Victory for democracy marks a break with Ataturk’s vision

By Bronwen Maddox (THE TIMES, 29/08/07):

The success of Abdullah Gül in becoming Turkey’s new President is a victory for democracy. But it is a blow for secularism, in that it accurately reflects the new strength of the conservative, low-key Islamic voters from the heart of Anatolia at the expense of the secular cities.

At the expense of the army, too. Despite the threats on Monday from the head of the armed forces that he saw “centres of evil” trying to undermine Turkey’s secular character, the scale of popular support for Gül’s AK party, and its big majority in parliament, has given the military little choice but to stand back.

That is the best result for Turkey. Better that it is democratic with an Islamist tinge to its elected Government than that it is victim to a fifth military coup in 60 years, the generals overthrowing politicians they considered too religious. Even though the last such coup was only ten years ago, that behaviour is out of keeping with Turkey’s modern aspirations, never mind such garnishes as eventual membership of the European Union.

Gül himself, who as Foreign Minister has displayed world-class smoothness, is not the problem for other countries. But they should take note of what his popularity represents: the growing voice of the majority of poor, ordinary Turks. That, more than any single leader, will change the character of Turkey in its relations with its neighbours.

The nature of Gül’s presidency has been hard to predict. Under the constitution, the Government holds the most power but the President can veto laws and appointments; he can name judges, and he carries the moral authority which derives from the tenure of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President. But it has been hard to discern from the three rounds of elections what exactly Gül might do, despite his promises to uphold secularism.

That is partly because of the role which his wife’s headscarf has played in the campaign, taking on a symbolic significance which is impossible to exaggerate, and drowning out all detailed discussion of policy. Even though Gül has said that she might knot it in a more modern way, rather than wrapping the ends around her throat to cover her neck in the traditional manner, this has been taken by his critics as a menacing intrusion of Islamic practice into the realm of the state.

Headscarves are banned in universities, part of a restriction on Islamic dress that dates from Atatürk’s 1930s reforms. The board of education and the armed forces avoid promoting those thought Islamist in sympathy. Gül and his party will have the power to abolish the ban, although he may well avoid so provocative a step early on, given the heat already generated.

Gül’s critics allege that by lifting the ban and other such changes, he will erode the division between state and Islam, and that one day all women will be forced to cover their heads. But his sympathisers say that the change only reflects the desires of ordinary women, a majority of whom (they assert) wear a headscarf, and of those who would like to go to university but have declined the option because they would have to go uncovered.

Gül’s reputation abroad is that of a moderniser. He led Turkey’s pursuit of talks with the EU, and has sidestepped with aplomb the provocative assertion of France, under President Sarkozy, that membership should never be granted to Turkey. It is fair to take him at face value, as a modern Turk committed to reform.

But it is impossible to forget what he represents: the desire of many ordinary Turks to have more of a voice in politics and in the country’s institutions than they have done. That authentic voice of many Turks is conservative and Islamist, albeit so far, in an undemonstrative way. Turkey’s policies may change little under Gül, but his election still marks a deep change from the vision of Atatürk.