Eastern Star

By Matthews, Owen | Newsweek, September 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

Eastern Star


Matthews, Owen, Newsweek


Byline: Owen Matthews

Turkey's prime minister has become a hero in the middle east for standing up to the west. But Islam isn't what's driving him.

Gambling may be forbidden in Islam, but that hasn't kept Turkey's prime minister from being both a devout Muslim and a top-stakes player. Since the 2002 landslide vote that brought him to power, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rolled the dice repeatedly against Turkey's establishment--the committedly secular military and judiciary who have tried to ban him and his party for being too Islamic. And he keeps winning: in each general election and referendum, popular support for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has never slipped. Last weekend, Erdogan placed another big bet: a referendum on redrawing Turkey's Constitution to lessen the military's influence. The question, as it has always been, is whether Erdogan has a mandate to remake Turkey in his own image.

The thought gives Washington the jitters. It goes far beyond the worries of secular Turks that Erdogan might allow the Islamic clergy to tame the country's night life. The fear is that the prime minister could turn away from Turkey's traditional Western alliances and join forces instead with anti-U.S. hardliners in the Middle East. Recently, the nervousness has become more palpable than ever. First, Erdogan teamed up with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil in an effort to block U.N. sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. And then Erdogan accused Israel of "state-sponsored terrorism" and broke off military ties after an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish flotilla that was carrying aid to Gaza. Turkey has long been America's closest Muslim ally, and its formula for separating mosque and state in a thriving democracy seemed a model for the rest of the region. Could Wall Street Journal editorialist Robert L. Pollock be right in warning that Erdogan is leading the country on "a national decline into madness"?

The only way to know is to put aside the overheated rhetoric and look at the enigmatic prime minister himself. He has been alarming people ever since the 1990s, when as mayor of Istanbul he denounced Western-style New Year's celebrations and swimwear, proposed a ban on alcohol, and called himself "a servant of the Sharia." He finally went too far in 1999, publicly reciting a poem that declared: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes are our helmets, and the minarets are our bayonets." Prosecutors decided he had crossed the line into sedition, and Erdogan spent four months in jail.

Mention those days and people around Erdogan get defensive. "Sure, he said a lot of foolish things early in his career," says one of Erdogan's oldest backers, unwilling to be named speaking critically of his friend. "But look at [former German foreign minister] Joschka Fischer--he was a radical leftist in his student days. No one holds that against him today." Friends insist Erdogan is not the same man who went to jail. "If you look at his policies in power, you won't find a lot of Islam in there," says London-based analyst Grenville Byford. Instead, the prime minister has devoted himself to fixing a long list of other problems: restoring the rights of the Kurdish minority; ending the military's impunity; and mending relations with Armenia and Greece, among other things.

The AKP has pushed for legislation with a religious bent only twice: once in 2004, when Erdogan sought to criminalize adultery (public outcry quickly scuppered that idea), and again in 2008, when Erdogan amended the Constitution to let girls attend university while wearing Islamic head-scarves, which had been forbidden since 1980. Secularists decried the lifting of the ban as a threat to separation of state and religion, and the courts tried but failed to bar the AKP and its leaders from politics. But Erdogan saw it as a human-rights issue. "It was very personal for him," says one former AKP M.P. who worked with Erdogan in the early 2000s, asking not to be named talking of the prime minister's family. …

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