[Originally published in The Washington Times]
The election of Abdullah Gul as Turkey’s 11th president has attracted quite a lot of attention in the world, and there are good reasons for that. Although Turkey is a predominantly Muslim nation, its leaders, and especially presidents, once were people with secular, not Islamic, lifestyles. Yet Mr. Gul is a practicing Muslim, and his similarly devout wife, Hayrunnisa Gul, wears the Islamic headscarf. Hence some people wonder whether this God-fearing First Couple symbolizes a setback in Turkey’s two-century-old quest for modernization.
If one presumes that devotion to Islam and appreciation of modernity are inherently incompatible — as Turkey’s ultra-secularists do — the answer has to be a pessimistic “yes.” Yet that presumption is debatable and one can write many volumes to suggest otherwise. Or, one can simply look at individual’s stories like that of Mr. Gul and see how devout Muslims can emerge as defenders of democracy, liberty and progress.
Throughout the 20th century, Turkish society has very much been defined by the gap between the Westernized and secular city elite, and the traditional and religious masses of Anatolia. The former defined itself as “the enlightened,” and assumed it had the right to dominate the state and society in order to instruct, or, if not possible, to suppress the Anatolians. “For the people,” a witty Ankara motto coined in the 1930s read, “in spite of the people.”
Mr. Gul comes from that overlooked “people.” He was born in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri to an esteemed family of imams and Sufi masters. His father Ahmet Hamdi Gul was a modest turner and a pious Muslim, who proudly named his son “Abdullah,” or, “the servant of God.”
In his university years in Istanbul, Mr. Gul joined the conservative anti-communist movement, and became an admirer of Islamist poet and writer Necip Fazil Kisakurek, who believed Westernization was destroying Turkey’s spirit and morality. The solution, according to Kisakurek, was in restoring the Islamic “Greater East.”
Yet Mr. Gul soon found a chance to discover the virtues of the modern West during the two years he spent in London and Exeter for postgraduate studies. As he recalled in a recent interview, he was deeply impressed by the openness, tolerance and pluralism of British society. A most notable experience was the pastor who kindly invited him to perform his daily prayers in the university chapel. He realized the problem in Turkey, the authoritarian secularism that disallowed his wife’s education because of her headscarf, did not stem from Western-style democracy, but the lack thereof.
In 1991 Mr. Gul joined the Islamist Welfare Party, but never shared the anti-Western and anti-Semitic demagoguery of its leader, Necmeddin Erbakan.
In the late ’90s, Mr. Gul and the likeminded, including the charismatic Istanbul mayor Tayyip Erdogan, formed the “reformist” movement in Welfare, and soon broke with it to found the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2001. The party emerged as, and still is, the champion of free markets, liberal reforms and Turkey’s effort to join the European Union.
Turkey’s authoritarian secularists, who can’t get over with their decades-old disdain for the religious Anatolians, find the AKP’s and Mr. Gul’s transformation from Islamism to Muslim democratism devious, and prefer to explain it with conspiracy theories. But the political evolution of the AKP is genuine, because it corresponds to the social transformation Turkey’s Islamic circles are undergoing since the 1980s, thanks to their integration with the global economy.
The European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin-based think tank, noted in a 2005 report that “individualistic, pro-business currents have become prominent within Turkish Islam,” and a “quiet Islamic Reformation” is taking place thanks to the rising Muslim bourgeoisie.
Mr. Gul not only supports this progress in Turkey but also hopes it will inspire other Islamic nations. In a 2003 speech to the Tehran meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference, he argued for “a refreshed vision” for the whole Muslim world in which “fundamental rights and freedoms as well as gender equality” would be upheld, and “there would be no place for blunting rhetoric and slogans.” As for the troubles of the Islamic world, he blamed not Western conspiracies, but “the absence of economic rationality and perpetual political instability.”
These are important messages. What makes them invaluable is that they come from a devout Muslim leader with a growing reputation in the Islamic world. The radical secularists of Turkey, and of other Muslim countries, have always promoted a modernization at the expense of Islam. And, not too surprisingly, they have received massive reactions from the faithful. But a modernization in peace with Islam is possible — and that is what Muslims all around the world need to see.