational schools, to criminalise adultery and discourage alcohol consumption have outraged the secularists who are prominent in Turkey's judiciary, academia and above all in its military.

Raison d'etre

Solmaztuerk cannot speak for the military, not officially. No-one, it seems, is prepared to do that.

With a refusal to allow the BBC any access to serving personnel or bases, the army preserves its reputation for secretiveness.

Being in the armed forces has meant everything to me
General Solmaztuerk

But he is hardly a man to step out of line with the institution which gives him his very raison d'etre.

"When I was 11 years old I was determined to become a soldier," he says, accompanied by the rhythmic boot-thuds of the changing of the guard at the Ataturk mausoleum."

"Being in the armed forces has meant everything to me... because the Turkish army is not any army.

"Institutions in this country are ineffective, bureaucracy is lazy... politicians are abusing democracy."

Inside the Turkish Military was broadcast on Thursday 31 August at 1102 BST.

The army is Turkey's most trusted institution but it is not so popular with the EU.

There have been three coups since 1960. Each time the army has quickly handed back power to civilians.

But a priority for the EU is that the military scale back its political influence. For example, the EU has made sure that the military budget is now under Parliamentary control.

Threat of 'civil' action by the army

General Solmaztuerk's fear is that if the EU continues to water down the military's power it will be easy to narrow the separation between state and mosque.

And he goes further than criticism of government policy.

He talks of secretive Islamic groups "infiltrating" the army's ranks.

"They see the army as the main obstacle to achieving their aim of an Islamic republic," he says.

And he claims their method would mirror "orders given in the late 70s by Khomeini to some Iranian officers to kill their generals and launch the revolution".

General Solmaztuerk warns that if creeping Islamisation of politics, as he sees it, continues, there may be what he ominously refers to as "civil action by the military": a "soft coup" whereby popular demonstrations are backed by a military threat forcing the government to resign.

Asked if the army would be prepared to back their threats with tanks, he says: "In future if this veiled threat will be required, I personally believe it will be available."

The European Union, he concludes, should take note.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 31 August 2006, and repeated on Monday, 4 September 2006 at 2030 BST.

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