1998: Turkey Secularists Charge Erdogan



... the Mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flew to Diyarbakir, in the southeast, to answer charges of subversion.

Mr. Erdogan is the most prominent of more than 200 mayors and other officials, elected and appointed, who are targets of an army-backed campaign against Islamic fundamentalism. Because he is a national figure and hero to millions of Islamic-oriented voters, his case has focused attention on politicians who are feeling the generals' wrath.

The 43-year-old mayor is being prosecuted for a speech he gave near Diyarbakir last year in which he said, ''The mosques are our barracks, the domes are our helmets, the minarets are our bayonets and the faithful are our army.''

Prosecutors assert that by making such a statement, he was praising fundamentalism and violating a law that bans ''provoking enmity and hatred among the people.'' If convicted, he faces loss of his office and a jail term of up to three years.

In his defense, Mr. Erdogan said the words he spoke were from a poem and were aimed at ''no person or target.'' After his testimony he immediately flew back to Istanbul and his job of running a teeming metropolis that is home to 9 million people.

Although the case against Mr. Erdogan has been brought in a security court, many other mayors are threatened by the Interior Ministry, which has power to remove those it considers subversive.

The ministry has used that power several times in recent days. One victim was Mehmet Sekmen, Mayor of the Kartal district in Ankara. The decree ordering his removal said he had placed ''advocates of the reactionary movement,'' meaning fundamentalists, on the public payroll. It also said he had allowed religious groups to use city facilities and favored advocates of political Islam when awarding contracts.

At least six other mayors have been removed in recent weeks. Among those still under investigation are Melih Gokcek, the Mayor of Ankara, and Ali Nabi Kocak, Mayor of a district in Istanbul. Mr. Kocak is charged with feigning illness in order to avoid attending ceremonies honoring Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the pre-eminent symbol of Turkish secularism ...

But secularists insist they must act to save the country from militants who are posing as simple believers.

''There is a conscious effort on the part of ultra-religious groups to infiltrate people into these high positions,'' said Sunna Kili, a political science professor at Bosporus University in Istanbul who maintains close ties to the military. ''They want to have a voice in controlling the Government, and the military is the only institution which can be successful against them. The question is how democratic this all is, especially when you are dealing with elected officials. You cannot challenge someone for expressing his views after he is elected. But if he is violating the principles on which our Constitution is based, that is another matter.''