On The Edge In Turkey

Elections in staunchly secular Turkey last week delivered an overwhelming victory to the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party. But the party's chairman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, formerly a member of the radical Islamic Welfare party, has been banned from politics. He must now decide whether to appoint a prime minister or seek to change the Constitution so he can assume the post himself. He must also prove he has moderated his hard-line Islam-ist views. Last week news-week's Lally Weymouth sat down with Erdogan in Ankara. Excerpts:

WEYMOUTH: Do you have a vision of a different Turkey?

ERDOGAN: Yes, Turkey needs a new vision. I am going to try to change Turkey as I changed Istanbul when I was [mayor].

People in the West admire Turkey as a secular, democratic Muslim country. They are worried that your party is really an Islamic party that will change the character of the nation.

Our party is not Islamic. It is not based on religion. The Turkish media tried to place us in that category.

Would you like to be prime minister, or will you appoint someone?

Public opinion solved this on Nov. 3 [the day of the elections]. The public announced who should be the next prime minister, and the rest is the responsibility of the political world. I believe it will do its part.

How long would it take to change the Constitution or do whatever is necessary for you to become prime minister?

The president must consent [to amending the Constitution] or take the issue to a referendum.

You have said that you will review the IMF agreement that promised Turkey $1.6 billion in loans. What changes will you ask for?

[In] the social aspect of the agreement, which creates unemployment.

The Bush administration wants to change the regime in Iraq. Will your government let America use Turkish air bases and station troops here?

The U.N. decisions have a binding effect on us. If the goal is to remove weapons of mass destruction, Iraq appears to be willing to accept U.N. inspectors. If the reports of these inspectors are positive, the problem might be solved peacefully.

You and most of your party's leaders graduated from religious schools, which have been limited in number. Will you add more?

We don't intend to, but it's not right to close them either.

You said you intend to end the ban on women in Turkey wearing a head scarf to the office or to a university.

We must respect this right, as it is respected in the U.S. For example, my daughters [who wear head scarfs] cannot go to school in this country, but must go to school in the U.S.

You said your top priority will be for Turkey to join the European Union. Does that mean that you will continue human-rights and democracy reforms?

We have to reach the level of the Copenhagen criteria [for EU membership]. That means freedom of expression and religion, and ending the ban on broadcasting in one's mother tongue--for Kurds [and] everyone--and ending torture.

Will your party continue to build the strong relationship Turkey currently has with Israel?

The relationship with Israel will continue. We have made statements concerning Palestine because of the situation there. We're against all types of terrorism--from individual to state terrorism. We are by no means anti-Semitic.

In the past you said, "You cannot be secular and a Muslim at the same time. The world's 1.5 billion Muslims are waiting for the Turkish people to rise up, and we will rise up." Do you still believe that?

Islam is a religion. Secularism is just a style of management.

You said, "Democracy is just a means to an end." Do you still think so?

I think the same way.

You were put in jail for reading a poem: "The minarets are our bayonets; the mosques are our barracks; our believers are our soldiers."

The poem I read I've been reciting for the last 20 years.

People are worried that you have a hidden agenda and will undermine the secular state.

If my nation had such doubts about me, they would not have elected me... We have no hidden agenda.