The Erdogan Experiment

The Erdogan Experiment

11 May 2003

Deborah Sontag / The New York Times

The new prime minister of Turkey stood stiffly in his formal office in Ankara, his mustache pulling his mouth into a frown. Serious pouches hung beneath his eyes as he shook hands briskly and positioned his lanky frame on a high-backed chair. Like a patient nodding to the dentist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 49, signaled he was ready to be interviewed. It seemed clear that he would have preferred to stretch out on the carpet and go to sleep.

There was no trace of Erdogan’s famous charisma, of the fiery oratorical skills on display just the previous day in Parliament, when I found myself responding instinctively to his booming voice’s cues, knowing, without understanding the Turkish, when I was supposed to rise, to clap, to cheer. Rather, during that evening interview last month, at several points while his remarks were being translated, Erdogan’s head bobbed forward and his eyelids drooped shut. He could be forgiven; his party’s first months in office had been grueling.

The war in neighboring Iraq was drawing to a close, much to Erdogan’s relief. The war was unpopular in Turkey and costly to Erdogan. Because he is a pragmatist, Erdogan supported America’s request to use Turkish soil as a staging ground. Yet, despite the fact that his party held two-thirds of the Parliament, he failed to win legislators’ approval for the request. It was a significant failure, damaging his new government’s relations with the Bush administration, depriving Turkey of billions in loans and grants and provoking questions about Erdogan’s competence and control of his party.

As he also backpedaled on the ever-divisive Cyprus issue, fumbled with Turkey’s wrecked economy and confronted Kurdish riots in an earthquake zone it seemed that Erdogan was extinguishing all too quickly the hopefulness that his fledgling party’s emphatic win in the Nov. 3 general elections had produced. Influential Turkish columnists abandoned their infatuation with the young Turk who had vanquished the old guard. One, Cengiz Candar, told me he had ”stopped even pronouncing Erdogan’s name publicly.” (It is pronounced EHR-doe-ahn, by the way).

Such pressure would have taxed the most seasoned politician, and Erdogan, once a popular mayor of Istanbul, was a novice on the national stage. Yet Erdogan was accustomed to proving himself. A pious man in a country where secularism is worshiped, and once a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, he had always been an outsider. And now, though he was tired, he was, more precisely, annoyed. It had been only a month since he assumed the premiership. He clearly felt, not unreasonably, that he deserved the benefit of the doubt.

The stakes were high, as not only his advisers but also opposition leaders told me. Tayyip Erdogan was an experiment for Turkey with ramifications that went well beyond Turkey. As a devout Muslim with an Islamist past who had nonetheless evolved into a modern, pro-Western democrat, Erdogan had the potential to set a powerful example for the region. If he could ease Turks into a less hostile separation of mosque and state, if he could help Turkey undertake long-overdue democratic reforms, then perhaps one day he would exemplify a way in which Islamic faith and democratic principles not only coexisted but also collaborated.

But first he needed to be given a chance to succeed. The transition to statesman after a life of struggle with the state was not a simple one. Fingering the Turkish flag on his lapel, Erdogan crossed his legs. ”Our people made us the governing party,” he said defiantly. ”Those who claim to respect democracy, why don’t they respect the vote of the people?”

Erdogan knows that many in the establishment distrust him or look down on him or do both. He knows they can’t quite believe that Erdogan is their prime minister; indeed, many seem embarrassed by his ignorance of foreign languages and by the head scarf that his wife wears as an emblem of her faith. He knows they are suspicious of his claims that he has evolved and that they imagine him to have a secret plan to impose religion on the nation. ”I have faced this all my life,” Erdogan said.

But he is weary of it. ”Before anything else, I’m a Muslim,” Erdogan said. ”As a Muslim, I try to comply with the requirements of my religion. I have a responsibility to God, who created me, and I try to fulfill that responsibility. But I try now very much to keep this away from my political life, to keep it private.” Poker-faced, he exhaled. ”A political party cannot have a religion. Only individuals can. Otherwise, you’d be exploiting religion, and religion is so supreme that it cannot be exploited or taken advantage of.”

To understand Erdogan’s dilemma, it helps to understand the depths of Turkey’s commitment to secularism. It began with the very establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, and the founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s rejection of traditional Islam as incompatible with his goal of establishing a modern European state. Ataturk shut the Islamic caliphate, dissolved religious courts, outlawed mystic sects and secularized schools. He replaced the Arabic script with Latin script. He outlawed the fez and all but imposed the homburg. He adopted the Swiss civil code and granted women the vote.

As secular nationalism became Turkey’s religion, the military took on the role of protecting Ataturk’s legacy, which meant keeping elected officials on a leash and overthrowing or undermining them if necessary. Erdogan himself is unofficially on probation. Turkey’s ”deep state” sees its duty as preventing the nation from backsliding into religion and ethnic, especially Kurdish, separatism. Islam was, of course, never snuffed out. While most Turks came to consider themselves Turks first, they were still Muslims. And from the start, especially in the heartland, traditional Islam survived despite repression. To this day, in what seems an arcane, self-defeating expression of Turkey’s secularism, women wearing head scarves are not allowed to attend universities or work in government. Prime Minister Erdogan’s two daughters, in fact, go to Indiana University, where they are free to cover their hair and get a degree at the same time. His wife does not appear at state functions lest her designer head scarf provoke fears of an imminent theocracy.

Erdogan’s family comes from a devout world in the Black Sea region. His father, Ahmet, migrated to Istanbul in the 1930’s, settled in Kasimpasa, a rough working-class quarter, and found work as a captain with a state maritime company. Kasimpasa has a body language all its own, and Turks say that Erdogan retains the Kasimpasa swagger, a way of leading with his right shoulder. Although the district was infamous for its gangs and pickpockets, Erdogan remembers the neighborhood as an idyll, with fruit trees and fields, where kids could get their hands dirty. ”I was shaped by that mud,” he said, ”not like the poor kids of today who are surrounded by asphalt.”

Near the now-ramshackle mosque where Erdogan studied the Koran as a child, the district manager of Kasimpasa, Ali Riza Sivritepe, spoke of growing up with him. They fetched water from the same well, flew kites and shot marbles over the irregular paving stones. (Erdogan, steely in his ambition even then, always won.) ”He was a very serious child,” Sivritepe said. ”Everyone respected him here and called him Big Brother.”

His father, according to a biography, was an authoritarian with a temper that could be tamed best by Erdogan’s kissing his shoes. Once, Erdogan’s father punished him for using bad language by hanging him from the ceiling by the arms. ”After that day, I never swore again,” Erdogan said.

When Erdogan was 7, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes — ”God bless his soul,” Erdogan said — was hanged. Elected in 1950 in Turkey’s first free elections, Menderes was a secularist but demonstrated a tolerance for religious practice that his predecessors had not possessed. Over 10 years in government, he faltered and became repressive, and when the Turkish military overthrew him, the coup was largely welcomed. But when Menderes was sent to the gallows, many Turks were horrified. ”Some are saddened by things like this, and they give up,” Erdogan said. ”In my case, this sadness turned into an attraction for politics.”

Part of the Erdogan lore is that in fifth grade he refused to use a newspaper as a prayer rug in a religion class. It was inappropriate, he told his teacher, who took a special interest in him and persuaded Erdogan’s father to send him to a state-run Prayer Leaders and Preachers school, which offered a secular curriculum amplified by religious instruction. Erdogan was particularly good at reciting nationalist poetry. During poetry contests, Sivritepe recalled, Erdogan would hide a Turkish flag inside his shirt and whip it out for dramatic effect.

Erdogan was also good at soccer, but he kept his playing secret from his father for years, hiding his soccer shoes in the coal bin. His father considered soccer a diversion from education and faith. In truth, politics was the real diversion. Erdogan juggled soccer — playing professionally for 11 years — political activism and school for more than a decade. He graduated with a degree in management at age 27.

During that era, political Islam became a force in Turkey, and Necmettin Erbakan, a German-educated engineer, emerged as its leader. Erbakan preached a return to religious values, which resonated in the heartland and in the poorer urban neighborhoods. While Erbakan’s first party, National Order, was banned for fomenting fundamentalism, the authorities later encouraged him to try again, seeing him as a counterweight to leftist parties. But his second party, National Salvation, grew steadily more radical and anti-Western, inspired by the Islamic revolution in neighboring Iran.

Erdogan was one of Erbakan’s disciples. His political climb began when he was appointed chairman of National Salvation’s youth group. Young Erdogan would practice his fiery rhetoric on abandoned ships, facing into the wind as he rehearsed his salutation: ”My sacred brothers whose hearts beat with the excitement of a big future Islamic conquest. . . . ”

Erdogan’s future wife, Emine, belonged to an Islamist women’s group, the Idealist Ladies Association, and she was mesmerized by his oratory. After six months of chaperoned dating, the couple became engaged and married in 1978. Two years later, National Salvation was dissolved along with all other parties in another military coup. Not to be suppressed, National Salvation was reborn as the Welfare Party, which is where the Islamists, some of whom saw an Islamic state as their goal and some of whom aspired only to greater tolerance of religion, hit their organizational stride.

Erdogan named a son after his leader, and Erbakan made him chairman of the Welfare Party’s Istanbul branch. They built a political machine that provided social services as it secured political power, appealing to the needy and disgruntled as well as to the faithful. But they did not always agree. Erdogan stopped kissing Erbakan’s hand because it struck him as retrograde, and he subtly pushed for greater democracy within the party and for broader outreach. Erdogan was not Erbakan’s first choice to be the Welfare Party candidate for mayor, but the older man bowed to the will of the party. Erdogan took his campaign into pubs, discotheques and even bordellos, and computerized the campaign offices. He made women the worker bees of his organization and involved secular men too.

In 1994, Erdogan was elected the first Islamist-oriented mayor of Istanbul. His victory stunned the country. It meant that the Islamists were succeeding in reaching beyond the mosque communities. It also meant that Erdogan was a force to be contended with. Indeed, many found Erdogan a more compelling package than his mentor. Whereas Erbakan was a flashy dresser and an autocratic figure, Erdogan styled himself as an authentic representative of the masses. ”In this country, there is a segregation of Black Turks and White Turks,” Erdogan once said. ”Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks.”

At the Hope Barbershop in Kasimpasa that Erdogan used to frequent, Ibrahim Azak, a barber, called him ”the best” at politics for just that reason. ”He was raised in a place like this,” Azak said. ”He doesn’t come from a palace. When he shops, he carries the bags himself.”

As mayor, Erdogan adopted modern management practices and proved singularly adept at delivering services, installing new water lines, cleaning up the streets, planting trees and improving transportation. He opened up City Hall to the people, gave out his e-mail address, established municipal hot lines. He was considered ethical and evenhanded. (One building-trade professional, however, told me that the corruption endemic to Istanbul City Hall persisted under Erdogan and that donations of equipment and vehicles were still solicited in exchange for building permits.)

Yet from the moment he pronounced himself the ”imam” of Istanbul, Erdogan began both provoking anxieties and recoiling from the fact that he had provoked them. He banned alcohol from municipal establishments, which created concern that he would eliminate alcohol from restaurants too. But he never did. He revived an elaborate project for a mosque complex in the city’s heart, then backed off when there were protests. He never clearly allayed secular concerns, keeping them alive instead with comments like: ”Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.”

Meanwhile, the Welfare Party finished first in a close national election, and Erbakan became the country’s first Islamist prime minister in 1996. With his rhetorical cannons firing away, he declared Turkish politics a pitiful imitation of the West and announced a campaign for worldwide Muslim solidarity. He overreached. After 12 months, the military forced him to resign.

There had long been differences between the younger party leaders, who came to be known as the modernists, and Erbakan and his men — whom they called the Politburo. When Erbakan was ousted and subsequently banned from politics, the modernists had their opening. But first they had to withstand the legacy of Erbakan’s radical provocations of the establishment, a crackdown that would pave the way for Erdogan’s rise.

In December 1997, the Welfare Party sent Erdogan to a political rally in southeastern Siirt, an impoverished, religious district where his wife’s family originated. On that day, as he had several times before, he recited a quatrain by Ziya Gokalp, an ideologue of Turkish nationalism: ”The mosques are our barracks, /the domes our helmets, /the minarets our bayonets, / and the believers our soldiers.”

Erdogan told me that the poem had been approved for textbooks by the education ministry, and he added, somewhat disingenuously, I think, that it principally served oratorical purposes. ”It was an attention getter,” he said. ”It would make the people spirited.” In the speech following the poem, however, Erdogan went on to proclaim that Islam was his compass and that anyone who tried to stifle prayer in Turkey would face an exploding volcano.

It was what one observer, Asla Aydintasbas, a New York-based columnist for the newspaper Sabah, described as an ”Al Sharpton moment.” Erdogan was playing to the crowd and prodding the military. And the military took the bait. Erdogan was charged with inciting hatred on the basis of religion, and convicted.

But this time, it was the bureaucracy that had overreached. Erdogan’s conviction not only enhanced his popularity among religious Turks but also disturbed many secular Turks. ”It’s not right what happened to him,” said Cuneyd Zapsu, a businessman who owns the Azizler holding company. ”I don’t want to live in a country where someone goes to jail for a poem. He was persecuted because they sensed his power, and I think it was not religion but a class thing. The so-called elite has never lived in this country’s reality. They’ve always been afraid of the people. That’s why all our laws are restrictions, not freedoms.”

In 1999, thousands accompanied Erdogan to the gates of the prison in western Thrace where he would serve five months. Erdogan told me that when the door clanked shut behind him it marked a breaking point as well as a turning point. ”Prison,” Erdogan said, ”matures you.”

Zapsu visited Erdogan in prison frequently. A free-spirited 46-year-old, Zapsu first met Erdogan when he was running for mayor. Erdogan had been looking for a liaison to the business community, and he heard that Zapsu, whose grandfather was a well-known Kurdish poet, was a maverick with an open mind. ” ‘I don’t want your money,’ ” Zapsu said Erdogan told him. ” ‘I want your help. Nobody from the establishment wants to talk to me.’ ” At that time, Zapsu said, Erdogan was more rigid. He wouldn’t shake the hands of Zapsu’s daughters; he hugs them now. But Zapsu said there was something special about Erdogan. During Erdogan’s incarceration, Zapsu worked to persuade him to break with Erbakan and his anti-Western philosophy. It wasn’t that hard, Zapsu said. Erdogan was coming to that conclusion himself. And Erbakan never visited anyway.

For the modernists in the Welfare Party, Erbakan’s ouster followed by Erdogan’s conviction undeniably demonstrated that confrontation with the establishment wasn’t getting them anywhere. Fehmi Koru, columnist for an Islamic-oriented newspaper, told me: ”When I first started writing about democracy, some members of the community criticized me openly, saying Islam and democracy were incompatible. But they grew ready for a change.”

They decided to start a new party that would aim for a broader political base. They would stop conducting politics with religious symbols and demonstrate instead how true belief informs politics wisely. Metin Heper, a political scientist, said that Erdogan believes in the potential of Islam to unite people around an ideal and build morality, integrity and drive. ”He believes in a kind of Islamic version of the Protestant work ethic, where you work hard for the benefit of the country because it is the good and right thing to do according to Islam,” Heper said. A poll taken to determine the public’s chief concerns generated the party name, Justice and Development, and its symbol, a glowing electric light bulb.

Justice and Development would be a party in which religious people could feel at home, but it wouldn’t be a religious party. Its members would be Muslim Democrats in the mold of Europe’s Christian Democrats. It would entice Westernized Turks from abroad, like Egemen Bagis, 33, a businessman living in New Jersey until Erdogan recruited him to run for Parliament without, Bagis said, ever asking whether he drank (he does) or whether his wife covered her hair (she doesn’t).

Zapsu, a founder of the party, introduced Erdogan to Ishak Alaton, an industrialist who is part of Istanbul’s small Jewish community. The avuncular Alaton told me that he came to see Erdogan as a ”practical man of good will” who represents ”the forces of change” in Turkey.

Just as Zapsu was Erdogan’s Henry Higgins, advising him on how to deal with the establishment and the West, Alaton took on introducing Erdogan to the American Jewish community and helping him send signals that he would maintain Turkey’s relationship with Israel. It required a little re-education first. ”They had this impression that the world was run by Jews,” Alaton said.

On Nov. 3 last year, Erdogan’s 16-month-old political party captured the first single-party majority in 15 years and the first substantial one in 50 years. It won 34 percent of the popular vote, which translated into a phenomenal 363 seats out of 550 seats in Parliament. All but one of Turkey’s established political parties — the Republican People’s, founded by Ataturk — failed to reach the 10 percent threshold needed for representation.

The victory was a resounding rejection of the old, corrupt, mismanaged and fragmented Turkish political order. It was also an embrace of Erdogan personally but not of Islamism. On election night, Erdogan immediately sought to reassure the establishment that he would not be an agent of unwanted change. In a news conference, he said that his government would not interfere with anyone’s way of life, would uphold Turkey’s Western-oriented foreign policy, would abide by an International Monetary Fund rescue plan and would continue the battle for admission to the European Union. The Turkish markets soared.

Even then, many distrusted his transformation. ”He’s saying all the right things about Europe and moving westward,” an American diplomat told me, ”but I fear he’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Those who knew him well, though, took him at his word. ”He wanted to change the system, but the system changed him,” said Rusen Cakir, one of Erdogan’s biographers. Alaton said he had no concerns that Erdogan was a closet fundamentalist. ”He came to power partly because he had this religious platform, but he knows it’s a dead end. He knows confrontation with the bureaucracy on religion would break him.” One Turkish lawyer put it to me more cynically: ”He believes in profits, not prophets.”

After his victory, Erdogan had a problem: banned from politics in 1998, he could not become prime minister. So, Abdullah Gul, who is now the foreign minister, assumed the premiership temporarily. In early December, President Bush invited Erdogan, still only chairman of the party, to the White House. This caused considerable controversy in Turkey, since it meant the United States was according international legitimacy to a leader considered illegitimate by the Turkish military.

According to Bagis, who served as Erdogan’s interpreter during the December meeting, Bush raised the issue of faith that Erdogan has worked so hard to keep in the background. Startling the Turks, Bush said: ”You believe in the Almighty, and I believe in the Almighty. That’s why we’ll be great partners.” Erdogan left Washington with Bush’s backing for Turkey’s long-frustrated accession to the European Union and headed to Europe to lobby for a firm date for talks. There he faced his first serious setback. The E.U. scheduled negotiations to begin in December 2004, but only if Turkey had undertaken sufficient reforms.

Erdogan’s party, meanwhile, speedily passed a reform of a more self-interested variety, amending the Turkish constitution so that the ban on Erdogan could be lifted. Conveniently, the results of elections in Siirt were nullified because of procedural irregularities, opening up a few seats in Parliament. So, Erdogan was preparing to run in by-elections just as the United States was moving closer to war in Iraq.

Erdogan had been open in his disdain for Saddam Hussein and calculating in his backing for the American request to base tens of thousands of troops in southern Turkey. The Turkish public, however, was adamantly antiwar, and many in Erdogan’s party, especially the more hard-line religious members, firmly opposed him on this issue. Erdogan was quickly learning that his high-wire act wasn’t going to be easy to pull off. He was supposed to be the anti-Erbakan, so he was not about to impose his will on his party. Critics of Erdogan’s performance, however, say that he should have done just that. ”Leaders have to lead,” the columnist Candar said, adding cuttingly, ”Being the darling of the simple people is not enough during such turbulent times.”

Erdogan’s advisers said that the United States did not fully grasp the political risk that he was taking and how much he needed written agreements demonstrating what Turkey would get in return for cooperating. ”They were used to dealing with our generals and not a politician trying to be democratic,” Zapsu said. The Turks were insulted when the Americans sent a State Department negotiator rather than a senior leader to work out an agreement with them. They acknowledge that they misjudged the United States’ determination to launch a war, with or without Turkey’s help, and that they bargained inexpertly. They were thin-skinned too when details of the financial bartering were leaked and cartoons in American newspapers portrayed them as bazaar hagglers. ”There was a very ugly campaign against my country,” Erdogan said.

In the end, Gul, the acting prime minister, had to go to Parliament with promises but no signed guarantees from the Americans. The military establishment didn’t want to help Erdogan, so the generals, whose support for Turkey’s participation in the war might have persuaded opposition members to vote for it, kept a low profile. Parliament failed — by three votes — to authorize the stationing of American troops in Turkey. The Americans were furious.

In early March, Erdogan was elected to Parliament and Gul prepared to step aside. Erdogan told me that Bush called to congratulate him, saying he’d never known any politician who had won 85 percent of the vote; Bush also asked him to try again in Parliament. Erdogan, however, told the American president that he needed to wait for Parliament to formally approve him as prime minister first, which his Turkish critics saw as cheeky, immature standing on ceremony.

By the time Erdogan was installed as prime minister, the Americans were asking only for the right to fly over Turkish airspace, and they got it, Erdogan said. Luckily for Turkey, the war was quick and contained. As it was drawing to a close, during that April interview, Erdogan insisted that Turkey had done more for the U.S. war effort than any other country except England. Turkish airspace was a singularly essential ingredient, he said. ”How could they feel let down by our doing all this?” he said defensively.

Earlier this year, when Muslim faithful were traveling to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the new Turkish authorities shrouded a billboard at the airport that featured a model in an itsy-bitsy bikini. Arch-secularists wrung their hands: this must be the first sign of the coming fundamentalism, they cried. The swimsuit company sued the government, and secularists cheered it on, until one day some realized that they were rushing to the defense of a pretty cheesy picture. Suddenly, everyone got quiet. Overnight, the billboard was moved to a discreet location and uncovered. It was a small, common-sensical compromise. But it raised the possibility of grander, more profound ones.

Alaton argues that Erdogan should be given more time by his own people and more open support from Europe and America. ”Erdogan shouldn’t be punished,” he said. ”Maybe people of good faith should understand how important he is.”

And even Kemal Dervis — a leading opposition figure and, as an elite, polyglot former World Bank official, the antithesis of Erdogan — told me he thinks the government’s success, remote as it seems now, would truly reverberate. ”It would send the message that you can be an overtly Muslim country and part of the club of developed nations too,” Dervis said. ”The significance of that for the world at large would be incredible.”

Unfortunately for him, Erdogan has been scrambling on several fronts. His government rattled the business community by advocating a pension increase, just the kind of populist spending measure that Turkey didn’t need. Further, while he had pledged to push a plan to reunify Cyprus, his government ended up backing away from a showdown with Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, and the Turkish military at a critical moment. This greatly disappointed those who thought he would be an agent of change. To take on the military too soon might be suicidal, they acknowledged, but to defer confrontation could also render him impotent.

Slipping confidence in Erdogan, as always, has been colored by distrust of his intentions — or at least his party’s intentions — on the religion issue. But maybe that concern is misplaced.

Maybe Erdogan doesn’t have the guts or power to push through any serious reforms, least of all on religion. Or maybe Erdogan, straddling two worlds, is the perfect person to defuse the tensions between secular and religious forces in Turkey.