<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/03/AR2007050302052.html> Turks Find Much to Like In Ruling Party Practical and Religious Concerns Underline Annoyance With Elites
By Anthony Shadid Washington Post Foreign Service Friday, May 4, 2007; Page A18
ISTANBUL, May 3 -- A few minutes' drive from the Bosporus, beyond the majestic skyline that evokes Istanbul's imperial past, the roads narrow, lined by low-slung buildings of concrete and cinder block. Corrugated iron, occasionally painted, replaces the roofs of stately red tiles. The neighborhood is Umraniye, a telling locale in Turkey's struggle over power and identity.
Umraniye is known as a gecekondu, literally "built in the night," recalling an Ottoman law that said no one could tear down a house begun at night and finished by dawn. Like the other poor, shoddily built settlements that swathe Istanbul, Ankara and other cities, Umraniye is part of the constituency courted by the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose populist, religiously resonant politics appeal to the millions of migrants who have flocked to cities prospering in Turkey's economic boom.
As Turkey approaches general elections July 22, among its most decisive in years, those voters will be pivotal to the success of the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, or the AK Party. Religion is part of that appeal, but conversations here indicate that the allure is shaded in gray. Since the party took power in 2002, many residents say, it has managed to cultivate a reputation that steers between the extremes of religion and nationalism, project an image of relative effectiveness and style itself as an underdog vying with the establishment.
"All the parties steal in Turkey, and I'm sure the AK Party will steal, too. I know that, but at least they're dealing with the people," said Ergun Yalkanat, a 36-year-old factory worker. "They've managed to extend their hands to the people's conscience."
One of the most secular of Muslim nations, Turkey is wrestling with a social transformation brought to the fore by this month's crisis over the ruling party's choice for president and the coming elections. Analysts say the secular, Westernized elite that claims the legacy of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is facing the rise of a more religious, conservative and often rural class seeking a place in Turkey's hierarchy, its voice often articulated by the ruling party. Critics say the AK Party has yet to play its hand: Fully enshrined in power, it will promote political Islam and chip away at secular freedoms. Others view the party's ascent as inevitable.
"It's a vehicle for modernization of the unmodernized," said Dogu Ergil, a political science professor at Ankara University.
Or in the words of Rahime Dizen, relaxing near trees on a grassy hill in Umraniye with her friends, gingerly sewing a border for a brown head scarf embossed with a floral pattern: "We were sitting in mud before."
Her friend Durdaneh Onge, 58, smiled. She raised the hand of her 4-year-old granddaughter, Ebrar.
"I want them to lead the country, and I want this girl to be president," she said, laughing with the others. "Of course! Why not? Everyone comes from a village. They were not all born as prime ministers and presidents."
The women listed improvements in the neighborhood, run by the party. They no longer wait in lines for bread and gas. The roads are better, and so is the water. Dizen said she thought pensions should be increased more, but hers was the rare complaint.
Across the Muslim world, Islamic activists have forged an organic relationship with their constituencies through social welfare programs, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, many of them inspired by the communist activists before them. But by some accounts, the well-organized foot soldiers of the ruling party have honed the grass-roots work to an art, methodically distributing coal and wood in the winter and providing secondhand clothing to the have-nots. The party sponsors the traditional circumcision of young boys, making possible coming-of-age celebrations for those who cannot afford them.
"It's nothing more than an investment for the election," said Kenan Ucar, 54, a truck driver who voted for a secular party in the last election. "They knock on one door and not the rest."
But his complaint raised protests at a cafe in Umraniye, where a grapevine snaked up a trellis outside. Hasan Sucu, a 27-year-old who just completed 15 months of military service, told a story. He and his army colleagues used to give a share of their pay to the poorest soldier in the unit. At one point, they learned, the AK Party bought the soldier's family a house, took his mother to the hospital for treatment for rickets and found a job for his brother. Whether the tale was true didn't seem to matter.
"When I heard this story, I decided to vote for them in the next election," he said.
The ruling party has won support for its handling of the economy, after inflation prompted by a crisis in 2001 turned some people's life savings into a week's paycheck. The party has moved, too, to implement political and economic reforms in Turkey's bid to join the European Union. But the question of its religious intentions still shapes the debate among its critics and, somewhat counterintuitively, among its supporters. Some in Umraniye contended that the party's religious roots actually made it more tolerant, not less, providing room for their more conservative lifestyles.
"Secularism, secularism. They don't know how to say anything else," said Yalkanat, the factory worker, who was sitting with Sucu at the cafe.
Turkey's unremitting secularism dates to Ataturk's founding of the republic in 1923. In a sign of the fervor of that time, the government set up a commission in 1928 at Istanbul University charged with developing ways to modernize Islam. Among the suggestions: putting pews in mosques for the performance of prayers and introducing Western classical music at services. (In the end, these ideas were not adopted.)
"They talk about head scarves. Ninety percent of our parents wear head scarves. It's a question of freedom," Yalkanat said. "I'm not a religious person, I don't pray five times a day, but I believe. Freedom of belief is everywhere, everywhere but Turkey."
At a cafe down the street that serves as an impromptu taxi stand, Abdulmecid Batkitar, a 26-year-old driver who arrived three years ago from eastern Turkey, had a similar take. The party's religious roots freed it from the sometimes severe Turkish nationalism of its secular rivals. As a Kurd, he said, he felt the party was more tolerant, evinced by its equitable investment across the country.
"To me," he said, "they don't discriminate."
For decades, such questions of faith and politics, nationalism and ethnicity have been decreed, legislated and banned here, but for Mehmet Ugur, an unemployed laborer sitting in a mosque courtyard waiting for midday prayers, they have yet to be resolved. He calls himself a nationalist, but identifies himself as a Muslim before a Turk. He feels discriminated against and, he said, lied to.
"This is an issue that's lasted nearly a century. It's not an issue of a week or two weeks. It's their mentality," he said of the secular establishment. "They're ignoring the people and, of course, this we cannot accept. That would be impossible."
[A shorter version of the same article was also published by the Boston Globe: <http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2007/05/06/turkeys_ruling_party_courts_poor_voters/> .] -- Yoshie