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President Gul of Turkey - A Covert Islamist ?

Story Update on 2 October 2007

The secular tradition of Turkey, as establish by Ataturk, is perceived as under threat by the election of Abdullah Gul as President. The fact that his wife wears a head scarf is considered provocative in Turkey and is offensive to secularists. This group includes the traditional elite and the military. The new President will need to walk a fine line in order to avoid a challenge by the secularists while giving his own supporters greater influence in Turkish affairs.

Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Erdogan told the Financial Times on 19 September 2007 that he wanted to lift the ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities as part of the programme of consitutional reform.These remarks have re-ignited the tension caused the election of President Gul, who is considered a closet Islamist. Erdogan made reference to freedom of dress in other EU states and presented his proposal within that framework.

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His comments come at a time when other EU states, including the UK, have expressed reservations about the growing practice of Muslim women wearing tradtional dress in state offices, including schools and universities in the UK.

Opponents claim that his intentions have nothing to do with granting freedom to women in respect of their dress. Rather it is an opportunity for men to reinforce their oppresssion of women by insisting that their wives and daughters wear headscarves in public.

The problem for the secularists, who espouse the reforms of Ataturk, is that there is a large class of mainly agrarian Turks whose lifestyle remains traditional. At the same time, some of these have swelled the growing artisan and middle classes in the urban areas, without abandoning many traditional values and practices. The ruling AK party draws support from these groups.

The secularist lobby comprises the unlikely coalition of the military, the judiciary, students, the civil service and professional classes.

Story Update on 9 September 2007

The election of Abdullah Gul as President of Turkey on 28 August 2007 is controversial because of his Islamic background. Now that both the Prime Minister and President have religious backgrounds, his election is widely viewed as a threat to the secular ethos of the Turkish State.

Although Mr Gul, in his accession speech, pledged allegiance to the secular constitution and the legacy of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, there are many who view such commitments as cosmetic.

The reaction of the international community towards the new president is in sharp contrast to the misgivings expressed within Turkey. Mr Gul is widely known in international circles and his election has been welcomed. These leaders all have had close and warm relations with Gul. They take the view that he is not a religious zealot wearing a western suit.

Israel is the leading country that is extremely sensitive to Islamic fundamentalism. Yet the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Israel Tzipi Livni has spoken to Gul on the phone voicing her pleasure over his election as president.

Israeli Foreign Ministry sources said the two mentioned the favourable personal relationship they have built over the years and its contribution to the strengthening of the connection between Israel and Turkey. The two leaders agreed to continue to fortify the relationship in light of the tasks and challenges facing the region .

Mr Gull entered parliament in 1991 as a member of the Welfare Party. This was a pro Islamic party which ruled in 1996, until it was forced out of power by the military. The reason for the intervention of the army was that the party was failing to respect the secular values enshrined in the constitution. Leaders of the party were banned from political office for several years. Mr Gul reappeared in 1999 as a member of the Virtue Party. This party was also closed down in 2001, for the same reason. However, there was not a disqualification order and Mr Gul was instrumental in founding the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This party won a significant electoral victory in 2002, and has remained in power since then.

The fact that Mrs Gul wears a headscarf in public may seem a barely relevant point to many international observers, but it is deeply significant in Turkey. This is because Turkish women are forbidden to wear headscarves at school, university and in government. Women lawyers are also forbidden to wear headscarves in Court.

This is the legacy of Ataturk who considered Islam part of the Ottoman tradition which he and his followers were dedicated to eradicating from Turkish society. The secular nature of the Turkish state is safeguarded by the Constitution of 1982.

The Turkish establishment, including the military, are deeply committed to the secular ethos. However, they are perceived by many ordinary Turks as out of step with contemporary trends such as economic liberalism and social mobility within Turkish society.

The AKP party reflects the growing aspirations of many Turks for improved standards of living and a pro EU stance, and they compare Turkey's economic performance in recent years with the periods of stagnation and inflation of the post war period.

Where's your headscarf ?

The AKP's strategy since its inception has been consistent and simple. The party avoided mention of religion so as not to offend the constitution or Turkey's secular elite. At the same time, it took cognisance of the conservative religious inclinations of its supporters. The right to be more open about religion in public life was redefined as part of a more general struggle to make Turkey more fully democratic; and this prompted suspicions that for many AKP supporters, their own rights were more important than human rights in general. In a sense, the recognition by the state of a citizen's desire to practice Islam in public and to wear Islamic dress could be construed as a promotion of human rights. Even so, the rhetoric meant the AKP was less prone to Turkish nationalism and generally more tolerant of those who sought other rights, including the right to be Kurdish. The latter is an extremely dangerous step due to the longstanding problem of Kurdish linked terrorism and the Iraq dimension.

Most importantly, the AKP has impressed the international community. The one exception, which turned out to be a blessing, was the bungled parliamentary vote which meant it could not keep its pledge to allow the United States to invade Iraq from Turkish soil. Otherwise, it recommitted to the EU package, continued with an IMF recovery programme, kept a tight rein on public spending to restore investor confidence, and steered the country slowly out of debt. Washington endorsed what it described as the Turkish model for the region, a proof that Islam and democracy were compatible.

Mr Gul became president at his second attempt, the first being blocked by the military in May which forced a general election. The AKP were returned to power with an increased majority and the military have not, as yet, intervened.

The newly appointed president's wife, Mrs Gul, was notable by her absence at the Victory Day festivities which celebrate the victory of Dumlupinar, the final battle in the Turkish War of Independence of 1922, as she was not invited by the military. The military have a longstanding practice of not inviting the wives of AKP politicians who wear headscarves to civic events.

Mrs Gul and her controversial headscarf

Visitors to Turkey will notice the increased popularity of wearing headscarves in public. This is especially noticeable in poorer areas where traditional religious values are common. What is surprising is the popularity of headscarves in major cities, including Istanbul.

It is important to recognise the fragility of democracy in Turkey. The military have ousted four governments since 1960, and their complaints should not be taken lightly. Mr Gul and the AKP need to tread very carefully during the early months of his presidency, due to the risk of military intervention. One way he could defuse the tension between the government and the army would be to accede to the military's desire to take a harder line against the Kurdish Peoples Party (PKK) insurgents in eastern Turkey and to allow the military to strike at their bases in Northern Iraq. Kurds have been flocking into Kirkuk in anticipation of a referendum which could grant a measure of devolved power to a relatively autonomous Kurdistan. In addition to the dimension of terrorism, the area is rich in oil and therefore has major strategic importance.

Mr Gul's avowal of secular values is considered a sham by many commentators who point to his Islamic political past. However, it should be noted that many politicians modify their views during the course of their careers. In the UK, the transformation of the Labour party from an organisation committed to state ownership of major industries and pacifism to a liberal, market oriented economy party is astounding. The fact that the party leaders embraced a bellicose foreign policy with respect to Afghanistan and Iraq provides an example of how politicians can change their policies.

Although opportunist politicians change their policies in response to public opinion, and the UK Labour Party is a prime example of this, one can question whether such an analysis holds in respect of religious beliefs. Contemporary events in the middle east indicate that Islam is a matter of deep conviction and not simply political convenience.

Israeli Foreign Ministry sources said the two mentioned the favourable personal relationship they have built over the years and its contribution to the strengthening of the connection between Israel and Turkey. The two leaders agreed to continue to fortify the relationship in light of the tasks and challenges facing the region .

On this view, one could argue that it is only a matter of time before the AKP and President Gul adopt a more Islamic tone. This would have significant implications for NATO, of which Turkey is a member, and for Turkey's relations with Israel, which are currently cordial. It would not bode well for Turkey's accession into the EU.

Copyright - Leslie Hardy, 8 November 2010

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