Bush Calls on Leaders of Turkey, Pakistan

President Bush met Monday with the Turkish prime minister in hopes of defusing a conflict at the Iraqi border between Turkey and Kurdish militants. The president also spoke Monday about the crisis in Pakistan, where President Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule Saturday. The Bush administration has said it's deeply disappointed by the move.

President Bush has called on his ally Musharaff to give up his military uniform and hold elections as planned. He declared the state of emergency despite appeals from Washington, D.C., not to do so. The U.S. — which has poured nearly $10 billion into Pakistan to help Musharaff fight terrorism in recent years — is now reviewing its aid program. But Washington seems to have little leverage.

Meantime, the other major foreign policy challenge on President Bush's plate is Turkey. He played host to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has threatened to send troops into northern Iraq to go after Kurdish militants using the region as a base to attack inside Turkey.

The president promised the visiting prime minister that the U.S. is working with Iraqi Kurdish leaders to crack down on the group.

Erdogan Rules over Turkey's Deepest Divide

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan i i

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mario Tama/Getty Images
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is known as one of the most popular politicians in Turkey. Yet he represents the country's deepest divide — the question of whether the Turkish state is to be predominantly Muslim or secular.

Erdogan rose in politics through a secession of religious parties, each of which was eventually banned by Turkey's powerful military for violating secular principles. He is currently the leader of the Justice and Development Party, which denies any religious agenda.

"He says his party is not Islamist; it's conservative democrat," says Bulent Aliriza, the director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Opponents say he's a fundamentalist who will ultimately try to turn Turkey to sharia (Muslim religious) law."

Religious vs. Secular Rule

Aliriza says it's difficult for Americans to understand the vehemence of Turkish feelings about religion in politics versus secular rule.

Until 1922, Turkey was the center of the declining Ottoman Empire, whose ruler, the sultan, was also the caliph, the leader of the Islamic community. Modern Turkey was envisioned as the antithesis of that, a democratic secular state that would foster social equality. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nation's founder, was an Army commander, and the powerful Turkish army has remained the champion of secularism.

Sam Brannen, another expert on the region, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says critics believe Erdogan may eventually reveal himself as someone who wants to do away with Ataturk's secular vision. Brannen adds, though, that the prime minister has now "become so much a part of the secular institution that a religious agenda would undermine his own power."

Aliriza says Erdogan is a practical man, and there's one symbol that expresses where Erdogan has evolved in his thinking about religion and the state: it's the headscarf worn by devout Muslim women.

Challenges on the Road

As part of the effort to keep Turkey secular, the headscarf is banned in Turkish universities and it's frowned upon at state functions. Erdogan's wife, Emine, wears a headscarf, as do his two daughters who attended universities in the United States.

Aliriza says that, technically, Erdogan has the authority and the votes in parliament to change the law and allow headscarves in Turkish universities, but that would place him in direct confrontation with the military.

"Why hasn't he done it? You have to say that the man has adjusted to certain realities, and he refrains from doing things that he otherwise would have done," Aliriza says.

Despite Erdogan's practicality, though, Brannen says the prime minister is in a precarious position. He has staked a lot on bringing Turkey into the European Union, only to see France and Britain elect leaders who are not friendly to Turkey's bid for membership.

Erdogan is also facing a showdown with the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla group that has been staging attacks on Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey from bases in northern Iraq. He'll need to work closely with the military to keep its commanders from going too far.

Many of Erdogan's supporters think he is tough enough and popular enough to hold his own.

The Early Days

Erdogan spent his childhood in a port town on the Black Sea, and his teenage years working his way through school by selling bread on the street in a tough neighborhood of Istanbul. He played semi-professional soccer for a club in the neighborhood for 16 years.

He was a transport worker in Istanbul and held other city jobs as he worked his way up in local politics. Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, and developed a reputation as an effective administrator, credited with building up the city's infrastructure and beautifying it, as well.

In 1998, he was convicted for reciting a poem that allegedly "incited religious hatred." Brannon says it was actually not an Islamist but a nationalist poem, but it stressed both faith and homeland. Erdogan served four months of a 10-month sentence.

That conviction proved to be a problem in 2002, when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party won a majority in the National Assembly. The conviction meant Erdogan was prohibited from running for parliament, and the constitution had to be changed to allow him to win a seat and take his place as prime minister.

Relationship with the United States

Brannen says Erdogan has more than just the Kurdish guerrilla issue to bring up with the U.S. government. He says Turkey wants more recognition for its contributions to the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. It also wants to know what Turkey would get in return if it complies with U.S. requests to cut ties with Iran and cut short contracts with Russia.

"The U.S. has promised Turkey a lot in the past," Brannen says, "but delivered very little. The trust is broken."

If talks don't work out between President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan, Brannen says there's another option.

"The Turks may just decide to wait out this administration," Brannen says.

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