The election of Abdullah Gul as President of Turkey on 28 August 2007 is controversial because of his Islamic background. Now that both the Prime Minister and President have religious backgrounds, his election is widely viewed as a threat to the secular ethos of the Turkish State.
Although Mr Gul, in his accession speech, pledged allegiance to the secular constitution and the legacy of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, there are many who view such commitments as cosmetic.
Mr Gull entered parliament in 1991 as a member of the Welfare Party. This was a pro Islamic party which ruled in 1996, until it was forced out of power by the military. The reason for the intervention of the army was that the party was failing to respect the secular values enshrined in the constitution. Leaders of the party were banned from political office for several years.
Mr Gul reappeared in 1999 as a member of the Virtue Party. This party was also closed down in 2001, for the same reason. However, there was not a disqualification order and Mr Gul was instrumental in founding the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This party won a significant electoral victory in 2002, and has remained in power since then.
The fact that Mrs Gul wears a headscarf in public may seem a barely relevant point to many international observers, but it is deeply significant in Turkey. This is because Turkish women are forbidden to wear headscarves at school, university and in government. Women lawyers are also forbidden to wear headscarves in Court.
This is the legacy of Ataturk who considered Islam part of the Ottoman tradition which he and his followers were dedicated to eradicating from Turkish society. The secular nature of the Turkish state is safeguarded by the Constitution of 1982.
The Turkish establishment, including the military, are deeply committed to the secular ethos. However, they are perceived by many ordinary Turks as out of step with contemporary trends such as economic liberalism and social mobility within Turkish society.
The AKP party reflects the growing aspirations of many Turks for improved standards of living and a pro EU stance, and they compare Turkey’s economic performance in recent years with the periods of stagnation and inflation of the post war period.
Mr Gul became president at his second attempt, the first being blocked by the military in May which forced a general election. The AKP were returned to power with an increased majority and the military have not, as yet, intervened.
The newly appointed president’s wife, Mrs Gul, was notable by her absence at the Victory Day festivities which celebrate the victory of Dumlupinar, the final battle in the Turkish War of Independence of 1922, as she was not invited by the military. The military have a longstanding practice of not inviting the wives of AKP politicians who wear headscarves to civic events.
It is important to recognise the fragility of democracy in Turkey. The military have ousted four governments since 1960, and their complaints should not be taken lightly.
Mr Gul and the AKP need to tread very carefully during the early months of his presidency, due to the risk of military intervention. One way he could defuse the tension between the government and the army would be to accede to the military’s desire to take a harder line against the Kurdish Peoples Party (PKK) insurgents in eastern Turkey and to allow the military to strike at their bases in Northern Iraq.
Kurds have been flocking into Kirkuk in anticipation of a referendum which could grant a measure of devolved power to a relatively autonomous Kurdistan. In addition to the dimension of terrorism, the area is rich in oil and therefore has major strategic importance.
Mr Gul’s avowal of secular values is considered a sham by many commentators who point to his Islamic political past. However, it should be noted that many politicians modify their views during the course of their careers.
In the UK, the transformation of the Labour party from an organisation committed to state ownership of major industries and pacifism to a liberal, market oriented economy party is astounding. The fact that the party leaders embraced a bellicose foreign policy with respect to Afghanistan and Iraq provides an example of how politicians can radically change their policies.
Although opportunist politicians change their policies in response to public opinion, and the UK Labour Party is a prime example of this, one can question whether such an analysis holds in respect of religious beliefs. Contemporary events in the middle east indicate that Islam is a matter of deep conviction and not simply political convenience.
On this view, one could argue that it is only a matter of time before the AKP and President Gul adopt a more Islamic tone. This would have significant implications for NATO, of which Turkey is a member, and for Turkey’s relations with Israel, which are currently cordial. It would not bode well for Turkey’s accession into the EU.