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Turkey at the Turning Point?

It is now clear that Turkey, a country to which Western visitors have often applied adjectives such as “timeless” and “slothful,” is changing profoundly, and with un-Oriental speed. To the many Turks who welcome this transformation, it holds out the promise of a free public culture, equally open to devout Muslims, secularists, and critics of Turkey’s past politics—something the country has never known. A smaller but nonetheless considerable number see the changes as a Trojan horse for Islamism as severe as one finds in Iran or Saudi Arabia. These two views come into sharp conflict on the subject of Abdullah Gül, whom the Turkish parliament recently elected president.

Abdullah Gül is a conscientious Muslim. He says his prayers and observes the Ramadan fast. His wife appears in public with a silk scarf wound tightly around her head. Although he was once associated with Islamism of a rather virulent kind and was a member of the Welfare Party, whose stated goal was to challenge Turkey’s secular traditions, Gül gives the impression of having mellowed. As foreign minister in the mildly Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from 2003 until his election to the presidency, Gül directed his energies mainly at promoting Turkey’s claims to EU membership. As president, he has promised to safeguard Turkey’s secular regime.

Gül is not a member of Turkey’s establishment. He is the first Turkish president in decades to have come from neither the armed forces nor the bureaucracy; his father was a machine worker in Kayseri, a provincial town in central Turkey that is known for both its piety and its entrepreneurial spirit. Compared to the outgoing president, the socially awkward secularist Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Gül seems worldly and cosmopolitan. He studied in England and, in the 1980s, worked for eight years as an economist for the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah. He is an affable man, with a reputation for probity, and he is popular abroad.

Still, many Turkish secularists are appalled that Gül now occupies Cankaya, the pink concrete presidential palace in Ankara. For them, Cankaya is hallowed because of its association with modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. Cankaya—in its earlier, prettier, stone incarnation—is where Atatürk planned his expulsion of the Greeks and other Western invaders from Asia Minor following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. It is where he plotted to replace the empire with a republic. Most important, Cankaya is where Atatürk devised his great program of modernization, a “revolution” that secularized education and the law, emancipated women, and proclaimed the principles of “knowledge and science” that would henceforth guide Turkey’s development.

Since Atatürk’s death in 1938, the only Cankaya resident to have been perceived as a challenge to Atatürk’s secular legacy, Celal Bayar, was deposed in a coup in 1960—the first of four interventions by the Turkish military establishment, which sees itself as protecting the tradition of Atatürk. Subsequent presidents have generally erred on the side of authoritarianism in their adherence to Kemalism, the founder’s paternalistic political doctrine. In 1997, for instance, the president at the time, Süleyman Demirel, cooperated when the armed forces pushed an Islamist government out of power. During his tenure, Demirel’s successor Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed the appointment of hundreds of bureaucrats who were affiliated with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and pointedly failed to invite Erdogan’s wife to official functions—on the grounds that the law does not allow women with head scarves into official buildings. But Sezer has now retired to his lakeside villa near Ankara, and the Islamists—or the ex-Islamists, as some observers now call them—have conquered Atatürk’s castle.

It is worth recalling how this happened. Although the process of transition was tumultuous to begin with, it subsequently became calm, leaving grounds for hope that Turkey’s inevitable wider transformation will also be peaceful. Back in April, Erdogan abandoned his plans to run for president under pressure from the chief of the armed forces, Yasar Büyükanit, from Sezer himself, and from the hundreds of thousands of secular-minded citizens who took part in an anti-government rally in Ankara on April 14. But Gül, the second AKP choice, proved no more acceptable to the secularists, and a campaign started to prevent him from becoming president. Roused by anti-Islamist unions and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the secularists staged more protests in big cities.

On April 27, the Web site of the general staff carried a statement attacking the proponents of “a reactionary mindset whose sole aim is to erode the fundamentals of our state,” and vowing that the armed forces would, “if necessary, act…in a clear and unambiguous manner.” This was interpreted as a sign that a coup against Erdogan’s government was in the offing. A few days later, the Constitutional Court ruled that a quorum of 367 deputies had to be present in parliament for any vote on a new president to proceed. Because the CHP deputies duly failed to turn up, the number in attendance fell just below the court’s threshold, and Erdogan was forced to withdraw Gül’s candidacy.

Erdogan had called the general staff’s statement “a shot fired at democracy,” and it was through the democratic process that he sought redress. Rather than call his own supporters into the streets, which might have precipitated a coup, he announced early elections for July 22. As the head of a government whose performance, especially in managing the economy, had been impressive, Erdogan already stood a good chance of holding on to his parliamentary majority. The generals’ interference helped him further, allowing the AKP to present itself as having been wronged, and its supporters insulted, by an unelected military elite. Erdogan’s plan worked and the AKP won a stunning victory at the polls. His candidacy vindicated by the voters, Gül once again announced that he would stand for the presidency, and the chief of the armed forces indicated that this time he would not stand in his way. On August 28, Abdullah Gül became Turkey’s president.

It is hard to take seriously the more alarmist statements of Turkey’s die-hard secularists. As Erdogan deliberated on whether or not to run for the presidency, for example, Sezer claimed that Turkish secularism faced “its gravest threat” since the Republic’s inception—a statement that ignored the Islamist uprising that convulsed the Kurdish southeast in 1925 and the massacres of Alevis, members of a sect of heterodox Muslims, by Sunni bigots in the 1970s.

Since it came to power in 2002, the AKP has passed no overtly Islamist legislation. Erdogan tried to outlaw adultery, and some AKP mayors of provincial cities briefly set up alcohol-free zones, but these schemes met with protest and were abandoned. Erdogan’s education minister has been accused of Islamizing textbooks, and of packing his ministry with former employees of the Religious Affairs Directorate, but education remains, for the pupils at most state schools, a resoundingly secular experience. The AKP has not tried to limit or ban usury. Although it came to power promising satisfaction to those who chafe at the head-scarf ban, a highly controversial symbol of the secular–Islamist divide, it did not, in its first term, try to reverse this ban, and the sixty-two women it put up for election in July were all bare-headed. Moreover, over the past few years, the government has brought about what a recent report on women’s rights from the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, called “the most radical changes to the legal status of Turkish women in 80 years.”1 Under these reforms, rape in marriage and sexual harassment in the workplace were made criminal offenses, and sexual crimes in general were classified as violations of the rights of the individual. They had formerly been defined as crimes against society, the family, or public morality.

Ever since he became prime minister, Erdogan, who may have been chastened by the four months he had recently spent in jail for declaiming some Islamist verses, has been moving his party toward the center of Turkish politics. During the campaign, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) accused him in its election leaflets of expunging Islamic tenets from school textbooks in order to please the EU, and of promoting the activities of Christian missionaries. The leaflets contained photographs of Erdogan wearing a sinister Mason-like gown—apparently worn when he received an honorary degree from a Western university—and another of him with the Pope.

The AKP is related, historically and ideologically, to the Welfare Party, which briefly held power in the late 1990s in a coalition government that the armed forces toppled for promoting religious education and trying to turn Turkey away from the West. But much divides the two parties. It is hard to imagine today’s AKP, for instance, endorsing Welfare’s denunciation of the “order of slavery” imposed by “Zionism and Western imperialism,” or its prescription of “disinfectants” for the “microbes” of the capitalist banking system. Welfare’s parliamentary delegation was full of firebrands, including one who promised bloodshed on a scale “worse than Algeria” if the Kemalists pursued their secular aims. Many of these extremists were not invited to join the AKP when Erdogan set it up in 2001. Most of those who did join, and entered parliament the following year, were among the 150-odd sitting AKP deputies whom Erdogan removed from the party list before July’s election. They were replaced by candidates of his own choosing.

In July, a few days before election day, I was in Cankiri, a conservative, rural province in north-central Turkey, with one such handpicked candidate, Suat Kiniklioglu, who clearly does not correspond to the usual image of an Islamist. He wears a well-cut suit, speaks several languages, and has lived for long periods in Germany and Canada. Earlier this year, he resigned from his position as director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States to contest the election from Cankiri, his father’s home province. As we drove to a rally outside the provincial capital, Kiniklioglu said he had joined the AKP to help it democratize Turkey. As a former member of the air force, Kiniklioglu regretted that the armed forces, “for so long at the vanguard of Turkey’s Westernizing project, have now been left behind by the people.” He intended, after his election, to help the government drum up support in sympathetic European capitals for Turkey’s EU candidacy and to counter the anti-Turkey sentiments of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Kiniklioglu has since been made a government spokesman.

In Kiniklioglu’s view, Turkey must choose between a system dominated by “a small elite that has set itself apart” and “a democracy of the kind you find in Europe.” As the son of a Gastarbeiter who left Cankiri for Germany in 1961, Kiniklioglu feels no reflexive gratitude to the Kemalist bureaucrats, senior military officers, and traditional, monopolistic holding companies that have between them dominated Turkey for decades. On the contrary, his scathing reference to the “white Turks,” by which he means the pampered urban elite of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, with their inherited privileges and connections, is a reminder that alongside the conflict between Islamism and secularism there is another conflict, just as bitter, between Turkey’s old economic leaders and the outspoken nouveaux riches from the provinces.

  1. 1

    See the European Stability Initiative’s “Sex and Power in Turkey: Feminism, Islam and the Maturing of Turkish Democracy” (Berlin and Istanbul: ESI, June 2, 2007), available at www.esiweb.org.

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