(Montreal, September 2000) The Message Of Islam Foundation hosted a talk on "The Condition Of Muslims In Turkey." The speaker was Lutfu Esengun, who is a sitting member of the Turkish parliament and the Deputy Chairman of the Turkish Islamist Virtue Party (in Turkish The Fazilet Party).
Mr. Esengun began his talk with a brief history of the opposition to Islam in Turkey with the fall of Ottoman Empire, the abolishment of the Khalifate, and the military takeover of Turkey which set up a secular, anti-Islamic constitution. When Kamal Ataturk came to power in Turkey, he laid the foundation of the modern state of Turkey and put the country on the path of secularism. Symbols of the past, including the head scarf for women and the fez for men, were banned. The Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Roman alphabet for the Turkish language. In Ataturk's vision, Turkey was to be a European country closely associated with the West.
Mr. Esengun painted a grim picture of the condition of Muslims in his country. The fiercely secular anti Islamic military has spared no efforts to crush the Islamic movement in Turkey. In recent times, among other things, Turkey has witnessed the closing of Quranic schools, further banning of the hijab in the work place and schools, and not allowing children any Islamic education until the age of 16. The army also wants to purge the government of what it sees as a "broad Islamist infiltration" which they feel will undermine and ultimately destroy the Turkish state. This proposed purge has long been demanded by the army as part of a wider crackdown that resulted in 1997 in the collapse of a year-old Islamist-led government. The newly-appointed president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, however, raised military eyebrows by refusing to sign the government decree for the purge, but instead sent the bill to parliament where it is sure to stir a divisive debate.
Many other human rights abuses against Muslims are taking place in Turkey which are too many to mention here, but most recently a human rights group called "Human Right Watch" issued a report on human rights abuses in Turkey which you can read on their website at
Turkey has long sought admission into the European Union (EU). The Virtue Party was initially opposed to Turkey's EU membership saying that Turkey was more attached to the Islamic countries. But lately, according Mr. Esengun, the Virtue party now supports EU membership because it will place pressure on the Turkish Military to respect human rights as a result of pressure from the EU which will not accept Turkey's admission into the EU until it improves its human rights record. Any improvement in human rights in Turkey will only be good for Muslims, Mr. Esengun argues.
The Turkish military's secular vision is staunchly enforced in Turkey, and criticizing it can be considered illegal under laws that bar inciting hatred based on religious differences, But Mr. Esengun stressed that the Turkish constitution, which was written by the Military in 1980 and is thus not even an expression of the will of the people, is being violated by the very people who drafted it in the first place. He noted that the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from harassment from the authorities for holding any religious beliefs. But this is not the case for Muslims.
"If Turkey was really secular," said Esengun, "then the Military would leave us alone as secularism implies that the government would not interfere in people's religious belief and practice."
The Virtue Party is in jeopardy of being closed down by the military altogether. Its precursor, the Welfare Party, was banned in 1998, and its leader Necmettin Erbakan was banned from politics for life and currently faces a one year imprisonment for a speech he gave six years ago. In July of this year, after appealing the decision, the courts upheld a one-year prison sentence against the 74-year-old former Prime Minister. In the 1994 speech, for which he is being charged, he criticized the fact that Turkish students open their school day by reciting nationalist slogans and not Quranic verses. In addition, he described pro-secular deputies as "infidels." He is due to be arrested any day now.
The Virtue Party is now in a court battle on charges that it is merely a continuation of the banned Welfare party and the center of "fundamentalist activity", which the military says threatens Turkey's secular order. The case will come to court this month. Although Mr. Esengun is optimistic they will win, it is almost certain that the Virtue party will too be banned, which could in turn spark another election in Turkey, and be yet other serious setback for the Islamic movement there.
(Yahya Abdul Rahman lives in Montreal Canada, and is the editor of the online Islamic News and Information Network at www.inin.net.)