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Between a rock and a hard place
– by Canan Topçu
© dpa / picture-alliance
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Lifting the ban on headscarves at universities in Turkey was an election promise of Erdogan’s Justice and Development party, the AKP. But once that decision was officially passed, thousands took to the streets in Turkish cities. They considered the step a threat to laicism, fearing the Islamisation of their country.
Erdogan is a thorn in the side of supporters of Kemalism. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), founder of the Republic of Turkey, regarded Islam as a threat to the modern state. Today, some consider Erdogan a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who is transforming Turkey into a country in which Islam rules social and political life.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing or reformer – who is Erdogan? His politics are contradictory. What outsiders cannot know is that these contradictions have their roots in peculiarities of the Turkish state. Secularism in Kemalist terms does not mean freedom of belief, but government control of religion. For example, Islam is entered as the religion on the birth certificate of every child. Parents have to apply to have this changed. Nonetheless, there is the ban on headscarves in state institutions. Until recently, it was also in force at universities.
At the same time, the theology faculty in Ankara is considered the “nucleus of all impetus for religious reform”. Representatives of the “Ankara school” argue that the Qur’an needs a modern-day interpretation. They do not insist on headscarves or other ancient doctrines.
Erdogan is a reformer. In his term, per-capita income has doubled, inflation is lower than ever, and accession talks with the EU have begun. While the country is developing, Erdogan is treading on the toes of the Kemalist establishment. As D+C was going to print, Turkey’s constitutional court started considering a case filed by a top prosecutor who wants to see the democratically legitimate AKP banned. This case may yet drag Turkey into deep crises. Erdogan also has opponents in the secret service and among the nationalists. The latter accuse him of selling off the country. Indeed, more and more foreign companies are investing in Turkey. Others, however, understand, that Erdogan has brought about economic progress.
Erdogan is a reconstructed Islamist and devout Muslim, who grew up in the poor Kasimpasa quarters of Istanbul. Plain people tend to trust him. He is one of them; he knows their troubles and worries. With a detour via prison, the 54 year old made his way from mayor of the metropolis of Istanbul to prime minister. Since assuming office in spring 2003, he made headway with a lot of things his predecessors tried to achieve, but could not.
By heading towards the EU, however, Erdogan is not only making friends. For the military top brass, who consider themselves the guardians of Kemalism, EU accession would mean a loss of power. With three coups and several threats, they managed to safeguard their privileges over decades. Parliament’s decision in autumn to agree to an invasion of northern Iraq should therefore be understood as a concession to these forces. Nonetheless, the campaign has lately come to a halt.
Erdogan’s opponents play on people’s fear of an Islamic coup to maintain the status quo and defend their privileges. The prime minister must accommodate supporters and opponents alike to modernise the country and press on with EU accession. Fear of Turkey’s radical Islamisation is unfounded. As for the ban on headscarves in a democratic society: it was about time for young women not to be excluded from education simply because they fancy a particular article of clothing. Skeptics should judge Erdogan by what he does – and not by Kemalism-induced fears.