Skip to comments.Abramowitz: Major Political Clash in Turkey between ‘Secularists’ and ‘Islamists’
Posted on 04/27/2007 4:13:27 PM PDT by a_Turk
Morton I. Abramowitz, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey during the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991, says many Turkish Secularists fear a government headed by the Islamist party of Prime Minister Erdogan could turn back the clock and introduce religion into public life. Abramowitz thinks these concerns are exaggerated. He adds that Turkey's nominee for president, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, is well known to the West for his conciliatory positions.
Turkeys political scene is in an uproar these days over the choice of a new president. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the so-called Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party [AKP], has picked the Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. This has caused a big stir. Why?
The stir was first of all against Prime Minister Erdogan, whom many of the so-called Secularists considered arch-evil and a very deceptive man. They tried very hard to get him not to name himself. There were two groups at work here. One, the Secularists, who dislike Erdogan because of what they perceive as his religious aspirations for changing Turkeys political system. He would also be sitting in the seat of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, with a wife who wears a headscarf, and thereby is anathema to Secularists.
But at the same time, the members of his own party were worried about losing him to the presidency because the parliamentary elections are coming up, and he is their best vote getter. So he probably backed down for a combination of reasons. He picked Gul, who is equally appreciated in the AKP, who has had a lot of experience, actually much more governmental experience than Erdogan. Gul comes across in public as a man who doesnt like to create controversy and who tries to find ways to ameliorate conflict. And he was the number two man in the party basically.
And hes the foreign minister.
He has been foreign minister for the last four years. And certainly he is respected by people in the foreign ministry and by many of his colleagues in other foreign ministries around the world. The Secularists probably dislike him less, but they distrust him because he shares Erdogans political philosophy, which they think is aimed at changing Turkeys status as a secular state. Guls wife also wears a headscarf. So both of those factors are of deep concern to many of the Secularists. The Secularists are trying to promote a sort of electoral coup by threatening to boycott the parliament. I dont know if that can work.
Now the chief Secularists, of course, are the military, right?
Certainly there are many sources of secularism, but the guardian of the secular state has always been the military. Thats one of their functions. They believe their duty is not just to defend Turkey, but to defend the secular regime. They are very unhappy with Erdogan. And they dont like this happening, but it does not appear that they will undertake a coup or anything of the sort.
If youre a Secularist, you can also be a Muslim, right?
Absolutely. Most Secularists are Muslim. The question is how much of your religious philosophy you bring into the management of the state and of the social order. There are some who are deeply worried that somehow or other the Islamists will introduce Islamic law, the so-called sharia, as a governing element in Turkey. I think thats highly, highly unlikely, and would create a huge revolution in Turkey. On the other hand, Secularists are always concerned that the Islamists, in power, will change the nature of Turkish life, leading to more headscarves, more attention to religious schools. Those are actually big issues. A friend of mine, who is a Secularist, wrote me a letter saying, I feel the pressure from them on me all the time. Its a daily, living pressure of seeing somehow or other, religion becoming a greater force in Turkish life.
I was reading an interesting article today on the Internet. Guls wife wears a headdress. They have a daughter who goes to college. And the daughter, when shes at home, wears a headdress. But when shes in school, she wears a wig, the article said.
The Islamic headgear is verboten in public institutions. If you want to attend a university, participate in class, you cant legitimately wear a headscarf. They will deny you the ability to participate.
But a wig is okay?
A wig is okay.
A headdress can be a big issue.
The headdress is a symbol of a reversion to the pre-Ataturk period. Thats in large part what it is.
You mean under the Ottoman Empire. . .
There was the fez and all those sorts of accoutrements of the time when the Ottoman Empire was a religious state. The headdress is viewed as an anti-Ataturk symbol and a political statement, not just an individual wanting to wear a headdress. It is a political statement that they are seeking to change the nature of the Turkish political entity.
Does all this furor over religion in public life distract from the big foreign policy issues? Turkey has had problems with the United States and in northern Iraq with the Kurdish problem, right?
Religion in public life has become a very polarizing issue. The country is quite divided now because it will be a genuinely historical change if the AKP has the government, the presidency, and the parliament. But you have to look at their record. This has been, by Turkish standards, a very successful government. It has not significantly changed the nature of the secular state at all. There are many constraints to it, including the military. So I believe that there are great constraints against Turkey becoming a religious state.
What is the U.S. reaction?
I dont want to speak for the U.S. government, since I dont belong to them anymore, but I think the United States believes theyve done a good job. Theyve been democratically elected. We work together with them on many, many issues. And theres no reason to, in any way, contest what is happening, although we all understand the conflicting tendencies here and the deep concerns. I myself have always been somewhat suspicious and skeptical, but thats because of my own secular background.
When you say Islamist to an American, he thinks of al-Qaeda. Could Turkey become an extremist state?
That is out of the question. I dont want to say there wont be greater manifestations of religion, such as more people going to religious schools perhaps, maybe the freeing of the headscarf in public places. But I dont believe this will fundamentally change the nature of the Turkish state. There are enough constraints. Also, these people want to get into the European Union. They fought very hard to become eligible for the European Union. Whether the European Union will let them in, who knows? It would be unfortunate if they didnt. The Turks have been involved in a huge amount of diplomacy with Western countries. Turkey gets huge amounts of foreign investment now, which didnt happen before this government, from $1 billion to $30 billion. When I look at the previous governments for the past fifteen years, compared to this one, its night and day.
Interesting. What caused this rebirth in Turkey?
A number of things happened. First, the previous administration, to their credit, had started a very serious program of commitment to the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to keep budgetary restraints. Second, theyve opened up the market much more. Third, theyve carried out a big privatization campaign. They have done a substantial number of the things that people talked about for years that werent being done.
Lets touch on foreign policy a little bit. What are relations with the United States like?
Iraq is a central issue and has been the central issue between the United States and Turkey for a number of years. Turks feel the end result of U.S. military involvement in the first Gulf War and this Gulf War has produced something which they have always feared: a Kurdish state next door.
This goes back to the first Gulf War, when you were ambassador.
Yes, its not something thats just happened. The Turkish public was against the first Gulf War and it was only because Turgut Ozal was president and had a majority in his party that the Turks participated in ways that helped us with that war. Before the second war started we had this big explosion when they turned down our efforts to let U.S. troops enter northern Iraq through Turkey. While there has been enormous growth in anti-Americanism over the past few years, or anti-Bushism, depending on how you look at it, right now the Turkish government very much wants the Americans to be successful, to keep Iraq together, and somehow prevent it from breaking up and having an independent Kurdish state. The Turks have an existential problem they have not been able to resolve: How do they deal with this entity which they fear may have a huge impact on their own domestic Kurds? Now that may be exaggerated fear, but it is certainly a fear.
The Turkish military has expressed concern about a disputed presidential election, and indicated that it is willing to become more openly involved in the process.
The military’s decision to add its voice to the issue raises the pressure on the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The military considers itself the key protector of Turkey’s secular establishment and has executed three coups in the past to restore order and guard the secular system.
“The Turkish armed forces have been monitoring the situation with concern,” the military said in a statement posted on its website. “It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the sides in this debate and the absolute defender of secularism.”
Referring to the military, the statement also said: “When necessary, it will display its attitudes and actions very clearly. No one should doubt that.”
“The Turkish Armed Forces retains its solid determination to protect these qualities based on clearly stated missions it was given by laws,” the military said. Turkey’s military staged three coups since 1960 based on the same argument. Earlier yesterday, the ruling party’s presidential candidate failed to win enough votes in a first round of balloting in Parliament, reflecting the deep rift between the Islamic-rooted government and the secular establishment.
The military also complained about a series of public events where it said Islam had encroached on secular traditions. In particular, it mentioned a competition for children to memorise the Koran during the April 23 Children’s Day, a festival initiated by the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as a secular event. The competition was cancelled after the programme was publicised.
The military statement also said girls dressed in Islamic outfits were seen reciting prayers at an Islamic event in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa on April 22, as the organisers attempted to pull down Turkish flags and pictures of Ataturk.
“Those who are engaged in such activities do not refrain from exploiting our people’s holy religious sentiments and try to hide their real intentions, which amount to challenging the state, behind religion,” the military statement said.
“This radical Islamic understanding, which is against the Republic and has no goal but to erode the basic qualities of the state, has been expanding its span with encouragement” from politicians and local authorities, the statement claimed.
Comment: I fully support the Turkish Armed Forces, and hopefully there will be a new election for the parliament soon. Furthermore, many problems in Pakistan would be reduced if they learn from Turkey.
Interesting. Thanks for the ping.
Interesting. Thanks for the ping.
Constitutional Court President Tulay Tugcu earlier said if an application to call off the presidential election was made to the court it would take only a couple of days to issue a ruling. However Deputy President Hasim Kilic stated in a recent declaration that the court might need more time in order to give its members and rapporteurs the opportunity to examine the situation in detail.
Kilic said according to the law their rapporteurs had the right to request up to a month to examine parliamentary bylaws and related constitutional provisions to decide whether the number of deputies who participated in the voting session was adequate.
Bravo, a_Turk! Well said! I believe the Turkish military has (or had) the power and responsibility to intervene to prevent Islamic takeover.
Thanks AdmSmith for the ping.
Excerpts of Turkish army statement
The following are excerpts of a statement by the Turkish military, quoted by the Anatolia news agency, in which it said it would defend the country’s secular system.
The statement was in reaction to a disputed vote in the Turkish parliament in which the Islamist-rooted ruling party’s candidate narrowly failed to be elected president.
It is observed that some circles who have been carrying out endless efforts to disturb fundamental values of the Republic of Turkey, especially secularism, have escalated their efforts recently.
Those activities include requests for redefinition of fundamental values and attempts to organise alternative celebrations instead of our national festivals symbolizing unity and solidarity of our nation. Those who carry out the mentioned activities which have turned into an open challenge against the state, do not refrain from exploiting holy religious feelings of our people, and they try to hide their real aims under the guise of religion.
An important part of these activities were done with the permission and within the knowledge of administrative authorities, who were supposed to intervene and prevent such incidents, a fact which intensifies the gravity of the issue.
This fundamentalist understanding, which is anti-republic and harbours no aim other than eroding the basic characteristics of the state, finds courage in recent developments and discourses and extends the scope of its activities.
Developments in our region give numerous examples that playing on religion and manipulating the faith into a political discourse can cause disasters. There are accounts in our country and abroad that a political discourse or an ideology can destroy the faith itself and turn it into something else when it is imposed on faith... Doubtlessly, the sole condition for the Republic of Turkey to live in peace and stability as a contemporary democracy is through defending the basic characteristics of our state which are defined in the Constitution.
The problem that emerged in the presidential election process is focused on arguments over secularism. Turkish Armed Forces are concerned about the recent situation. It should not be forgotten that the Turkish Armed Forces are a party in those arguments, and absolute defender of secularism. Also, the Turkish Armed Forces is definitely opposed to those arguments and negative comments. It will display its attitude and action openly and clearly whenever it is necessary.
Those who are opposed to Great Leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s understanding ‘How happy is the one who says I am a Turk’ are enemies of the Republic of Turkey and will remain so. The Turkish Armed Forces maintain their sound determination to carry out their duties stemming from laws to protect the unchangeable characteristics of the Republic of Turkey. Their loyalty to this determination is absolute.
The organizers said Sunday’s mass rally in Istanbul — supported by some 400 non-governmental organizations - will follow a similar demonstration in Ankara on April 14 which drew up to 1.5 million people according to some estimates.” “Let us unite for the Republic, tomorrow may be too late,” the organizers said in their call for the Istanbul rally.
The dispute which brought Turkey to the brink of a political crisis erupted when the Muslim government’s candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, narrowly missed becoming the next president in a first round of voting in parliament Friday. The prospect of Gul becoming head of state alarmed secularists about Islam creeping into all fields of life and prompted the opposition to boycott the vote, robbing the government of the required two-thirds majority.
In a harsh statement issued hours after Friday’s vote, the army, which has carried out three coups in the past, said it was determined to defend the secular order against what it saw as a growing Islamist influence.
The government lashed out on Saturday, calling the armed forces to order.
Comment: I hope that there will be many participants in the rally.
“Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” shouted demonstrators from all over the country as they waved flags and pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.
Many sang nationalist songs and called for the government’s resignation.
Our correspondent describes the rally as an enormous show of force. More than 300,000 people attended a similar event two weeks ago.
I can see how the EU bootlickers would want to see another Islamic dictatorship — they think it will help them usher in their own monolithic single party state in a united Europe — oh, and keep their Moslem yoots from burning cars (as if that will work).
And simultaneously, it undermines US influence and foreign policy.
And simultaneously, it gives yet another alibi for denying Turkish membership in the EU, something dangled in front of Turkey since the EEC days, in 1960.
I think that the main reason for the position of the EU officials is that they can only think that a political system has to converge to the one that they have in the EU. They just can’t get it that if there is a Muslim majority there has to be system that guarantees the civil rights and freedom as we understand it in the West. In Turkey this guarantor is the Turkish Armed Forces. I think that there will be a new general election soon.
Whatever his faults, Erdogan has tried to walk down the white line in the middle of the road; his first major humiliation was his (mostly unexpected) inability to deliver a favorable vote on the use of Turkish bases for the US-led liberation of Iraq. The Muzzie fundies want to drag him and Turkey their way, and a very large part of the country (including most of the military) does not want to go. Since he couldn’t count on his supposed supporters and coreligionists when it counted, and since the rest of the country didn’t vote for him in the first place, the past couple of years has seen a shift toward the view that his party won’t hold on to power.
This business with the EU opposing the intervention of the Turkish military is analogous (but not identical) to the situation where Carter (or Europe) didn’t lift a finger to keep the Shah in power. His toppling was the tipping point for the Middle East. There are three possible outcomes, IMHO: one, that the fundies will take over everywhere (apart from Israel); two, that the fundies will be smashed by US forces and/or their own internal internecine conflicts, ushering in a return to a containment mode; or three, the annihilation of Islam. I think two is best in the short term, provided it leads to number three. Number one is unacceptable, because the long term of that is world domination.
The main problem with Islamic fundamentalists occurs when they have access to state money. The Sunni camp with their fundamentalist wahabbis in the cleptocracy Saudi Arabia and the Shias in the Iranian theocrazy. The Iranians are not happy with the present administration, and if there is a change Iran will return to the secular world. The problem with Saudi is deeper, a regime change there will probably produce a more backward wahhabi administration. But we need to deal with the Saudi export of madrassas and mosques sooner than later.
I wholeheartedly agree. The fastest way to defeat the Islamofascist terrorists is to cut their budget, and the best way to do that is to take the US out of the world market for petroleum.
Or, nuke the Saudis, plant the flag, and let the Euros and Chinese know what they’ll be paying in the future.
Stark reality of Islam world:
Only military can check Islamists to safeguard secular society.
Perhaps the CHP leader Deniz Baykal, that it is difficult to work with, should resign in order to find a winning-coalition. This case is bigger than his personal career.
Is this being discussed in Turkish newspapers?
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