TOPICS > Politics

Former Islamist Gul Becomes Turkey’s President

August 28, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Legislators from Turkey’s ruling party broke into applause when parliament elected Abdullah Gul as the country’s first president with roots in the Islamist political movement. It was a historic moment for this overwhelmingly Muslim nation that has had a secular tradition since its founding as a modern country almost a century ago.

Gul was approved by a simple parliamentary majority today in Ankara. Following constitutional rules, that vote came after two failed attempts to gain a two-thirds majority.

Gul has been serving as Turkey’s foreign minister since 2003. That’s when the Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, was first elected, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister. During that time, Gul steered Turkey toward reforms that led to negotiations over joining the European Union.

But because of Gul’s and the AKP’s Islamist identity, Gul became the center of controversy when Erdogan nominated him last spring to become president. The symbol of contention was the Muslim headscarves worn by Gul’s wife. Such scarves are banned in public universities and for public employees in public buildings, including the presidential palace.

TURKISH CITIZEN (through translator): If someone whose wife is uncovered can be president, then someone whose wife is covered can also be president. It is a democracy.

TURKISH CITIZEN (through translator): We want a president whose wife is not covered and who is committed to democracy and is capable of representing us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was the secularists who took to the street by the thousands in recent months, and secular influences in parliament and the courts had succeeded in blocking Gul’s nomination. As a result, Erdogan called new parliamentary elections for July to break the deadlock. Riding a tide of strong economic growth, Erdogan’s party won those elections resoundingly, and he re-nominated Gul for the presidency.

But the military, which considers itself the guardian of the secularist traditions of modern Turkey’s founder Kemal Ataturk, indicated it may yet balk at the change. In the past 50 years, the military has overthrown four elected governments. Notably, military leaders stayed away from today’s parliamentary vote and put out this statement: Quote, “Nefarious plans to ruin Turkey’s secular and democratic nature emerge in different forms every day. The military will, just as it has so far, keep its determination to guard social, democratic and secular Turkey,” end quote.

For his part, Gul pledged again today to uphold the country’s secularism.

Turkey's modern secular tradition

Soner Cagaptay
Washington Institute on Near East Policy
I think we're going to see a country that identifies more with Muslim issues as opposed to identifying with the West as it has traditionally done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now we get two perspectives on Turkey's new president: Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, he is a Turkish citizen; and Bulent Aliriza is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he's a native of Cyprus and returned from Turkey just last week.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

SONER CAGAPTAY, Turkish Research Program: Thank you.

BULENT ALIRIZA, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Cagaptay, let me begin with you. What do you believe Mr. Gul's election as president means for Turkey and its modern secular tradition?

SONER CAGAPTAY: It means that Turkey's elite for the last 80 years, a secular Western elite, has been entirely displaced as a result of the process of the last five years, where the AKP first came to power and controlled the parliament, and now has the last remaining seat in the executive branch, which is the presidency. So Turkey now has a new different elite than what it has had for the last 80 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what does that mean in terms of secularism versus more religious influence?

SONER CAGAPTAY: What it really means is an elite that is more religious in its lifestyle and yet makes some conscious choices, such as women who wear the Islamic-style head scarf, people who have a distaste for alcohol, a penchant for religious education.

So what it really means is not that Turkey is going to stop being secular overnight, but it's going to become a country that is culturally and politically more religious, and as well as a people who have a stronger Islamic identity, because the elite is now swung to the right. And, as a result of that, I think we're going to see a country that identifies more with Muslim issues as opposed to identifying with the West as it has traditionally done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Aliriza, do you see those changes coming from Mr. Gul's election?

BULENT ALIRIZA: No, I don't. I think this is democracy in action. The ruling part won almost half of the votes, so clearly they prefer this party to the alternatives. And in spite of all the tensions that were raised when Gul was originally nominated back in April and the fears that, in fact, this was either going to open the door to the undermining of the secular state, as the detractors of Mr. Gul said, or lead to a coup by the ministry, none of those happened.

We have the system working. We have Mr. Gul as president. And, frankly, I think we ought not to exaggerate the dangers to the secular system, which still survives, although it has new depth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what you're saying Mr. Cagaptay is doing, that he's exaggerating?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, I don't want to comment directly on what he's saying, but I think the fears have been exaggerated about what the election of Mr. Gul to the presidency might mean. After all, this party has been in office for almost five years. The secular system has survived.

It has adapted to the point of allowing Mrs. Gul, who could not go to the presidential palace for public functions, to go there as our first lady. Nonetheless, Mr. Gul has committed himself to the maintenance of the secular system, and I think Mr. Erdogan will be just as careful as he was during the past four-and-a-half, five years, in not pushing the limits to the point of endangering the stability of the system.

Changing attitudes towards the U.S.

Bulent Aliriza
Center for Strategic & Inter. Studies
I think the fears of Turkey veering East and away from the West are exaggerated, given the fact that this government is committed to European Union integration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Cagaptay, why are you so convinced there will be these changes moving toward a more Islamist, Islamic tradition, when, as Mr. Aliriza says, for the last five years the ruling AKP Party has maintained a secular...

SONER CAGAPTAY: Look, I think we're debating two different things. First of all, this is a victory for democracy. That's a great thing. But on the other hand, I think it's a setback for secularism in Turkey, and this is where I am worried, for the following two reasons.

First, we have already an ongoing development in Turkey. The last five years since the AKP came to power, positive attitudes in Turkey towards the United States have dropped over five times, while positive attitudes towards countries such as Iran have increased over five times. There's a change in the way the Turks are looking at the world around themselves.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me stop you, and let's ask Mr. Aliriza to comment on that.

BULENT ALIRIZA: Sure. That has much more to do with the Iraq war and the negative repercussions for Turkey. Turkey has had to deal with the resurgence of the PKK violence from Northern Iraq and the U.S. failure to deal with that has undermined support for the United States and increased support for other countries on this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you don't see it changing internal policy?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Internal policy?

JUDY WOODRUFF: That the incoming government with Islamist roots is going to be changing internal policy. You're saying it's just a change in attitude?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, they have a record. I mean, if we were talking about them back in 2002 when they first came in, then there was no record for us to refer to. But as I said before, there is a record now, and the secular system has adapted, but it has not been undermined. And, frankly, I think the fears of Turkey veering East and away from the West are exaggerated, given the fact that this government is committed to European Union integration.

Symbolic issues in Turkey

Soner Cagaptay
Washington Institute on Near East Policy
They're going to look at people who have a consciously religious lifestyle, and that is where I think more and more people are going to swing to the right with the new elite's physical presence in the media and in the political life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were starting to say there was a second...

SONER CAGAPTAY: There was a second element of what is going on, and it is the fact that Turkey has for long maintained a thick firewall between religion and politics in the European tradition of secularism. And that firewall, I think, is going to become thinner and thinner. It's already actually being thinned out.

And how does that happen? Bureaucratic appointments, appointing people to jobs who are of the more religious, conservative lifestyle, who make those conscious choices, appointments beyond that issue of symbolic, iconic issues in Turkey that divide society, such as Islamic-style head scarves, which are now going to be represented in the lifestyle of the elite.

In other words, where as for the last 80 years, when the Turks turned on their TVs, they saw Western-looking leaders. Now they're going to look at people who have a consciously religious lifestyle, and that is where I think more and more people are going to swing to the right with the new elite's physical presence in the media and in the political life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying it's a symbol, but it also will have a deeper meaning that will translate into policy?

SONER CAGAPTAY: I think it's a symbol that will translate into domestic changes in education and in, for example, a distaste for alcohol. I can see a Turkey where these symbols will increasingly become more common place. This is not going to become a Sharia state overnight. Turks don't have a taste for that. But it will become a state that is more religious culturally and politically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how can you be convinced, Mr. Aliriza, that that won't happen?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, because the military is still there. And they've intervened four times, as they said, in 50 years. Tayyip Erdogan is acutely aware of the dangers...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The prime minister.

BULENT ALIRIZA: ... the prime minister -- in the event that he actually pushes ahead with a transformation of Turkish society. He may wish to do that, but frankly he realizes that there are limits on this.

Look, I think we need to look back at the 80 years of the Turkish republic that you referred to in your report. From the outset, this was a vigorously secular system. Nonetheless, there is growing religiosity on the part of the Turkish people, and the system has had to adjust.

Now, there's an ad hoc combination between the secular system and the greater devotion on the part of many people that we see in the streets of Turkey. And they voted for a party which is in tune with that. But does that mean that the secular system itself is about to be overthrown or eroded because of these symbols? No, because the globalization that we are witnessing in Turkey, as well as everywhere else, ensures that these people still look to the West in terms of the lifestyle and other things that will act as an impediment to the creation of a system that looks East rather than West.

Relationship with the West

Bulent Aliriza
Center for Strategic & Inter. Studies
This party is committed to European integration, has tried to maintain good relations with the United States, despite the PKK issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you see it differently?

SONER CAGAPTAY: Politically, Turkey is a secular constitution, and that structure is not going to change, nor I think the AKP is going to challenge that, because of the presence of the military as a grand arbiter. I don't think that's where we'll look for change.

I think the changes are going to be on a micro-level, the way people live and the way they relate to one another, women's position in society, as well as Turks' identity. That, I think, is the greatest change that has taken place in Turkey over the last five years.

The PKK terror issue is a huge issue; that drives a wedge between Turkey and the United States. But there's a more fundamental issue, it's the fact that the Turks believe that they share a common destiny with the West, that's coming undone, and that's something that alarms me as an analyst.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're shaking your head.

BULENT ALIRIZA: I disagree with that. The previous Islamist-led coalition, which was overthrown by the military in 1997, consciously went for a closer relationship with the Muslim countries as opposed to with the West. This party is committed to European integration, has tried to maintain good relations with the United States, despite the PKK issue.

And, frankly, I do not see this party leading Turkey away from the West. And at the individual level, if people are becoming more religious, frankly, that doesn't worry me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you don't see -- you're not concerned about further military intervention?

BULENT ALIRIZA: I would be if we were to see a party shedding all restraints and moving towards the creation of an overtly more religious society that would test the limits of the secular system. I just don't see that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, gentlemen, we are going to leave it there. Bulent Aliriza, we thank you for being with us.

And Soner Cagaptay, gentlemen, thank you both.