Islam and the Presidency in Turkey

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Kerim Okten / EPA

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul speaks in front of a giant Turkish flag in Ankara, Turkey April 25, 2007.

In Turkey, the choosing of a President is rarely the dramatic affair that it is in the United States. Turkey's President isn't even directly elected by the voters — he or she is chosen by the elected parliament — and the office carries limited powers. Still, the President does have the power to veto legislation, and is also considered an important symbol of the Turkish state. That's why the nomination for President this week by Turkey's ruling party of the country's Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, has reopened fierce debates about the place of Islam in the ferociously secular Turkish state.

Gul, 54, is an affable moderate and one of friendliest faces of the political party that has dominated Turkey's parliament for the past five years. But like most senior officials of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, his roots are in an Islamic grouping that was banned in Turkey in the 1990s. His Arabic is better than his English, as secular Turks like to point out. And his wife wears a traditional Islamic headscarf. (In fact, she petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to declare unconstitutional Turkey's law banning headscarves in public buildings, although she later dropped the case.) If her husband is confirmed, Mrs. Gul would be the only Turkish First Lady ever to cover her hair in this way. By contrast, the incumbent, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a former judge and staunch secularist, has routinely wielded his veto to block AKP initiatives he deemed too Islamist.

Gul's election — parliament is to vote for a President in the coming weeks — would also give the ruling AKP control of Turkey's three top political posts: the Presidency, the Prime Minister's office and the Speaker of the Parliament. (In parliamentary elections later this year , the AKP is expected to be returned to power, albeit with a reduced mandate). The election to all three top positions of officials who "come from the same Islamic-rooted tree," writes columnist Metin Munir in the leading secularist daily Milliyet, augurs "the end of Turkey as we know it. "Turkey, he warned, is about to enter "a period of Islamicizing and conservatism: It is hard to tell where it will end."

Such fears may be exaggerated, however, since Turkey's institutions have potent safeguards against the introduction of political Islam. And the powerful Turkish military, self-appointed guardians of the secularist state, stands ready to intervene should those safeguards be breached. (It did so a decade ago by removing Gul's former party from government.) The AKP has so far been reluctant to introduce any changes that might provoke the wrath of the generals. At a rare press conference prior to this week's nomination of Gul, the hawkish army chief Yasar Buyukanit warned that a Turkish President must have secular values, "not only in words, but in essence."

The secularist backlash has already made itself felt: Gul is his party's second choice for President; for several months it has been assumed that the AKP's nomination would go to current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamist roots are more pronounced than Gul's, and who is widely distrusted by the Turkish military and secular establishment. At a huge secularist rally last weekend in Ankara, at least 300,000 people turned out to oppose Erdogan's candidacy, some saying they would prefer military rule to him being President. The AKP appears to have noted the warning.

Gul's selection removes a key institutional check on his party's agenda, which is likely to increase friction with the military. The choice also represents a broader shift in political power away from the secularist elite in Turkey's coastal cities and towards the conservative Islamic heartland. Gul himself hails from Central Anatolia, the Turkish equivalent of America's Bible Belt. His party's ascendance over the past five years poses a clear challenge not only to the military, but to Turkey's old secular establishment. It's a challenge based on a democratic mandate from the electorate. But in a country where the military retains an implicit veto over the actions of the democratically elected politicians, it remains to be seen how far the balance will be tipped.