Abramowitz: Major Political Clash in Turkey between ’Secularists’ and ’Islamists’

Abramowitz: Major Political Clash in Turkey between ’Secularists’ and ’Islamists’

Morton I. Abramowitz, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey during the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991, says many Turkish “Secularists” fear that the government headed by the “Islamist” party of Prime Minister Erdogan may turn back the clock and introduce religion into public life.

April 27, 2007 1:49 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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.

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Turkey’s 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?

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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 Turkey’s 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 doesn’t 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 he’s 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 Erdogan’s political philosophy, which they think is aimed at changing Turkey’s status as a secular state. Gul’s 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 don’t know if that can work.

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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. That’s 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 don’t like this happening, but it does not appear that they will undertake a coup or anything of the sort.

If you’re 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 that’s 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.” It’s a daily, living pressure of seeing somehow or other, religion becoming a greater force in Turkish life.

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I was reading an interesting article today on the Internet. Gul’s wife wears a headdress. They have a daughter who goes to college. And the daughter, when she’s at home, wears a headdress. But when she’s 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 can’t 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. That’s 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 don’t want to speak for the U.S. government, since I don’t belong to them anymore, but I think the United States believes they’ve done a good job. They’ve been democratically elected. We work together with them on many, many issues. And there’s 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 that’s 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 don’t want to say there won’t 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 don’t 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 didn’t. The Turks have been involved in a huge amount of diplomacy with Western countries. Turkey gets huge amounts of foreign investment now, which didn’t 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, it’s 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, they’ve opened up the market much more. Third, they’ve carried out a big privatization campaign. They have done a substantial number of the things that people talked about for years that weren’t being done.

Let’s 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, it’s not something that’s 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.


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