Turkey Waits and Wonders: How Closely Bound to Islam Is Election Victor?

Turkey Waits and Wonders: How Closely Bound to Islam Is Election Victor?

07 November 2002

Ian Fisher / The New York Times

The question is even more relevant now that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is, in all but name, the leader of this nation that vitally joins East to West: has he really changed?

The beliefs he expressed as a younger man, though not much younger, make many in Turkey wonder and fear a little.

”Thank God, I am for Shariah,” Mr. Erdogan once said, referring to Islamic law. Another time he said, ”For us, democracy is a means to an end.” Perhaps most infamously, ”One cannot be a secularist and a Muslim at the same time.”

The public mythology of Mr. Erdogan, 48, is that he began to see the world in a different way as these things happened: Turkey’s only Islamist government fell in 1997, he lost his job as Istanbul mayor the next year, and he went to jail for reciting a religious poem.

He then began to back off the muscular Islam that had always defined his life, praise Turkey’s secular state, and engage the West. ”I changed,” he said this year. ”It was necessary to catch up with developments, the modern age.”

Voters in Turkey, a nation proud of its religious moderation, believed him, or at least were willing to take a risk for broader political change. In the elections on Sunday, they swept away a generation of established politicians to give his Justice and Development Party enough seats in Parliament to form a government on its own, though Mr. Erdogan is himself barred from holding a formal post because of his conviction for reading the poem.

Many here, and in a Western world wary of Islamic radicalism after Sept. 11, say he still has to prove that change. But many who know Mr. Erdogan, or have followed his career, say he has either given up his more strident views or understands now that he is unlikely to hold onto power if he acts on them. Some say he has always been more pragmatist and populist than Islamist.

If he is sincere, Mr. Erdogan may usher in what Günter Verheugen, the European Union official in charge of expanding its membership, this week hopefully called ”one of the most interesting experiences in the future — whether we can have a modern democratic party in an Islamic country, a party based on religious values.”

Can Turkey, or any Muslim country, create a system like those in many Western democracies, where religion is paid due heed, but as a matter of values, not governance? Turkey, so far, has flinched from overtly religious political leaders as a threat to its vulnerable secular state, often at the expense of full democracy.

”It is very important,” said Metin Heper, a professor at Bilkent University in Ankara, who has written a detailed study of Mr. Erdogan. At best, he said, Mr. Erdogan may bring ”an enlightened interpretation of Islam, to make it compatible with the modern world and compatible with modern democracy, while he is a pious, devout Muslim himself.”

Mr. Erdogan has a long record of injecting Islam into politics. On his election as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he proclaimed himself the city’s imam, a Muslim religious leader, and opened public meetings with prayers.

His belief was formed in childhood in Kasimpasa, a conservative, religious, poor and somewhat rowdy neighborhood in Istanbul. In Kasimpasa today, women may cover their heads, but they also sit outside smoking cigarettes or navigate cars down the narrow, busy streets — uncommon sights in many Islamic countries, and a legacy of the more tolerant Islam practiced in the Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, where Jews, Christians and Muslims all lived.

Since the emergence of modern Turkey’s secular founder, Ataturk, the country’s leaders have often sought to stifle many expressions of Islam, and that has energized religious activists. But, Mr. Heper says in his study, this still gave rise to a more tolerant view of Islam than that in many other Islamic nations, and it is this view that Mr. Erdogan imbibed as a young man.

He attended a religious school in Kasimpasa — an experience he later said ”I owe everything to” — and played soccer well enough to become a neighborhood celebrity and, nearly, a professional athlete.

In everything, said Esref Yararbas, 47, a grocer in Kasimpasa who knew him since childhood, Mr. Erdogan wanted to win.

He started in politics organizing for a religious youth group, and by the mid-1980’s was active with the Welfare Party, headed by Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of Islamist politics in Turkey.

As Istanbul mayor, Mr. Erdogan won praise for an efficient administration. But his early career also stoked controversy: he banned alcohol in municipal restaurants; proposed returning prayer to the Ayasofia, the Byzantine church here, later a mosque, now a museum; suggested that Pierre Cardin ”stage a fashion show of dresses with veils.”

Some who know him say that it was as mayor that his view of the world began to shift — he traveled abroad and was exposed to broader ideas.

But in 1997 he recited a poem and opened the defining chapter of his career. It read, ”The mosques are our barracks, the minarets are our bayonets.”

Mr. Erdogan was convicted of inciting religious hatred in 1998 and served four months in prison in 1999. Several people who know him say that experience was pivotal.

”It was a turning point,” said Rusen Cakir, a former journalist. ”There were two alternatives. One was to be an Islamist Mandela in Turkey, resisting in jail and never obeying. The other was trying to find a compromise with the state, with the system. He tried the first one, but one week later, he changed his mind and accepted his punishment.”

Cuneyd Zapsu, a businessman and leader of Justice and Development, added: ”That made him see much clearer. When you are four months out of everything you know, you have to figure out what’s really going on.”

People who know him say that Mr. Erdogan was coming to a larger, more pragmatic realization about politics with an Islamic tinge. It did not work well in Turkey, and he is a man interested in grasping political power. The lesson was clear: in 1997, the army shoved aside Mr. Erbakan, who had become prime minister a year before, for what soldiers saw as taking religious politics too far. Mr. Erdogan also saw other Islamic regimes in the region, many underdeveloped and despotic.

”He found that radicalism is not the way to solve problems,” said Fehmi Koru, an influential columnist and Muslim intellectual. ”Now I believe he has changed and he deserves to be given at least the benefit of the doubt.”

Last year, Mr. Erdogan and several other former Welfare Party members founded Justice and Development and turned it into what some experts call a center-right political party, not a religious group. On several major issues, Mr. Erdogan has indeed shifted. He no longer opposes Turkey’s joining the European Union.

On election night, he assured the nation — and the outside world — that he supported a secular, democratic and West-looking Turkey.

”Secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions,” Mr. Erdogan said in an interview. His explanation of the party’s victory was more populist than anything. ”Justice and Development is the party of the people,” he said. ”It’s reliable, democratic, honest, respects and protects basic rights and freedoms. It is the voice of the silent masses, protector of the defenseless.”

The question many have in Turkey is whether Mr. Erdogan’s new moderation was merely a means to win. Newspapers often talk of a ”secret Islamic agenda.”

Many experts do believe he will attack issues that anger devout Muslims, like the ban on head scarves for women attending university, but say he will do it slowly so as not to rattle Turkey’s army, which sees itself as the guardian of the secular state and has intervened in the past — most recently in 1980 — to impose its vision of order.

Mr. Heper argues that Mr. Erdogan will most likely continue to represent his views of Islam, but more as a moral force than an outright political one. If he strays over the line, he knows the military may clamp down on him.

”Erdogan differs from this secular view of the world,” he said. ”He thinks that for the individual you need ethics derived from Islam. He also thinks that at the community level, Islam should to some extent regulate interpersonal relations. This is the extent to which he wants to use Islam.”