[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
Let me say it loud and clear: The naming of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül as the AK Party’s candidate for president is a perfect decision. It is nearly certain that Mr. Gül will be Turkey’s next president, and I am pretty certain that he will be a good one.
There are many reasons. First, Mr. Gül is a very experienced and refined statesman. His career in academia, finance and politics is impeccable. Moreover, in the past four years, he directed Turkish foreign policy quite successfully and has earned respect and reputation in many foreign capitals — both in the West and the East.
Unlike President Sezer, who has shown neither an interest in nor a comprehension of world affairs during his term, Mr. Gül is a visionary leader who will contribute to Turkey’s integration with the global economy and its positive influence in regional and global affairs. (For example, Mr. Sezer has repeatedly refused to talk to his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal Talabani simply because he is a Kurd. Mr. Gül, who recently said “both Kurds and Turkmens are our relatives,” obviously does not share that Kurdophobia, and thus can act much more constructively towards our southern neighbors.)
The second important quality of Mr. Gül is his widely acknowledged tone of moderatism. Prime Minister Erdoğan, due to both his more direct personality and his role as the political leader of the AK Party, has become a more controversial figure in the eyes of his opponents. To borrow a term from the United States, one could say there are some committed “Erdoğan haters” in Turkey. The same people would not be the greatest fans of Mr. Gül either, but he is likely to attract less zealotry.
A third reason which makes Mr. Gül the perfect candidate is that it means that Mr. Erdoğan will remain as the leader of his party and the head of government. By deciding to do so, he really took a step which many will consider as self-sacrifice. It had become almost a tradition for center-right Turkish PM’s to walk into “Çankaya” (the Presidential palace), whenever they find the chance for it. Many political commentators had guessed that Mr. Erdoğan would do the same, because they argued, “It is in the nature of a politician to run for the highest post.” Well, as he reiterated several times, Mr. Erdoğan is not like that. “I am not here for posts and titles,” he said yesterday, “I am here to serve my people; because I believe that serving the people is serving God.” With yesterday’s decision, he proved that he is sincere in that rhetoric, which many have found very useful to exploit, but quite hard to follow.
Not a Republic of The Seculars
I know that not all Turks are as optimistic as I am about all this. Some fear, in fact, that our secular republic is now in grave danger. I just received an email which included a photo showing the Erdoğan and Gül couples together. Both ladies, as you know, wear the Islamic headscarf. “This is end of the Republic,” the emailer argued, “just see how they look.”
The logic which underlies that fear — and the zillions of other alarmist comments you have heard and will continue to hear from secularist Turks — is a very simple but a grossly wrong one: They think that a secular republic is a republic of the seculars. The same perception implies that the religious people can only be second-class citizens unworthy of high-level public offices. Yet in fact, a secular republic is one which does not discriminate against its citizens according to their religious beliefs and practices. Mrs. Hayrünisa Gül is just one of the millions of Turkish women who cover their heads because of their religious commitments. They are all first class citizens and they deserve to be treated as such.
Actually, while Mr. Gül’s presidency is no threat to secularism, it might be a blessing for it by helping the religious segments in Turkish society feel themselves more accepted by the system, and, in return, accept the system.
This trend has already started with the AK Party’s incumbency in 2002, and Mr. Gül’s presidency will be another important step, which will embolden the silent Islamic reform that is taking place in Turkey: the acceptance of democracy, liberalism and free markets by a devoutly Muslim populace. This is, of course, something with not just national but also global significance. No wonder that in some of his previous speeches in Arab capitals, Mr. Gül repeatedly called for “reform in the Arab world,” as exemplified by Turkey.
Alas, Turkey is really becoming an interesting and important country: not a dull imitation (and “wannabe”) of the West, but a country which proudly keeps its traditional identity while accepting the universal values that the West has also embraced. And that’s exactly what the world needs.