Turks to worry about creeping Islamic way of life

A large sign at the gates of Ankara's new city-run lakeside park and restaurant complex reads: CONSUMING ALCOHOL IS FORBIDDEN. And when the city's oldest park reopens after refurbishment next year, it will be without its famed open-air bars. Across the country, restaurants managed by municipalities are implementing a dry policy, irking secular Turks who say the government is stamping a Muslim way of life on Turkey, even as the country enacts Western-leaning reforms in hopes of joining the European Union.

Separately, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development party has enacted a law giving mayors the power to issue liquor licenses and designate areas where alcohol can be consumed.

Mayors from Erdogan's party have been acting aggressively on their new rights, although they have not yet targeted privately-owned establishments.

Erdogan insists he has shed his Islamist past and that his party, while conservative, respects the country's secular principles. But many suspect Justice and Development is secretly implementing an Islamic vision.

"Let's not be fooled," wrote Tufan Turenc, a political commentator for the mass-circulation Hurriyet newspaper. "(Erdogan's party) is slowly wrapping the Islamic blanket around us."

It's not just the alcohol-free zones that are troubling secular Turks.

Last month, the state-run standards institute announced it would introduce "halal" certificates for food that meets Muslim religious dietary requirements.

A new women-only swimming pool and gym run by the Ankara municipality and plans to build a mosque inside an Istanbul park that is already surrounded by mosques have also caused many Turks to suspect Islamic mores are creeping into official policy.

In one bizarre case, a retired professor reportedly sent a letter to Erdogan conveying a message from the late leader of a religious order who appeared in his dream and made suggestions on how to improve the education system.

Newspapers reported the letter was relayed to the Education Ministry, which in turn sent it to the board in charge of higher education for review. The incident prompted cries in secular circles that the country was being run by religious revelation.

Erdogan has also come under scrutiny for criticizing the Strasbourg, France-based European Court of Human Rights' ruling against a Turkish woman's challenge to Turkey's ban on wearing Islamic head scarves at the country's universities.

To Erdogan's claims that Islamic scholars should have been consulted about the case, Haluk Koc, a leading member of the secular Republican People's Party, retorted: "Turkey will not be a state ruled by ayatollahs."

"Turkey's modern gains cannot be disposed of so cheaply, so easily, as though there is no tomorrow," Koc said.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern and secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, abolished Sharia law, banned religious orders and turned imams into state employees to contain the power of religious figures. He instituted sweeping reforms, adopting the Western calendar and Latin script while giving women full civil and political rights.

Erdogan's party rejects charges that it is trying to implement an Islamic agenda.

"Our program aims to improve the welfare of all," said Deputy Prime Minister Abdullatif Sener. "Our party is not one which spreads ideology."

Despite the Quran's discouragement of alcohol consumption, liquor is legal in Turkey and raki, a potent aniseed-based spirit, is the national drink.

On Monday, the Ankara Bar Association filed a lawsuit to try to overturn the municipalities' right to restrict alcohol sales to certain areas, saying it was unconstitutional and an affront to freedoms.

Last week, the Mediterranean resort of Antalya, which is run by Erdogan's party, designated the whole city a "wet area" out of fear that an alcohol ban could hurt tourism.

At Ankara's new complex on the shores of Lake Mogan on the outskirts of Ankara, there is no alcohol on restaurant menus and visitors are not allowed to drink in picnic areas. The city's oldest park, Genclik, is under renovation and will reopen late 2006 without its popular open-air bars.

"Those who want to take alcohol can go to facilities outside of the municipality-run places," Erdogan said. "As a state institution the municipalities can never set a bad example."

Erdogan insisted the mayors were acting in line with the constitution, which gives them the right to take measures to protect the environment and health. I.L.

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