BURSA, TURKEY — BURSA, Turkey -- The police paid a surprise visit on a recent Saturday morning, hoping to make a bust. And indeed, they caught the perpetrators in the act.
Behind a neighborhood mosque, they found a group of 10- to 11-year-old boys poring over the Koran. The startled children were sent home. A teacher was taken in for questioning. The door to the office was secured with a wax seal.
The crime? Running an Islamic school without a license.
In a crackdown on religious activists, police and military authorities have raided dozens of schools in recent weeks and have put people on trial for offenses as minor as dressing in traditional Islamic garb.
The raids are prompting a swift reaction. An estimated 300,000 people, many of them women covered head-to-toe in black chadors, protested in Istanbul's Sultanahmet Square -- the largest demonstration in Turkey in decades. Some militants talk openly about a "jihad," or holy war, to transform Turkey to an Islamic state. Violence has been confined to a handful of isolated incidents, but a potentially dangerous ideological war for the soul of modern Turkey is taking shape.
The struggle pits a pro-Western military against Muslims emboldened by the 1995 election victory of the Islamic-leaning Welfare Party. Complicating the internal conflict over the role of Islam is Turkey's emerging relationship with Israel, which is scheduled to join Turkey and the United States in military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea this year.
The crackdown on Islamic institutions is hardly new, for modern Turkey was founded on the suppression of religious fervor. Kemal Ataturk, the military hero who established Turkey as a republic in 1923 from the remains of the Ottoman Empire, tried to bring the staunchly traditional society of the sultans into the modern age by closing religious courts and banning Islamic clothing.
Laws still on the books in Turkey, though seldom enforced, prohibit women from wearing the veil and men from wearing the turban or the fez. But the veil is making a resurgence -- especially in provincial cities such as Bursa.
Bursa is a former Ottoman capital, a smoggy auto-manufacturing hub 150 miles south of Istanbul. With at least 45 Koran schools closed recently, it is the epicenter of the current struggle between religion and secularism.
In a dusty, working-class neighborhood where many of the schools were shut down, old men in beards and prayer caps sit outside a mosque, pondering their next move. A Koran school for boys was closed April 26.
"In the name of Allah, if they try to break us, we will break them, those atheists," says Nurettin Coliskan, 70, gesturing angrily with a handful of amber prayer beads.
Says Ali, 30, who lives in Berlin and was visiting his family in the neighborhood, "This is crazy." Like most people interviewed here, he would give only his first name.
"In Germany, I have no problem sending my kids to Koran school. My wife wears a veil and it is not an issue. So why can't we teach what we want here? These are children, not terrorists."
Turkish authorities say the closed schools lacked proper licenses. However, the government has also put forward an even more controversial plan to close 4,000 religious junior high schools.
These schools, fully accredited and licensed, are similar to Roman Catholic schools in the United States: They appeal to parents who want a better education for their children than what is provided in public schools but who cannot afford private school tuition.
Many parents consider the crackdown an imposition of Western values on their traditional society. In Bursa, residents complained repeatedly about the sultry fare broadcast on Turkish television, particularly a popular Italian game show called "Tutti Frutti," which features strippers.
"Why is it that my children can turn on the television and see [that] when they can't go to Koran school?" says Ayse, 51, a mother of nine. "Why don't they close down the discos? Why don't they close down the whorehouses?"
Such questions have increased since the Welfare Party won the largest bloc of votes, 21 percent, in Parliament, allowing its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, to become prime minister last year in an uneasy coalition government.
Once in office, Erbakan backed down from campaign pledges to cut off relations with Israel and to take Turkey out of NATO. But he has also infuriated some coalition partners with state visits to Iran and Libya.
Particularly roiled is Turkey's powerful military establishment, which views itself as the buttress of Ataturk's founding principles of secularism. In March, Erbakan was effectively called to the woodshed by a powerful military body known as the National Security Council and forced to promise that he would not push forward Islamic laws.
If anything, Turks are as polarized as their government on the subject of religion. Debates are raging on the campus of Istanbul University about whether women should be allowed to wear the veil. Banned until 1986, it is allowed now in all the faculties except the medical school.
A random survey conducted by the English-language Turkish Daily News last month found that 60.5 percent of respondents believed that Islamic activism posed a greater threat to Turkey than the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has led an independence war in southeastern Turkey that has left 28,000 dead since 1984.
Support for the Islamicists is growing in rural areas and in the slums within Istanbul, for both religious and economic reasons. Turkey is suffering from 70 percent inflation, a growing disparity between rich and poor, and persistent corruption scandals swirling around former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller and other leaders.
Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Koc University, a private institution in Istanbul, says the religious, anti-Western tilt of the Welfare Party has enormous appeal for those who feel they have lost out in Turkey's lurching journey toward Western capitalism.
"It is not strictly a religious movement, but a way for people who feel they have been marginalized in this society to get recognition," Turan says.
Turan, who heads a panel to promote secular education, favors improvements in public education as a way to counter the Islamicists without provocative moves to close religious schools or impose anti-Islamic dress codes.
"I don't like the veil. I think it basically pushes women into a subjugated status. But at the level of civil liberties, you cannot easily argue that the law should be dealing with how people dress," says Turan.
For many Turks, the struggle is to find their identity as Muslims living on the geographic and societal bridge between Europe and the Middle East.
Abdulkadir Ozay, a tailor who runs a religious clothing store in Istanbul, says he took his wife and daughters to a resort on the Aegean Sea and was appalled to find the sauna filled with naked German tourists.
"I wouldn't let my family go in," he says. "But then I see the pictures from Iran of the women with so many veils they cannot see, and I think, no, our prophet would oppose that kind of clothing."
"Right now, it is a war of nerves between two extremes," Ozay says. "I can't tell you who will win, but I'll tell you who will lose: we Turks, the regular people, if we are not careful to find our own way."
Pub Date: 5/31/97