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