'Neither sharia, nor coup d'etat,' Turks want to preserve lifestyle

ANKARA - Sunday's huge demonstration in Istanbul shows that what Turks really want is to protect their lifestyle from the islamism that threatens their secular tradition, but also from any possible military intervention likely to curb their newly found freedoms, analysts here agreed.

Among the banners seen in the one million-plus crowd, one was particularly telling: "Neither sharia, nor coup d'etat - democratic Turkey."

Few of those gathered actually voiced any opposition against the popular army, traditionally seen as a safety mechanism against possible political excess, including attacks on secularism.

But this appeared to be more a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils than actually backing military intervention, analysts agreed and the organisers made clear in their speeches.

Initially, the planners of the rally -- some 600 non-government organizations -- aimed to protest against the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has its roots in radical Islam and has governed Turkey since 2002, and its presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

A stiffly worded communique by the army that took everyone by surprise on Friday night openly accused the government of failing to protect the secular system and plunged the country into crisis.

It also modified the theme of the Istanbul demonstration.

Although few in the huge, flag-waving crowd challenged the army's intervention in politics, journalist and political analyst Oral Calislar told AFP: "They seemed to say: 'We are here. The army need not get involved'."

Calislar, who spent seven years in jail under the repression that followed the military coups of 1971 and 1980, said Sunday's "historic" rally was a demonstration of Turkey's democratic coming of age.

"This is a good thing," he said. "Turkish society was so far known for its inertia, but they took to the streets and they said: 'We are worried about the threat to secularism, but this doesn't necessarily mean we want a coup'."

Organizers who addressed the rally were careful to distance themselves from the army's so-called "midnight memorandum", which threatened action if the government fails to change its attitude.

"It is obvious that a putsch is not a solution - we've seen it, we know it," said Turkan Saylan, a professor of medicine who heads an NGO known particularly for its protection of secular values.

But, she added: "The armed forces are a party to the preservation of the secular system, and so they shall remain."

The army, Turkey's most respected institution, has toppled four governments in less than 50 years, the last in 1997. It commands, on the whole, greater respect than the political class.

It is the caretaker of the secular ideology of the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and, by law, protector of republican values.

Although reforms to bring Turkey in line with European Union norms has reduced the army's influence, it remains a political force to be reckoned with.

Newspapers Monday agreed that the demonstrators, although most vocal about the threat to secularism, also made clear they do not intend to lose their democratic rights, many of them newly found thanks to pro-EU reforms -- even if many chanted anti-European slogans.

"Our only choice to is to attach ourselves with determination to secularism and democracy, and to reject with the same determination both coups d'etat and the mentality that wants an islamist head of state," wrote columnist Can Dundar in the liberal daily Milliyet.

Galatasaray University's Beril Dedeoglu agreed and, although she found the EU reaction to the military statement lukewarm at best, was convinced the crowd "made it understood that the army is not welcome" in civilian politics.

One banner brandished Sunday by a young woman summed it up: "We are the unarmed forces of Turkey."

04/30/2007 11:36 GMT

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