ANKARA, Turkey (AP) - As the only Muslim member of NATO and a candidate to join the EU, Turkey has come to be seen as a bridge between East and West - held up by Washington as a shining example of how Islam is compatible with modern democracy.
But as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to come here next week in a trip some herald as a milestone in ties, Turkish leaders are grappling with a formidable challenge: radical Islamic groups preaching jihad and vowing to unravel Turkey's democratic achievements.
The conundrum is twofold: A real threat from Muslim radicals intent on destabilizing the government, and the perception by many that by cracking down, Turkey is betraying the very democratic principles that have helped win it much trust and acceptance in the West.
Listening to the radicals, it's easy to fathom Turkey's difficulties.
Yilmaz Celik, a spokesman for the shadowy radical Islamist group Hizb-ut Tahrir, was released from prison last month after serving a five-month sentence on terrorism charges.
He says he despises the U.S., finds the "Alliance of Civilizations" conference Obama is attending a joke, and believes Turkey's moderate, Islamist-leaning leadership is a stooge of the West.
But while Celik explicitly urges Islamic nations to wage jihad to "liberate" Muslims and laces his rhetoric with venom, he insists his group does not itself support or carry out terror attacks.
"We're full of grudges and hatred against the United States and Britain for exporting their ideology and giving 'soft messages' to deceive the Islamic world, for example in the shape of an olive branch to Iran," said Celik, whose group has attracted a following in dozens of countries.
The fine line Celik tries to tread puts Turkey in a quandary.
Turkey's EU bid depends greatly on its ability to promote itself as a nation that respects civil liberties like freedom of speech. But the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also keenly aware of how fragile Turkey's social and political equilibrium can be. The military has ousted four elected governments since 1960. The government believes its hard line is the only way to keep radical Muslim groups in check.
Turkey has been vigilant against homegrown Islamic militants since al-Qaida-linked suicide bombers killed 58 people in 2003. Al-Qaida's austere and violent interpretation of Islam receives little public backing in the country.
However, some radical Muslims here regard Turkey's friendship with Israel, the United States and Britain - as well as efforts to join the European Union - as tantamount to treason. And the country is still debating the role of religion in the officially secular state.
Celik accuses the United States of waging what he said a "fourth crusade" against the Muslims.
"For us, neither (former U.S. president George W.) Bush nor Obama is any different. They are given the same mission. When you look from the outside, Obama might be using a softer language," Celik said. "But Obama is certainly not sincere."
Celik said Obama's arrival in Turkey is aimed at "strengthening the United States' influence in Muslim lands through soft messages."
Turkey and Germany are among countries that ban Hizb-ut Tahrir, but others such as Britain, Australia and the United States see no hard evidence of terrorist activity and just monitor it closely.
Washington sees Turkey as a key player in its fight against terrorism. As such, it appears inclined to give implicit backing to the Turkish government's anti-terror strategy - even though it doesn't itself ban groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir.
Some activists say the government has gone too far in its crackdown on radical Muslim groups.
"The state has no right to ban any group which is not involved in violence, whether it is an Islamic or Marxist one," said Ayhan Kucuk of the Mazlum-Der, an Islamic-oriented human rights organization in Turkey. "Otherwise, it must prove that they pose a security threat."
Celik, the official spokesman of the Turkey branch of Hizb-ut Tahrir, or Liberation Party, said the only way to liberate Muslims from the thoughts, systems and laws of nonbelievers is to create a global Islamic state and resurrect the Caliphate to govern with strict Islamic rule, or Shariah.
"We're calling on armies and leaders of Islamic countries to wage jihad against forces that have seized the lands of Islam in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya," said Celik, released from prison on Feb. 20 after being convicted of attempting to overthrow the secular republic and replace it with an Islamic state.
Celik, 40, still faces trial on terror-related charges in five separate cases and could be imprisoned again. He has served a total of 2 1/2 years in prison on different occasions since 2003. He insists his group does not advocate terrorism.
"Hizb-ut Tahrir does not believe that the group itself, as an organization, should commit violence or terrorism," James Brandon of the Quilliam Foundation, a research center in London, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "However, it believes that if individual Muslims want to carry out attacks of defensive jihad, for instance in Iraq or Afghanistan, then they should be allowed to do so."
Obama will travel to Turkey on April 5 to seek Turkish support for U.S. goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will attend a forum sponsored by Turkey and Spain to reduce tensions between the West and Islamic countries.
Some experts say the group has tens of thousands of supporters around the world. Turkish police accelerated a crackdown on the group after it held a demonstration in 2005. Celik says he does not post a sign outside his office because he knows the police will tear it down.
The group's Turkish members were not swayed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's scolding of Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland over the killings of civilians in Gaza.
Celik's deputy, Haluk Ozdogan, described the incident as "a mere tactic to raise the profile of moderate Islamists at the cost of deviating from the purity of Islam."
Author: SELCAN HACAOGLU (30/3/2009)