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…

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