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Turkish Politician Faces Charges of Promoting Islam

Turkey's most popular politician finds himself in court on charges of promoting Islamic fundamentalism, only days after he established a new political party. Political bans are nothing new for Tayyib Erdogan. He was forced to step down as Istanbul's first Islamic mayor in 1998 after the constitutional court ruled that he had sought to provoke a religious rebellion by publicly reciting a nationalist poem. Mr. Erdogan was banned from politics for life.

Mr. Erdogan insists that his conviction had been expunged under a controversial amnesty law passed last year. But Turkey's pro-secular chief prosecutor, Sabih Kanadoglu disagrees and has asked the constitutional court to have Mr. Erdogan removed from the leadership of the party he founded last month.

Analysts see the move as part of an ongoing campaign led by Turkey's militantly pro-secular armed forces to snuff out political Islam. Mr. Erdogan strenuously denies being an Islamist even though he spent all his political career working for Islamic parties. He says his Justice and Development Party does not want to establish an Islamic state and is a party for all Turks, religious or not. Mr. Erdogan says the world has changed and so, too, have his views.

Mr. Erdogan says that religion is a personal freedom that has no place in politics. He also spoke about Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. He said European Union membership is among his party's chief priorities.

Recent opinion polls show that Mr. Erdogan could sweep up to 30 percent of the national vote. According to the same polls, none of his pro-secular rivals, splintered as they are, would make it into the parliament if an election were held today.

As Turkey grapples with the worst economic crisis in its modern history, analysts say Mr. Erdogan's populist rhetoric and clean image are especially appealing to voters. Mr. Erdogan says his party will push through all the reforms being demanded by the European Union in exchange for Turkey's inclusion. EU conditions include easing bans on education and broadcasting in the Kurdish language as well as reducing the role of the military in internal politics.

The military played a pivotal role in 1997 in unseating Turkey's first Islamic government. Then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was banned from politics for five years, and his Welfare Party was outlawed on charges of seeking to introduce Islamic rule during a turbulent year in office.

In a further setback for political Islam, Virtue, the party in which the Islamic activists regrouped, was banned in June. Its chief offense consisted of seeking to have a female lawmaker become the first clad in an Islamic-style headscarf to take the oath of office.

Mr. Erdogan seized the opportunity to woo away about 50 former Virtue deputies and set up his own party. Meanwhile, 48 other former Virtue lawmakers loyal to Mr. Erbakan formed their own party, Felicity.