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News on Turkey
04-12-04, 01:12
Eastern premise
By Vincent Boland

Last updated: December 3 2004 18:03

Minarets are our bayonets, Domes are our helmets, Mosques are our barracks, Believers are our soldiers.

-- Mehmet Ziya Gokalp (1876-1924), Turkish poet and nationalist

One day in March 1999, a crowd gathered outside the Fatih mosque near the ancient Ottoman heart of Istanbul. A bus pulled near, and the people in the crowd began to wave and shout. From inside the bus, a man, who was on his way to prison, waved back. The bus stopped and, under guard, the man was allowed outside to attend prayers, then to address the swelling crowd. “I am not saying goodbye,” he said. “This is not a farewell. It is a pause between the verses of a song.”

Soon afterwards he was taken away to begin a four-month prison sentence. He had been convicted of “anti-secularism” and “provocation by religion” in a speech delivered more than a year earlier, during which he had quoted the lines from Mehmet Ziya Gokalp’s poem. “My reference is Islam,” he had told a crowd in Siirt, a city in south-eastern Turkey. “If I can’t reflect this, what is the reason for living? Nobody can silence the ezan [the Muslim call to prayer] because whenever it is silenced people have no peace.”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the feted prisoner on the bus that day, was right. His imprisonment, as he predicted, was not a farewell. It did not, as his jailers had presumably hoped, destroy him. It was, rather, a beginning. Today, Erdogan is not only Turkey’s prime minister. He is one of the most talked about political leaders in Europe, a devout Muslim at the helm of a constitutionally secular country, a one-time Muslim fundamentalist who preaches zero tolerance of human rights abuses but wishes to criminalise adultery, who is using his huge parliamentary majority to make Turkey more democratic in order, his opponents claim, to make it more Islamic, and who utterly dominates the Turkish political landscape.

Moreover, later this month Erdogan could achieve what his secular, republican predecessors as prime minister could not - the start of Turkey’s accession to the European Union. On December 17, the EU’s political leaders will be faced with a historic, and relatively simple, choice: to give the nod to Turkey’s membership and set a date, perhaps next year, for the start of the entry negotiations; or to reject its membership claims, probably for good. Either choice will alter permanently the long and tortured relationship between the EU and Turkey, which dates back to 1963.

For many Turks, membership of the EU would confirm the conviction of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic, that Turkey has to be a European country in order to be a modern one. When the nation emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman empire in 1923, Ataturk and his followers turned it away from its imperial and Middle Eastern past, and imposed a French model of secularism, nationalism and republicanism (Kemalism, as the doctrine is known) on a population bewildered and devastated by war. Ever since, Turkey has been on “a forced march to modernity”, as Ataturk’s British biographer, Andrew Mango, puts it. It has not veered from this course, even at times - and there have been many - when the country was at odds with the world, with its neighbours, and with itself.

Those Europeans who support Turkey’s membership of the EU argue that its acceptance would be a symbolic act. It would show that the union is not a “Christian club”. It would prove the fallacy of the fashionable idea of a “clash of civilisations”, developed by the US political scientist, Samuel Huntington, in his 1996 book of that name. It would confirm Turkey’s potential as a geographical and cultural bridge between east and west - some 97 per cent of the Turkish land mass is geographically in Asia. It would be a step towards narrowing the seemingly widening gulf between the Christian and Islamic worlds - more than 90 per cent of Turks are Muslims. It would anchor a longstanding ally and member of Nato in the European family. And Turkey would show the rest of the Muslim world the democratic way forward.

These are mighty hopes and assumptions to impose on a country that, for much of its modern history, has been relatively isolated from global political and cultural trends, and they raise many questions. Why did a country that jailed Erdogan in the spring of 1999 make him its prime minister four years later? Is Turkey a Muslim country, or a secular country inhabited by Muslims with varying degrees of allegiance to their faith, like the citizens of other EU countries? Is the prime minister the prototype of the 21st-century Islamic democrat - moderate, reform-minded, comfortable in the modern world - or, as militant secularists claim, the architect of a “hidden agenda” to turn Turkey into another Iran? Does Turkey need to join the EU in order to be modern? Is it even a European country? And if it isn’t, does that mean that it cannot join the EU?

These questions have no obvious answers. Turkey is a complex and secretive country - strikingly modern on the surface, traditional and even tribal beneath it, and the victim of sometimes violent change that, to the outside observer, seems to leave everything more or less unaltered. Erdogan embodies those tensions and contradictions. His rise to power mirrors the emergence as a political force of a significant but diffuse power in Turkey - its Muslim, conservative, Anatolian heartland. It comes after much of the past eight decades of Kemalist, secular, metropolitan government and is the result of a protest vote against the corruption and missed opportunities that have hampered Turkey’s progress towards modernity since the 1980s. (I have heard many ordinary Turks say that Erdogan was elected for his reforms, not for his religion.) It also reflects a desire among a growing number of Turks to embrace both their Muslim and their republican traditions, who argue that these are not mutually exclusive, and that Turkey cannot be one without being the other.

At the Istanbul Imam-Hatip Fethiye high school, which stands on a hilltop overlooking the old city, the boys are getting off early. Dressed in the regulation navy jacket, grey trousers, shirt and tie of the average Turkish schoolboy, they are clamouring to get out into the pleasant mid-October sun. It is the first full week of Ramadan, and classes break up at about 1pm during the fasting period. It is not easy to study on an empty stomach.

The boys, indistinguishable from their counterparts all over the country, provide a striking contrast to the people, and especially the women, in the surrounding streets. Most of the women, as they go about their shopping, are dressed in the veil and full-length black gown of devout Muslim housewives. Women in Turkey have been wearing the veil and the headscarf for centuries, but in fewer numbers until the past couple of years, when the prevalence of Muslim dress became more noticeable. It is a phenomenon that dismays secularists, who regard it both as a retrograde step for women’s rights, since it automatically excludes them by law from holding many public sector jobs, and as a telling indicator of the rise of religious observance in the country.

It was to this school that Erdogan travelled every day from his home across the Golden Horn in Kasimpasa, the district of the city where he was born on February 26 1954. He was the youngest of five children of a father who, like millions of Turks after him, migrated as a young man to the big city from the Black Sea town of Rize, eventually becoming a captain on a ferry on the Bosporus, which divides the city between Europe and Asia. He was a strict and even severe man who was strongly opposed to what appeared to be his son’s only pleasure - playing football. “He [Erdogan’s father] had been to Mecca, and I think he was worried about his son’s schoolwork,” recalls Emin Turan, a sprightly man in his late 60s who knew the young Erdogan and still runs a grocery store in the quiet street where the future prime minister grew up.

The school specialises in the study of religion. In theory, the boys I encounter this balmy afternoon will one day become imams, preachers, muftis and specialists in Koranic study. There is more to the school than that, however. The number of imam-hatip schools began to increase in the 1940s when it was discovered that, in its zeal for secularism, the young Turkish nation was running out of religious men to officiate at births, marriages and deaths. But the school is no fundamentalist Saudi-style madrassah. Imam-hatip schools here have a reputation for rigour and excellence and, in an overcrowded and underfunded education system, they often attract the sons of Turkey’s emerging Muslim bourgeoisie as well as those, like Erdogan, from poor migrant families whose parents seek to pass on traditional values.

Attendance at imam-hatip schools dropped dramatically after 1997, when the military, without overt resort to force, brought an end to Turkey’s first flirtation with Islamist government and clamped down on political Islam. There are 520 boys attending the Fethiye school today, compared with 2,000 in 1997, according to Halim Karakaya, the principal. But even if the role of the imam-hatip school in Turkey’s educational system is not fixed, its purpose and its role in shaping modern Turkey nevertheless remain. As Karakaya explains: “Parents who send their children here don’t necessarily want their sons to become imams. But they do want them to have a religious education.”

Erdogan attended this school from 1965 to 1973. There is a photograph of him, gaunt and serious, in the 1972 yearbook. Karakaya, who was also a schoolboy here at the time, recalls that the future prime minister was not a particularly bright student. “But he was very active socially and excelled at debating and reading poetry. He always represented the school, and there was always a crowd around him. He was like our elder brother.”

The young man’s fledgling leadership qualities were also visible in another arena - the football field. Erdogan continued to play after leaving school and while obtaining a degree in commercial studies at a technical college. He went on to play for the Istanbul city hall team. Dursun Kaya, an old team-mate who runs a football and social club in Kasimpasa of which Erdogan is now the patron, remembers: “He would say to us, ‘Don’t get drunk after the game today because we have another game tomorrow.’ We would get home sometimes at two o’clock in the morning. He would never do that. Tayyip would always pray before training, and when it was time to pray he would invite whoever wanted to accompany him to the mosque. He would never force us to pray, but he encouraged us to live the right way, such as not drinking alcohol. If we looked at girls he would tell us it was improper. So we were always trying to control our behaviour.”

In the late 1970s, after Erdogan had completed his education and was beginning to develop a political awareness, Turkey was a polarised and chaotic place. Violent clashes between left and right, especially between communists and nationalists, were widespread. The causes of this slide into near-anarchy are still debated, but they include weak governments, student uprisings, corruption, lack of economic opportunity and the emergence of militant Islam, an outgrowth of the moderate Islamist movement that had long been clamouring for something more than a marginal role in Turkish politics but which was disdained by the secularist establishment.

Turkey reached this state as a direct consequence of the rapid demographic and social shift that had been transforming the country almost since Ataturk’s death, in 1938, and which accelerated from the 1950s onwards. Massive migration of poor, conservative peasants to the relatively liberal and metropolitan cities occurred in the decades after the second world war, creating a dynamic that affects the country even today. It is common to hear metropolitan residents of Istanbul lament that migration has turned their hometown from “a big European city” into “a big Turkish village”, as a friend put it recently. The tensions these changes wrought - between liberals and conservatives, devout and secular, left and right, urban and rural - acquired an overtly political and religious tone in the 1970s, leading to widespread clashes among factions that espoused ever more extreme varieties of nationalism, communism, secularism, and Islamism.

Urbanisation and the dilution of metropolitan culture led to the emergence of a third force in Turkish politics alongside the traditional secular left and right factions - that of conservative, practising Muslims disillusioned with, or unable to profit from, modernisation and the political and social chaos that seemed its most obvious expression. The leader of this new force was Necmettin Erbakan, a fundamentalist Islamist who espoused an extreme version of the Sunni Muslim faith to which a majority of Turks adhere. Among his goals were the imposition of sharia law in Turkey and the country’s complete integration into the Muslim world, perhaps even to lead it. But, as Turkey sank into chaos and political Islam gained ground, an event occurred that shook Turkey as much as it shook the rest of the world. Next door, in Iran, a theocratic revolution ousted the Shah. Overtly political Islam had overthrown the established order.

In September 1980 the Turkish armed forces responded to growing public calls for intervention and staged a military coup. These self-appointed guardians of the republic (a status frequently endorsed by Turkish civilians, who have never loved their politicians as much as they love their soldiers), were furious at the breakdown of law and order in Turkey and alarmed by the rise of extremist Islam. The constitution was suspended, parliament was dissolved, political parties were banned and the generals set about restoring order.

Erdogan was in his 20s when all of this happened, and it was to shape his political outlook. By the time he completed his education he had grown a beard, an act frowned upon not just in secular political circles but in those institutions, including football clubs, that saw themselves as representatives of a modern, European Turkey. It has been argued that his beard was one reason why he did not become a professional footballer - because the best clubs demanded that their players be clean-shaven. This may be true; another reason, given to me by a prominent Turkish journalist who has followed Erdogan’s career for years, is that, good a player as he was, he was just below the grade required of a professional. (In an e-mail, Erdogan confirmed to me that his father disapproved of his playing football because he wanted him to go to university, and said he had no regrets about not turning pro.)

Growing a beard was, for Erdogan, both a political and a religious act. As a devout young Muslim, he was drawn into Erbakan’s circle and he joined the youth ranks of the Welfare party, which had been established by Erbakan to harness the political aspirations of conservative but thrusting Muslims. For followers of the Welfare party, politics and religion were inextricably linked.

Articulate and relatively moderate (at least compared with Erbakan), Erdogan rose quickly through the ranks of the party, and he emerged as its candidate for mayor of Istanbul in 1994, at the age of 40. By then he was not only an established politician; he was a well-to-do businessman. He had set up a company, which his family still controls, that distributed products in the city for Ulker, a food producer. Ulker is a leading example of a relatively new but growing force in the Turkish economy - “green capitalism”, the phrase used to refer to companies founded by pious Muslims that use religion as a marketing tool, and which is the basis of the wealth of the emerging Muslim middle class.

This phenomenon has its roots in the 1980 coup. With the exception of the war against the Kurdish insurgency, which raged in the south-east from the early 1980s until 1999, this was the seminal event in Turkey in the last quarter of the 20th century. By the time the armed forces were ready to restore democracy in 1983, they had decided on two strategies that would permanently alter the Turkish landscape. One was that capitalism had to be liberated to crush the communist threat; the second, that moderate Islam had to be encouraged to prevent the Islamist threat. As Rusen Cakir, the co-author of a biography of Erdogan, told me, “It was decided that Islam was too important to be left to the Islamists.”

Turgut Ozal, who became prime minister when elections were restored in 1983, would prove the ideal man to achieve both objectives. Ozal is often called the second great Turkish revolutionary, after Ataturk. A devout but freewheeling Muslim, he opened the economy to the west by promoting private enterprise and liberalising markets, and by pursuing moderate domestic and foreign policies he brought stability and a period of robust economic growth. Ozal dominated Turkish politics in the 1980s, and his death (as president) in 1993 left a vacuum that lesser politicians were unable to fill.

There is another Ozal legacy, however, that is often overlooked but would become a factor in the political earthquake that brought Erdogan to power barely a decade later. While Ozal might be credited with the development of the Turkish economy and the emergence of a middle class of practising Muslims, his reforms failed to benefit the great mass of Turks, who have become demonstrably poorer over the past 20 years because of inflation and the rise of corruption. The gap between rich and poor in Turkey today is on a par with that of Brazil, even if Turkish billionaires are less ostentatious than their Latin American counterparts.

Emin Turan, the shopkeeper in the quiet Istanbul backstreet, blames Ozal for the rampant corruption that came to plague Turkey before, and especially after, his death. After he died, as a caravanserai of unstable coalition governments came and went, Turkey discarded Ozal’s best qualities of enterprise, tolerance, and moderation, and retained the worst - disdain for rules, gerrymandering and nod-and-wink administration. “Since 1983, things have gone upside-down,” says Turan. “But there is nothing that Erdogan cannot do. He is God’s gift to Turkey, given to this country by Allah.”

Elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, Erodgan proved to be a competent administrator. Garbage was collected and pavements repaired. In his self-appointed role as “the imam of Istanbul”, he banned alcohol in municipal buildings and tried (unsuccessfully) to close down the city’s bordellos. By now he had ascended to the hierarchy of the Welfare party, and his public position gave it a serious role in national politics. This role was confirmed in elections in 1995, when Welfare emerged as the largest party in parliament. Necmettin Erbakan became prime minister at the head of a coalition government, the first Islamist to hold the post.

Tayfun Atay, a social anthropologist at Ankara University, describes the rise of the Welfare party as a natural consequence of the co-opting of moderate Islam into the political and commercial life of the country after the 1980 coup, a development that appealed in particular to social conservatives. “The armed forces,” Atay told me, “wanted to have the support of the Muslim heartland for a crackdown on communists. This created a lot of self-confidence among Turkey’s Muslims. The opening of the economy also began to create a new bourgeoisie - in textiles, agriculture, supermarkets. These were companies owned by Muslim entrepreneurs, and they were using this as part of their appeal to their customers.”

Yet Erbakan proved to be a disaster for Turkey. Instead of addressing public concerns about corruption and a sliding economy and courting the patriotic and socially conservative Muslim middle class that had elected him, he espoused an extreme form of political Islam. He travelled widely in the Muslim world to promote Turkey’s claims to leadership among governments that were themselves fighting Islamist extremists within their own borders. By 1997, the armed forces had become alarmed by Erbakan’s extremism and decided to take action.

What followed has become known as Turkey’s “post-modern coup”, or the “28 February process”. Without resorting to the use of force, the military issued a series of warnings about the government’s political drift and encouraged the secular elite in business and the universities to agitate for it to be replaced, which they duly did. Erbakan’s coalition allies deserted, and he resigned. In the crackdown on religious expression that followed, the Welfare party was banned and Erdogan lost his job as mayor of Istanbul. He would soon be on his way to prison as a consequence of his “anti-secularist” speech at Siirt.

The “post-modern coup” changed Erdogan, according to Cakir, his biographer and a columnist for Vatan, a daily newspaper. It taught him the value of moderation and of fealty to the aspects of Turkish history - republicanism, nationalism, and the separation of religion and politics - that most Turks cherish. It also presented him with an opportunity. Erbakan was finished as the leader of the conservative Muslim movement. After his release from prison, Erdogan gathered the Welfare party apparatus into a new political grouping he named Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development party, or AKP).

At first its support was drawn mostly from the Welfare party base. But, true to their record, the secular parties would soon prove to be the AKP’s best vote-gathering agents. After a series of political and social calamities - the 1999 earthquake, the 2001 financial crisis - disgust with the established parties reached a level that the party could confidently exploit. In the general election of November 2002, it secured a commanding majority of 362 seats in the 550-seat parliament, with the Republican People’s Party, Ataturk’s natural heirs, as the sole opposition. (A rule stipulating that parties must win a minimum of 10 per cent of the vote to gain seats means that nearly half of Turkey’s electorate is not represented in parliament.) When Erdogan became prime minister in March 2003, after overturning a lifetime ban from politics, he had a clear mandate.

But for what? That question still divides Turkish politicians and commentators. The AKP is as much a coalition of the willing as it is a political party. Atay says that while Erdogan’s core support comes from the Muslim bourgeoisie, it is for widely differing reasons. “Erdogan is representative of this bourgeoisie. It is the cornerstone of his power,” Atay says. But, he adds, what also appealed to these voters was Erdogan’s openness to the west and the EU. “The fact that Erdogan is a Muslim is the most necessary condition [of his electoral success], but it is not sufficient,” he says.

”The difference between the AKP and previous generations of Islamist politicians is that it is the product of a modern society. Erdogan and his colleagues are open to the modern world. They know Turkish culture, the main determinant of which is Islam, and they know the west, the main determinant of which is modernity. In the 1990s, Turks became disillusioned with social democracy. While we were fighting the Kurds, pluralism, multiculturalism and tolerance of minorities were spreading around the world. In this context, Erdogan seemed fresh, dynamic and hopeful. People were persuaded by him, and the alternatives were horrible.”

The AKP and Erdogan, in that sense, are products of Turkey’s maturity as a modern nation and a democracy. As Rusen Cakir puts it, “Without secularism there would be no AKP, and if there had been no post-modern coup, Erdogan would still be a hardcore fundamentalist.”

Others are less sure. When I call Onur Oymen to discuss Erdogan, he is enthusiastic. “He’s my favourite subject,” this opposition politician and former diplomat chortles down the telephone. A few days later we sit in his office and discuss this ironic statement over tea and croissants. Oymen, like many Turks of his internationalist bent, is troubled by two aspects of Erdogan - his insistence on wearing his religion on his sleeve, and what he sees as the impression taking hold abroad that Turkey is, when all is said and done, incorrigibly a Muslim country, rather than the secular republic with an absolute commitment to the separation of religion and politics that successive governments had nurtured since the time of Ataturk.

”Some countries,” Oymen says, “want to see Turkey as a Muslim country because it suits their world view, their need for a moderate Muslim country. They believe this government is exactly what they are looking for. But this government seems in a hurry to pass laws, whether to ban adultery or to reinstate the headscarf. It is over-emphasising Islam, and this over-emphasis is coming from Erdogan. All of this gives the impression to our European friends that it is not a secular Turkey but a Muslim Turkey that wants to join the EU. Erdogan took an oath [on becoming prime minister] to uphold secularism. But what is his definition of secularism? It is not the clear distinction between church and state that Jefferson decreed.” And Ataturk, he might have added.

When I meet Erdogan at his office in Ankara, he is as impressive as I expect him to be. I have seen him on television countless times, and up close on occasion, at press conferences or during public appearances. He can be a difficult man to read from a distance, however; you have to shake his hand to take the measure of his intelligent face and quick eyes. His youthful beard has gone, but he has a thin moustache. His manner confirms one’s first impression, that here is a serious man. It is one reason why he is so popular - Turks are tired of dilettante politicians. Whether or not they voted for their prime minister, it makes them feel good to have a serious man at the helm.

Erdogan, tall and elegant in a dark suit, sits on a magnificent gold-and-brocade armchair. I take another one close to him. Several minders and officials are in attendance. I have been warned that he doesn’t have much time, and that a Chinese delegation is due imminently. I almost forget my opening question under the gaze of so many eyes. But when I ask him about this apparent mixing of religion and politics, he hits his indignant stride. Erdogan tends to answer questions much as he delivers speeches, in declarative sentences. But that does not obscure his meaning, or his intent.

”Let me be quite open and clear in stating a fact - we don’t find it appropriate to mix religion and politics,” he says. “We are not Muslim democrats, we are conservative democrats. Some in the west portray us as [Muslim democrats] but our notion of conservative democracy is to attach ourselves to the customs and the traditions and the values of our society, which is based on the family. This is a democratic issue, not a religious one.”

The AKP, he adds, is not a religious party, and to portray it as such would be to misunderstand it. “When I say that we are not a religious party, some people say, ‘yes you are a religious party’. What can I say? If there are some people in the party who practise their religion and if that bothers people, there is not much I can do about it.” Erdogan, who is known to pray at least three times a day, makes it clear that he is a little tired of having to justify and explain his religious practice, and that of other members of his government. “It’s just like in the Christian world, where it is normal for politicians to practise their faith,” he protests. “It is the same here. Isn’t this one of the requirements of the secular state?”

When our discussion turns to possible membership of the EU, Erdogan retraces a well-worn path. He is fully of the view that, for both Europe and Turkey, December 17 is a historic turning point. “If the EU is not [to be] a Christian club then it has to accept Turkey,” he says. “Turkey would join as the representative of a different civilisation, and Turkey’s joining would make the EU the home of the merging of civilisations. I believe that EU leaders have recognised this fact.” As for the doubts that have emerged in some EU countries, notably France, about Turkey’s credentials for membership, these “can be overcome by political leadership”.

I ask him about the historical significance for Turkey of the EU decision. His answer is surprising. For Turkey, he says, a positive outcome will ensure that it is no longer “an isolated and closed society” but “an open and transparent one, in touch with the rest of the world. Countries on their own do not mean, do not represent, much any more. They can achieve a lot more in solidarity with their friends.”

This is a controversial statement because it stands decades of Turkishness on its head. Since 1923, the national sentiment has been that to be Turkish was the important thing. “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk,” as every schoolchild intones daily. This ideal has proved insufficient, however, over the course of Turkey’s modern history. The republic set out with exalted aims for its citizens, yet has often failed, through indifference or incompetence or a preoccupation with its own survival, to provide them with the means to achieve them. Many Turks recognise this. They want to join the EU for many reasons, and the need to consolidate and protect their freedoms against arbitrary power, whether from Islamists or from generals, is an important one. It is clear that the prime minister recognises this, and he may be the first modern Turkish leader to acknowledge it. If Erdogan is a radical, then it is here that his radicalism may yet count most tellingly. Turkey appears to have made its choice for December 17. Now it’s up to Europe.

Vincent Boland is The FT’s Turkey correspondent.