Owen Matthews

‘The minarets are our bayonets’

Owen Matthews meets Turkey's Islamist election victor, who may yet prove to be a good thing

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I have no doubt that Allah moves in mysterious ways. But if He has chosen Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the instrument of His vengeance on the infidel, He must be given credit for startling originality. Erdogan, whose party won a landslide victory in Turkey's recent general election, may be feared in some quarters as a dangerous Islamist, in person he looks no more threatening than a rather blokeish bank manager. Even during his most animated moments on the campaign trail, his bearing was that of the trainer of a small-town football club rather than the Ayatollah Khomeini. One wonders what the fuss is about - Erdogan, with his clipped moustache and nondescript suit, evokes less the Nation of Islam than the Abbey National of Islam.

Yet the insurgence of Erdogan - and the Justice and Development party (AK for short) which he leads - has caused deep tremors of concern throughout Turkey's establishment. The neo-conservative, pro-EU, pro-Nato and avowedly non-religious AK party may be just two years old, but Erdogan and most of its other leaders are lifelong members of Turkey's Islamist movement. The army, which sees itself as the guarantor of the strictly secularist path set by the republic's founder, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, smells a plot. It fears that AK is a cover for a darker, Islamist agenda, and has tried almost every trick in the book to foil Erdogan's political rise.

Two of the parties in which Erdogan was active - 'Virtue' and 'Welfare' - were shut down for violating a constitutional ban on mixing religion and politics. Erdogan himself was jailed for four months in 1999 after reciting a poem to a crowd in south-eastern Turkey - it contained the lines 'The minarets are our bayonets, the mosques are our barracks, the believers are our soldiers' - and was judged seditious. Erdogan himself was then banned from holding political office. Yet, despite all these barriers, the AK party swept all but one of the existing parties off the political map earlier this month, and now controls close to two-thirds of the seats in the parliament, making Erdogan the kingmaker of Turkish politics.

So is Turkey, our Nato ally, going Fundie on us? Conscious that the world is waiting for him to burn Uncle Sam in effigy, chop off some thieves' hands or do something similarly Islamo-fascistic, Erdogan is in reassurance mode. 'First of all, our party is not an Islamic party, however the Turkish media tried to place us in that category,' says Erdogan, sitting in his office in the AK party's swish new Ankara headquarters. 'Islam is a religion, and a party is a political institution. Parties can make mistakes but religion cannot.'

And how about that hidden agenda to undermine the secular state?

'Never. Our party views secularism as an important segment of our democracy. Together with democracy, secularism is the basis of the Turkish state.... We respect that, and if we did not we would lose our support immediately.'

He has a point. While Erdogan himself is a deeply devout man whose roots are in political Islam, the party he leads is very different: 70 per cent of the people who voted for AK had never voted for religious parties in the past, and many of AK's MPs are defectors from the socialists and even the nationalists. AK has a massive mandate to rule as a conservative party - but not much mandate to pursue an Islamic agenda. Whatever his personal feelings, Erdogan, it seems, realises that the old brand of political Islam won't wash.

'We rebuilt the Centre-Right, we placed our party in the centre of the political spectrum and established our identity as conservative democratic party,' he says. Turkey's real Islamists, made up of Erdogan's old political mentors, polled just 2 per cent.

But one gets the feeling that whatever compromises he's made to get to the top, Erdogan is happy to be there. He's more a pragmatist than an ideologue, and as a former mayor of Istanbul he knows that a leader stands or falls on how his policies affect people's quality of life - a lesson learnt the hard way by the outgoing coalition, whose ruling party polled just 1 per cent of the vote after precipitating Turkey's current, crushing economic crisis.

Erdogan, unlike the aloof characters of the outgoing government, is the consummate Turkish Everyman, the kind of likely lad who appears in every generation of Turkish politics to clean house, jump-start the economy and shake up the establishment a little. He was born in 1954 in the Black Sea coast city of Rize, where his father was a coastguard. The Erdogans joined the mass Anatolian migration into the cities when young Tayyip was 13. They settled in the rough district of Kasimpasha, where the teenage Erdogan sold lemonade and sesame buns on the street to earn money, and played professional football in the youth league. He attended an Islamic 'Imam Hatip' school, then studied management at Istanbul's Marmara University, where he first became involved in Islamist politics. In 1994 he was elected mayor of Istanbul, and was conspicuously effective at cleaning up both rubbish and corruption - though he did ban alcohol in city-owned cafZs, which attracted flak from secularists. After his jailing in 1999 automatically banned him from holding public office, Erdogan took the moderate wing of the Islamist movement, mixed in some disaffected conservatives from mainstream parties, and shaped it into AK.

'Voters love him because he's one of them,' says Mehmet Ali Birand, veteran pundit at CNN Turk. 'He's a football player from Kasimpasha - that's his charisma, that's his attraction.'

In the early and mid 1990s Erdogan did come out with his fair share of pretty alarming comments - 'One cannot be secular and a Muslim', for instance, as well as a speech praising the Taleban. Does he regret those statements?

'No,' says Erdogan, evasively. 'Secularism is a style of management. Islam is a moral principle.'

This refusal to disavow his past radicalism makes Erdogan either laudably honest or frighteningly unrepentant, depending on your point of view. The question is important, because it's still not clear how much the AK party's government is going to be made in Erdogan's image. The signals are mixed. Erdogan's two pretty secretaries don't wear headscarves - the key indicator of Islamic leanings - yet his wife wears one at all times, and his two daughters are in college in the United States so that they can wear headscarves in class, which is forbidden in Turkey. AK's slick new offices look as though they should house a go-getting advertising agency, yet almost no one inside drinks tea during the day because it is Ramadan. The party's election-night celebrations were dry - but the party's list contains many women, and quite liberated ones at that. Erdogan's office contains no representations of human beings or animals, as per the Koran (it's lined with insipid CZzanne and Pissarro prints instead), except for a wall-size picture of Ataturk and his coterie above his desk.

You can argue the symbols back and forth: what matters is what Erdogan and AK are going to do in government. The central platform of AK's policies is to accelerate Turkey's bid for membership of the European Union, and Erdogan is now touring European capitals on a charm offensive, while his party deputy, Abdullah Gul, stays at home to hold the fort as prime minister. This strange split between the prime minister and party chairman is likely to continue until some constitutional machinations put Erdogan formally into power as premier, probably early next year.

'This is no longer Tayyip's problem, it's the nation's problem,' says Erdogan, referring to himself. 'Public opinion solved this problem ...they chose who the next prime minister will be.'

All the touchiest 'Islamist' issues - such as lifting the ban on wearing headscarves in state institutions and schools, building a mosque on Istanbul's Taxim Square - are on the back-burner, says Erdogan, until 'cons ensus' can be achieved. Read: we'll play it by ear. And let's be realistic: what passes for radical Islamism in Turkey would be considered moderation in the Middle East, or for that matter in much of north London.

The more immediate problem is to extricate Turkey from its economic mess and coax some kind of positive signal from Brussels over Turkey's EU application. In August the outgoing government made important progress towards the EU's criteria when it abolished the death penalty and granted the Kurds the right to teach and broadcast in their native language. Erdogan says he wants to go further, scrapping restrictions on freedom of speech and improving the quality of Turkey's democracy. A cynic might observe that these two processes would also pave the way for Erdogan's own pardon and political rehabilitation. No matter; a dose of glasnost is what Turkey needs if it is to become a mature society with a responsible political class - one which doesn't rely on the army to come in, periodically, and knock heads together, as it has done four times in the last four decades. The establishment's phobia of any expression of religion needs to be defused, too, if Turkey is to grow up from military dictatorship to functional democracy. Erdogan may be just the man to do it, if only because he seems honest.

It's been a generation since the Turkish political scene was cleared out so comprehensively and a man given such wholehearted backing by a long-suffering people to change the country for the better. If Erdogan remembers that his mandate comes from the people, not from any divine authority, he should be in with a fighting chance.