A religious man rises in secular Turkish politics

After being shut out of the presidency last spring, Abdullah Gul, a religious man in the assiduously secular realm of Turkish politics, allowed himself a little soul-searching.

“Has the government limited women’s rights?” Gul, 56, asked a panel of newspaper editors on national television, hoping to persuade the Turkish establishment that it had nothing to fear from his candidacy.

After all, he argued, his party was already in power, but “has the government closed down places where young people or modern people go? Has the government done some secret things and those been disclosed? What happened?”

As he saw it, he had done everything right. As foreign minister, he had pushed for Turkey to join the European Union. He had called for changes to a law that punished writers simply for “insulting Turkishness.” He raised Turkey’s profile abroad and helped design a sweeping set of democratic reforms.

But for Turkey’s secular class, this was beside the point. Gul came from a party that espoused political Islam, his wife wore an Islamic head scarf, and the fear that inspired outweighed his accomplishments.

A high court blocked his candidacy at the request of the main secular opposition party.

Four months later, he is running again, after Turks voted overwhelmingly for his party in a national election. In the vote Tuesday, he was almost certain to win.

Turkey’s secular class is still clearly uncomfortable with the choice. Turkey’s powerful military, which has removed four elected governments, said on its Web site on Monday that there were “centers of evil” that “systematically try to corrode the secular nature of the Turkish Republic.”

But Turkey’s secular elite won only a fifth of the vote last month, and Gul, an outsider from Turkey’s religious heartland, seems to be calculating that he no longer needs its consent.

His approval will thrust a group of young, reform-minded members of the Islamic middle class into the upper echelons of secular power in Turkey, a fundamental reversal of the hierarchy in place since the founding of the state in 1923. For most of Turkey’s history, upper-class Turks have occupied the presidency and imposed Western values onto the conservative Anatolian heartland below. With Gul’s election, that heartland is on top.

“The pupils of Anatolia have grown up,” said Joost Lagendijk, a member of the European Parliament who works on Turkish issues. “The ones that were taught by Ankara and Istanbul how to behave are now asking for their own representation in politics.”

Metin Heper, a political science professor at Bilkent University, argues that despite Gul’s past participation in parties that espoused political Islam, he and his close ally, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, did not. They have an entirely different motivation.

A review of their political activity, Heper said, shows that they want to build a strong economy and healthy society, and that Islam was a moral compass to achieve it. “They thought you need people who would be industrious, who would take things seriously, who would also act in an honest manner,” he said. “They thought religion would be a source for the internalization of such values and attitudes.”

Gul was born in Kayseri, a conservative city of religious traders and merchants on the plains of central Turkey. The city had a strong part in Turkey’s current economic boom, creating a new Islamic middle class of which Gul was a part.

His early life was more village than city. He married a woman his mother chose, and she was just 14 at the time they were introduced – half his age. But he waited for her to finish school and to reach the legal marriage age, 15, before they wed.

In Kayseri, the art of selling was the important skill, but the young Gul was considered talentless. Mehmet Ozhaseki, an old friend and mayor of Kayseri, tells how Gul failed to sell soft drinks because he was too shy to sing the jingle, “cold enough to make your 32 teeth dance to the rhythm of the violin.”

So he went into academics, putting him on track to compete for power with the secular establishment. He earned a doctorate in economics, which included study in London and Exeter. In 1983, he moved to Saudi Arabia, working in the Islamic Development Bank for eight years.

In 1991, he ran for Parliament as part of the Welfare Party, an openly Islamist party.

The party was eventually banned, after the military forced it from power in 1997. Several years later, he joined Erdogan in breaking with the conservative Islamic party and founding the Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002.

“They became disenchanted with the undue attention that the party gave to religion,” Heper said. “They wanted to separate religion from politics altogether.”

But many critics remain unconvinced. “There is a large group of people in Turkey who still think that the statements he has made as a member of the Islamic political movement are his fundamental thoughts and cannot change with time,” said Yilmaz Esmer, a professor at Bahcesehir University.

His supporters argue that he is an agile politician and that his party has pursued the restructuring of the Turkish state needed for entry into the European Union. Gul calls the changes a “silent revolution.”

He argues deftly before foreign audiences on topics like partition in Iraq (he is against it) and the largely peaceful blend of Islam and democracy that makes Turkey exceptional in its region.

“For the Europeans, he is considered to be very competent and the driving force behind reforms that have taken place over the past few years,” Lagendijk said.

A call for EU border talks

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France on Monday conditioned the continuation of Turkey’s membership talks with the European Union on a high-level effort to define the bloc’s future borders.

Sarkozy, an outspoken opponent of Turkey’s entry into the EU, called on the 27 members to appoint a committee of “wise men” by the end of the year to determine what the bloc should look like in 2020 – roughly the time when Ankara’s accession negotiations are expected to reach their conclusion.

Turkey’s membership talks have been overshadowed by Ankara’s refusal to recognize Cyprus, prompting the EU to freeze 8 of 35 outstanding areas of negotiation – so-called chapters – in December. In June, Paris added to the strain by vetoing the opening of talks on economic and monetary affairs with Turkey – an area that Sarkozy argued was too clearly associated with future membership.


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Sabrina Tavernise and Sebnem Arsu, International Herald Tribune, Aug. 28, 2007, http://www.iht.com

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 28, 2007.
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