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In Turkey, a judge’s murder puts religion in spotlight 31 mars 2007

Posted by Acturca in Religion, Turkey / Turquie.

The Wall Street Journal (USA), March 30, 2007; Page A1

By Philip Shishkin, Ankara

One morning last spring, a young lawyer parked his Opel car on a busy commercial street next to Turkey’s top administrative court, threw a Glock handgun into his bag and went inside.

Reaching the fifth floor of the drab courthouse, Alparslan Arslan followed a tea server toward a chamber where five judges were meeting. The 28-year-old Mr. Arslan paused to look at their faces.

A few months earlier, these judges had ruled that a kindergarten teacher was rightfully denied a promotion because she wore a Muslim headscarf near the school. A covered instructor set a bad example for impressionable young students in a secular state and undermined the foundations of the Turkish Republic, the verdict said. The ruling upset many religiously conservative Turks. But it pushed Mr. Arslan over the edge.

Pulling the gun from his bag once inside the chamber, he pronounced the words « Allahu Akbar » — God is greater — and fired four times. The shots killed one judge and wounded three others. Then Mr. Arslan blasted another round into the air and issued a warning that « verdicts should be determined more carefully from now on, » according to his later testimony. Fleeing the courthouse, the lawyer was caught and arrested.

The May 17 shootings shocked Turks and led to a bout of national soul-searching that continues even as the trial of Mr. Arslan wends toward a conclusion. It has also highlighted a problem arising in a host of other Muslim countries: how to accommodate a religious populace within the strictures of a secular state.

Since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey has enforced one of the strictest forms of state secularism in the Muslim world. To this day, for instance, Turkish laws ban students, teachers, judges and other state employees from wearing headscarves at work or in class. A decade ago, the military, which views itself as the ultimate guardian of the secular order, forced a staunchly Islamist prime minister out of office.

In the past seven years, the share of Turks who describe themselves as « fairly religious » has doubled to nearly half of the population, according to a recent survey by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation. And most people favor the lifting of the headscarf ban. At the same time, the study found that 77% of respondents believe democracy is the best form of government for Turkey.

The secular elite has been accusing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of harboring an Islamist agenda, a charge that has grown louder as the busy electoral season approaches. Allies of the prime minister, who holds most executive powers, dismiss such worries. They argue that his party is nothing more than a conservative center-right force.

On Mr. Erdogan’s watch, the economy has steadily expanded, and his party is projected to once again dominate the parliament after a general election late this year. It is also possible that Turkey’s next president, who oversees government nominations and laws, will be Mr. Erdogan or one of his allies.

Competing Ideologies

Tensions over Islam were brought into sharp focus by the courthouse drama, whose main actors embody the two competing ideologies: a teacher fighting for recognition of her religious values, and a secular judge trying to keep Islam separate from public life.

Aytac Kilinc came from a family where women had always covered their hair. Before college, she had to make a choice: wear a banned headscarf and deny herself an education, or remove it while on campus and pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

For a while, she wore a wig to classes, circumventing the headscarf ban while keeping her hair covered all the same. The wig gave her migraines, she says, so eventually she took that off too and went uncovered.

She persevered and became a teacher. Each day, she took off her headscarf in the car on the way to work and put it back on after class. « I always obeyed the rules of the state, » she says. In 2001, Ms. Kilinc aced the state exam for aspiring principals. With her pick of jobs, she chose a nursery school near the capital city of Ankara.

The school occupied the grounds of a military garrison, and most students were children of army personnel. On July 5, 2001, Ms. Kilinc drove up to the military checkpoint to see her new school for the first time. Soldiers asked for identification.

Although she’d taken off her headscarf before arriving, her photo ID showed her with a covered head. Because of that, the soldiers refused to let her in, according to court documents that later emerged in the case. The next day, Ms. Kilinc was again denied entry. On the third day, she brought more papers with her and spent hours waiting in front of the checkpoint. « I sat in my car, walked in the courtyard, but I never got in, » Ms. Kilinc recalls.

Informed of the incident, local education authorities demoted Ms. Kilinc back to being a regular teacher and reassigned her to another school. She sued the school district and initially won. Education authorities fought back, and the case reached the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court.

The justices ruled that her demotion was lawful and quoted a constitutional passage: « As required by the principle of secularism, there shall be no interference whatsoever of sacred religious feelings in state affairs and politics. » The judges went on to argue that Ms. Kilinc’s headscarf was particularly worrisome because her students were impressionable toddlers.

Two witnesses, including her previous boss, said Ms. Kilinc « did not have her head covered inside the school. » But other unattributed statements from the court’s decision said that « she covered her head from time to time in school and as she was coming in and out of school » where she could presumably be seen by her students. Ms. Kilinc denies this. The teacher, the judges concluded, « should set an example within her environment and also within the outside environment. »

Joining the 4-1 majority in the decision was Judge Mustafa Yücel Özbilgin. He grew up in a small town in the secular family of a bank employee. After a stint as a goalkeeper on his hometown’s junior soccer team, he went to law school in Ankara, deciding to become a judge. Because of compulsory military service after college, Mr. Özbilgin missed the state exam for aspiring judges. So he took a civil-service test instead.

Over the next three decades, Mr. Özbilgin crisscrossed Turkey, serving as a senior provincial administrator in places where he often was the top official in charge of security, roads, electricity, education and health. His wife and two young sons followed him on long train journeys across the country.

Though he had to defer his dream of becoming a judge, he sometimes acted as one unofficially. In the 1970s, Mr. Özbilgin negotiated a truce to a violent feud between two powerful families. On another posting, a group of farmers staged a protest complaining that the state was channeling scarce fuel supplies to wealthy, well-connected villagers, depriving the rest of gasoline for their tractors. Mr. Özbilgin changed the way fuel was distributed.

In the early 1990s, the government tapped Mr. Özbilgin to become governor of the large Adiyaman province in the restive southeast. At the time, the violent separatist rebellion by ethnic Kurds was in full swing, and Mr. Özbilgin had to deal with the outlawed Marxist guerrillas. Once, the phone rang in the middle of the night, his wife recalls, and the governor hastily departed to inspect the latest scene of carnage. Another time, a helicopter mistakenly dropped him and his guards near the wrong mountaintop swarming with Kurdish fighters. He was quickly evacuated.

A Dream Realized

In 1996, Turkish officials gave him the honorary title of « Governor of the Year » and three years later Turkey’s president appointed him as a justice on the Council of State, which is responsible for guarding the very foundations of the modern Turkish state. Nearly 40 years had passed since he first thought of being a judge.

The judge believed in a strict separation of mosque and state. His family, whose women do not wear headscarves, says he was not an antireligious zealot in his private life. He observed the monthlong annual Muslim fast of Ramadan. « He never mixed the two things together, » his daughter-in-law says of his views on Islam and official duties.

His ruling in the case of Aytac Kilinc caused a stir in conservative circles. The prime minister himself criticized the verdict as a case of the courts reaching too far into private lives. Mr. Erdogan’s wife wears a headscarf. Islamist newspaper Anadolu Vakit went much further, attacking the judges by name and printing their photos.

On the morning of May 17, Mr. Özbilgin and his wife had breakfast together in their apartment in downtown Ankara. They walked to a street corner, where Mr. Özbilgin said goodbye and told his wife to be careful crossing the street. She waved at him and watched him disappear into the subway station.

One person who was outraged by the Kilinc verdict was Alparslan Arslan. He thought the decision « was very unfair, » recalls his father, Idris.

Idris Arslan, a devout school inspector, recalls that his son always sympathized with the weak. Once, for example, he got into a fight to protect a group of children from local bullies.

The elder Mr. Arslan peppers his conversation with references to the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, and he instilled similar reverence in his son and three daughters. His daughters wear tight headscarves, and one studied theology. On campus, she had to wear a wig. Her brother, Alparslan, was outraged at this perceived insult to her beliefs. « He couldn’t stand injustice, » Idris Arslan says.

Alparslan went to law school in Istanbul. When he landed a job at a small law firm, he helped his friends financially, allowing them to live in his house free, says Ahmet Dogan, a close friend who is now his lawyer. Soon, he drifted into Islamist circles where his unfocused anger gradually acquired direction, investigators say. « I support physical violence due to my mental nature, » Mr. Arslan told investigators after he was captured. (Mr. Arslan isn’t available for an interview, his lawyer says.)

In Istanbul, Mr. Arslan often attended religious gatherings at the house of Salih Kurter — a man who described himself to investigators as a retiree who teaches his visitors to read the Quran. Mr. Arslan gave him a television set as a gift. Around this time, the young lawyer became more religious and started praying five times a day, according to his father and to Mr. Kurter’s testimony. There was also unrequited love for a woman in Germany, according to Mr. Kurter.

After the U.S. invaded Iraq, Mr. Arslan told his father he wanted to go fight the occupation. But he soon found a target closer to home. On April 19 last year, a staunchly secularist Cumhuriyet daily newspaper published a cartoon showing a pig with a long snout wearing a tight wrap-around headscarf used by particularly conservative Turkish women. It was the same type worn by Mr. Arslan’s sisters and mother. In response, Mr. Arslan lobbed a hand grenade at the newspaper’s headquarters in downtown Istanbul, causing minor damage but no injuries, according to court testimony.

By that time, according to the indictment prepared by Ankara public prosecutor Semsettin Özcan, Mr. Arslan was already hatching his next plot: to kill the judges who ruled against the kindergarten teacher Ms. Kilinc.

A Plot Unfolds

On May 15, Mr. Arslan and three of his friends drove to Ankara and checked into a hotel. The next day, Mr. Arslan came by the courthouse unarmed, telling the guards he was following up on a case. He didn’t find his primary target — the chairman of the offending chamber — and returned the next day. A copy of Vakit newspaper with the photos of the judges lay on the gearbox of his car. He had three handguns there too. He picked one and went inside.

His shooting spree wounded the chairman and three others, but the only judge who died was Mr. Özbilgin. He was 64, a year away from retirement.

At his funeral, thousands of people marched through Ankara, shouting secularist slogans and blaming the pro-Islamist government. The powerful chief of the Turkish military called on the marchers to keep up the protests. Mr. Erdogan condemned the killing. His supporters have since suggested that the murder may have been directed by shadowy groups linked to former military officers with the goal of escalating tensions and undermining the current administration.

If convicted of murder — a charge he doesn’t deny — Mr. Arslan faces life in prison. Several of his alleged accomplices face lesser charges. At a March 1 hearing in Ankara, Mr. Arslan sat quietly in the defendants’ box ringed by armed police.

Ms. Kilinc, who is 38, has not attended any trial hearings and has never met the families of Mr. Özbilgin or Mr. Arslan. She continues to teach nursery school, abiding by state laws requiring her to remove her headscarf inside the building. Ms. Kilinc has a 14-year-old son. She’s happy she doesn’t have a daughter. « He won’t have to go through this, » she says.

She says she is haunted by a television image she saw of the fatally wounded Mr. Özbilgin on a stretcher outside the courthouse. His bald head reminded her of her own father, who had a stroke a few weeks before the shooting and was also taken away on a stretcher. Her father helped her through a sick childhood when Ms. Kilinc suffered from stuttering and incontinence and couldn’t sleep. Sitting by her bedside, he read the Quran to her until late at night. She says she cried a lot after Mr. Özbilgin was killed. Her father died four days later.

Write to Philip Shishkin at philip.shishkin@wsj.com


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