'We Are Not Rooted In Religion'

Despite a landslide election win last summer, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, is fighting for his political life. Turkey's Constitutional Court is considering an indictment accusing Erdogan and 70 other figures from his party, the AKP, of "seeking to undermine the secular state." Prosecutors demand that the accused be banned from politics for five years and the AKP closed down. The morning that the party submitted its defense to the court, Erdogan spoke to NEWSWEEK's Owen Matthews in Ankara. Excerpts:

Matthews: Can Islam and modernity coexist?
Turkey has achieved what people said could never be achieved—a balance between Islam, democracy, secularism and modernity. [Our government] demonstrates that a religious person can protect the idea of secularism. In the West the AKP is always portrayed as being "rooted in religion." This is not true. The AKP is not a party just for religiously observant people—we are the party of the average Turk. We are absolutely against ethnic nationalism, regional nationalism and religious chauvinism. Turkey, with its democracy, is a source of inspiration to the rest of the Islamic world.

You have made speeches calling for new thinking in Islam.
We as politicians cannot enter into debates about modernizing Islam. As politicians we do not have the right. Nor do Islamic scholars. But we can speak about the place of Muslims in modern society and their contribution to a modern way of life. We can speak about the place of women. For example, in Turkey today the AKP is the best way for women to take an active part in political life. We have the largest number of female M.P.s.

If you have such a liberal vision, why is it that you are being prosecuted for allegedly being too Islamist?
I cannot comment while the case is still being considered by the court.

How have religious attitudes changed in Turkey during your lifetime?
The rules of religion stay the same, but people's attitudes towards religion have changed. The urbanization of the country has brought increased wealth and a different understanding of life. In the past, people had no alternatives. Now we have given people freedom of choice. We have also enhanced the rights and freedoms of non-Muslims. For instance we have made changes to the building codes so that they do not refer to "mosque" but to "place of religious worship." We put government money into restoring the Armenian church on Lake Van. And we have changed the law to help religious foundations [regain property confiscated by the state].

But you haven't reopened the Orthodox seminary on Halki island [near Istanbul].
That is an educational problem, not a religious problem. We have to overcome some mutual problems with Greece, such as questions about the education of ethnic Turks in western Thrace. We hope to overcome these issues soon.

What is Turkey's role in facilitating recent negotiations between Israel and Syria?
For 40 years Turkey had no diplomatic relations with Syria. When [the AKP] came to power we decided to normalize these relations. Our policy is to win friends, and not to make enemies. Because of our good relations with both Syria and Israel we were asked by both of them to effect better communications. We've been speaking to the leaders of both countries. It's important for us to try to gain some ground—if we can help achieve peace in the Middle East, that will have a major positive impact on the region.

Is it your belief that Israel wishes to attack Iran?
For a politician to speak about other countries' intentions is a big mistake. But I don't want to see anything like that happen. If it did, I cannot comprehend what will happen in the Middle East. We shouldn't even think about this. My biggest hope [for peace] is that Israel stops its excessive use of force in the West Bank. Civilians are being killed in Gaza; children and old people. We have to be just—we cannot say that it's right if one side [uses force] but condemn the other side for doing the same.