Today's date:
Winter 2003


Soft Islam Takes Over in Turkey

Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey's most eminent writers whose best-selling novels include The White Castle and The Black Book, was interviewed by NPQ contributing correspondent and editor of Greek NPQ, Michael Skafidas. A sidebar by former French president and chairman of the European Union's constitutional council Valéry Giscard D'Estaing follows.

NPQ | The new Justice and Development Party was chosen to lead Turkey into the new century. How do you regard the victory? Is it a challenge to secularism, or is it the confirmation of secular democracy?

ORHAN PAMUK | I don't want it to be a challenge to secularism. For the time being, 35 percent of the vote went to Justice and Development, whose leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is constantly emphasizing the fact that he does not want to be called an Islamist at all. Rather, he prefers to be called a Muslim Democrat, which, in a way, is the new equivalent of a Christian Democrat in Turkey.

He calls himself conservative, and from an ethical point of view we have to accept his words, at least for the time being. On the other hand, it is not a secret that he is coming from a strong Islamic background. As a mayor of Istanbul (1994 - 98) he never hid the fact that he was a political Islamist. He even spent time in jail for it. So, we have to keep in mind these things and see what he does now.

Of course, when an ex-fundamentalist takes over power, you are a bit anxious, a bit worried, even though he was trying to be more reassuring than ever throughout his campaign that his Islamic days are over and that he's ready to embrace reforms.

NPQ | Erdogan is neither Sultan Mehmet nor Kemal Ataturk! Only a few years ago he was adamantly opposing joining the European Union, yet the night of his election he said, "We (Turks) are running out of time on EU membership."

PAMUK | This is typically very Turkish. The way he tries to calm down the business people and the international community reminds me of soldiers who, right after they've made their military coup, use the same kind of rhetoric. But, of course, Erdogan is democratically elected, and now that he is the majority he has more flexibility to move to the center and become even more popular because that's where the votes are.

But, of course, the bizarre fact remains that a man who has spent 25 years of his political life cultivating anti-Western sentiment is telling us now that he is going to push the nation toward Europe! In fact, it will be very ironic if at the end this proves to be true. But quite frankly, personally I am not very optimistic.

NPQ | A political analyst from Istanbul said the other day that Erdogan's election heralds "the death of politics in Turkey as we know it. This is a real call for new politics." Is this an overstatement?

PAMUK | No. It means that the long periods of coalition governments have ended. Erdogan will have a lot of power, and it remains to be seen what he will do with it. The truth is that as a mayor of Istanbul he was very successful, and that earned him a good reputation. However, I don't think much will change because of that.

I'm sure that at some point the secularists will try to bring the army into the picture, though I hope the army will not intervene. The economic problems in this country are so grave, no one seems to be able to solve them right now. We need time and democracy in order to solve them. But I am afraid time will run out fast. It's impossible to satisfy people's expectations in a country with so many problems, with a deep economic crisis being first on the list.

NPQ | At the same time Erdogan cannot legally be the prime minister of his own elected government, a surreal fact that complicates the process further.

PAMUK | It is embarrassing and a shame for Turkey's democracy. In the election no one underlined the fact that most probably the would-be winner would not be allowed to participate in the parliament because he read an Islamic poem out loud a few years ago and that is against the law.

It's also embarrassing for the European Union. All these years the Europeans have been paying attention to our human rights record, the submission of Turkish identity to book burnings or the army's involvement in politics. Rightfully so, Europe and the West paid attention to all these things, but they never paid attention to the fact that the mayor of Istanbul was kicked out of the office and sent to jail because he was a political Islamist.

Actually his imprisonment at the time earned him many votes of sympathy. People here were really fed up with the previous political situation, with the wicked spirit of a corrupted government. It was that corrupted government that sent Erdogan to jail and by doing so transformed him into a hero. People voted for him as a reaction to what was happening.

NPQ | The "satanic verses" that Erdogan recited in 1997 read: "The mosques are our barracks, the minarets are our bayonets." What is this notorious poem that is keeping the new leader of Turkey out of parliament?

PAMUK | That's the irony of ironies. It is written by a Kurd who was the greatest theoretician of Turkish nationalism. This guy was also a poet and once wrote this poem. The Islamists liked the poem but added two lines. It's a semi-kitsch, semi-Islamic poem about "mosques as barracks." Now, Erdogan is not a very literary man. He just read the poem at some meeting with some old politicians not expecting too much. And he also, ironically, read this poem in one of the most Kurdish populated towns. It's not even a good poem!

NPQ | You have said the secret of the success of your novels in Turkey is that they sought a balance between East and West. You maintained that without the fine balance things could derail in Turkey. You quoted a 19th-century French historian who said that "in order to create a new nation you need to forget many things; a nation is a union made not from what we remember but from what we forget." Given the result of the elections, is it viable to say that Turkey once again, as in Sultan Mehmet's or Kemal's days, is trying to downplay Islam in order to be accepted by the larger Western community, Europe in particular?

PAMUK | This time it is different because Erdogan is trying to downplay Islam even though he comes from an Islamic background. But at this point the reasons for change go far beyond religion and heritage. What's happening is that we have an immense economic crisis. The previous government was badly managed, and the people got really angry. The alternative ideology, that combined promise and reality, was a soft-core Islamism. The leaders of the party that represented soft Islam were more convincing. They used very practical rhetoric in matters of international relations, in relation to the European Union and, in fact, in relation to business.

So they brought the country together. And now this soft Islam is going to try to take this country into the international community. This is, of course, an optimistic way of looking at it. If they don't keep their promise, we are in trouble. If they fail to manage business, if the European Union and the West snub them, if they fail to improve the economy and take the country out of the crisis, we are in big trouble. And, of course, as I said, it is hard to satisfy people's expectations in a country where everyone is poor and the jobless rate is rising by the day. So if he fails to maintain his modern promises he might turn to political Islam again, which is another form of nationalism that cultivates xenophobia and anti-Westernism, and the army might interfere, and none of us wants to see that happening again.

NPQ | What will be the impact on Turkey, with Erdogan's party in power, if the United States goes to war with Iraq?

PAMUK | Well, I don't think Erdogan will be an obstacle to the American way of resolving this situation. He already said that he does not want a neighbor who produces poison gas, implying to the United States that ''I will work peacefully with you, I will collaborate with you, just as the previous government had.''
Erdogan wants to calm down everyone. "Please forget my fundamentalist past!" is his line. Forget Allah, forget religion, forget the past. Modern diplomacy is his goal. So, for the time being, America should be the last to worry.

NPQ | Are you personally opposing the war in Iraq?

PAMUK | Yes, I oppose the fact that the United States ignores the international community in this matter. The international community is pressing Saddam more efficiently. I may be naive, but I believe that this war is not necessary. The United States is bullying the world, but then, of course, Saddam is worse.

NPQ | Following last year's tragedy, most Americans regard Islam as the most dangerously reactionary force in the world today, while Europeans find the American fear a bit exaggerated. Yet, it is an open secret in Europe that one of the main reasons the EU so far considers the prospect of Turkey's membership as thorny is not simply the human rights record but the threat of 60 million Muslims who will bring their troubled heritage into Euroland.

PAMUK | There are two questions there. Let me point out a few more things about America. It's reasonable that Americans are angry and worried after Sept. 11. But then intellectual Americans should be able to make a distinction between political Islam, fundamental Islam and Islam as a religion like Christianity, which essentially is not different from Christianity.

I know this has been said before, but unfortunately it is not registering: Islam is being attacked as an evil force by most Americans, even the media, but this attitude - instead of resolving the problem - ends up perpetuating it.

The misrepresentation of Islam by Americans as a fundamentalist, militant religion is cultivating the anti-Western and anti-American feeling here as well. The more the Western media misrepresent and insult Islam, the more people here are getting xenophobic and anti-Western. And I'm not surprised that in various Islamic countries, apart from Iraq, Saddam has been lately portrayed not as a dictator who produces dangerous weapons but as an Islamic leader who does what's best for his country.

As for Europe, the situation is less complex than that. Religion is a big part of the European fear. Neither Islam nor Turkey's human rights record - which is terrible - are the essential reasons that the EU is distancing Turkey.

The real reason is that we have 20 million unemployed people here who live on $2,500 a year and that the prospect of curing our economy is only a dream. If we had an economy as strong as Japan's, nobody in Europe would be talking about Islam. They would have accepted us immediately. Human rights and Islam are the best excuses Europe can use to avoid our labyrinth of poverty.

NPQ | You've always been an optimist, but this time I detect some anger and doubt.

PAMUK | I'm always an optimist, but I'm also a person who's hiding his secret fears. Why? Because these days in Turkey these kinds of fears are very contagious. So many fears! Fear of Islam, fear of secularism, fear of Erdogan's future, fear of Erdogan's past. If these fears spread to the whole establishment, to the secularists, to the 65 percent of the people who did not vote for Erdogan, we are bound to experience another military coup and, as I said before, I don't want to see that happening.

I want Erdogan to succeed, and I want the army to stay away from politics. Erdogan is opening a narrow path right now. If that narrow path is crossed carefully, Turkey could eventually be a more open, more liberal society. So, all I say to you, to my compatriots and to my fears, please wait and see.