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Turkey’s Justice and Development Party Clashes with Pro-Secular Establishment - 2004-05-18

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, led by former Islamists, is clashing with the country's pro-secular establishment as it tries to institute a series of reforms. The party says the reforms are about equality and justice, but the opposition says some of them are designed to increase the role of Islam in Turkey's avowedly secular society. The latest dispute centers around an education reform bill passed by the parliament last week and now awaiting action by the president.

Seyma, is a 15-year-old high school student who says she wants to become a cosmetic surgeon one day.

Seyma said that she believes that demand for cosmetic surgery is likely to grow in this predominantly Muslim country of 70 million, as the free market economy launched in the 1980s expands. Listening to Seyma elaborate on her business plans it is hard to picture her as an Islamic fundamentalist.

However, according to members of Turkey's pro-secular elite, Seyma is a potential threat to the determinedly pro-western policies introduced 80 years ago by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.

That is because Seyma attends a clerical training school, one of a group of such institutions known as the Imam Hatip schools. Established in the early 1950s to train imams and preachers, the schools soon began to attract students like Seyma, who, in addition to regular subjects such as math and literature, wanted to learn more about the Islamic faith.

As attendance began to swell in the Imam Hatip schools so too did fears among pro-secular Turks that graduates from the schools would go on to assume positions of influence in the bureaucracy and might try to implement policies that would steer the country toward a more Islamic path.

Such concerns grew when Turkey's first Islamist-led government took power in 1996.

Responding to such fears Turkey's rigidly pro-secular military eased that government out of power only a year later. Prodded by the military, the pro-secular parties that took charge began implementing a series of measures aimed at reducing the role of Islam in politics, among them a grading system that made it virtually impossible for religious school graduates to attend secular universities.

Government officials say last week's bill is a matter of fairness. They say it is simply aimed at allowing Imam Hatip graduates, as well as thousands of students from vocational training schools, to compete on an equal footing with graduates of secular high schools for university places.

Turkey's powerful military leaders disagree and in a strongly-worded statement earlier this month, they warned of the potential dangers facing the secular system if the president signs the bill into law.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an Imam Hatip school graduate. In an interview with VOA, he dismissed claims that his government is seeking to increase the role of religion in public life.

Mr. Erdogan argued that all he is trying to do is correct an injustice.

Mr. Erdogan also pointed out that all four of his children attended Imam Hatip schools, and scored very high points on university entrance exams, but because of what he terms the unfair grading system, none of them were able to attend university in Turkey. They are now studying in the United States.

Turkish Education Minister Huseyin Celik said that the main reason there is such opposition to the bill is that it drastically alters the way universities are run under a law that was drawn up by the military after its third and last direct intervention in government in 1980.

Mr. Celik added that the educational reform bill is just one of a series of democratic reforms adopted by the government in recent months to move the country forward and help its effort to join the European Union. He said that the reforms are opposed by university administrators and their backers in the military who believe they will lose influence if the reforms are implemented.

Analysts say Turkey's staunchly pro-secular president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is likely to veto the bill and send it back to the parliament where the ruling Justice and Development party has a firm majority. Under the constitution, if the parliament approves the bill again without any changes, the president can no longer veto it. However, he can apply for its annulment by the constitutional court, a process that could block its implementation well beyond the next academic year.