Global Politics

Turkey: Where politics and religion mix

By Matthew Brunwasser

Player utilities

The father of political Islam in Turkey has died. Former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was 84. During his career, Erbakan fought to bring Islamic political parties to power in Turkey. The leaders of Turkey's current Islamic governing party all learned politics at his knee.

Necmettin Erbakan was a mechanical engineer by training. But as a political figure, he challenged Turkey's secular state for more than 40 years. Judging by the size of the crowds at his funeral in Istanbul on Tuesday, he made a deep impression.

Ali Erdem, a civil servant who came out for the funeral, said that Erbakan was really a man of the people.

"He did great things for Turkey's Muslims. He has also helped Muslims all over the world who are oppressed and tired of being pushed around. He gave them a voice," Erdem said.

Part of what Erbakan did was combine Turkish nationalism, anti-western sentiments and Islam. And he kept to that message, said Dr. Sakir Guce, who was also at the funeral.

"What made him different was that he said the same thing three days before he died, that he did when he started 40 years ago. He always stayed true to himself," Guce said.

When Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk" abolished the Ottoman sultanate in 1923 and created a modern republic, Islamic groups languished in the margins. Erbakan was the first to win power for an Islamic party – through the ballot box.

Sebnem Gumuscu Orhan, a political scientist at Sabanci University, said that Turkey's governing AK party wouldn't be in power today had it not been for Erbakan.

"I wouldn't say the political agenda is inspired by him but they learned a lot about politics from him," Orhan said.

In 1996, Erbakan became the first devout Muslim to serve as prime minister in modern turkey. The following year, Turkey's secular military forced him from power, and his Islamic party was subsequently banned.

But Turkey is a very different place today. While the governing Islamist party is led by former Erbakan disciples, their politics are very different. They are pro-European Union and pro-US and they're enthusiastic about free markets.

And now Turkey is being talked about as a democratic model for political Islam in other countries in the Middle East.

Comments