Islamic Turkey? Necmettin Erbakan: First Islamist prime minister in secular republic's history.

July 05, 1996

IT IS REASSURING that one of Necmettin Erbakan's first actions as prime minister of Turkey was to promise continuing good relations with the U.S. to a high-ranking American delegation that happened by. The doughty crusader for a more Islamic Turkey had, by the turn of the political wheel, put the relationship in question. But having been a deputy prime minister before, his record is for pragmatism in action contrasting with flaming rhetoric on the stump.

Mr. Erbakan's Welfare Party came in first in the December elections, thanks to divisions in the center-left and center-right. He deserved the chance at government that, pending a confidence vote in parliament, proved successful. Although he campaigned for an Islamic Turkey, four-fifths of the electorate voted for other parties that oppose the Islamization of Turkey.

So, where he promised to throw out U.S. bases, he now agrees to them, while seeking greater U.S. understanding of Turkey's repression of Kurdish nationalism. Islam ceased to be the state religion of Turkey in 1928. Mr. Erbakan is not likely to put it back, but he may well succeed in ending some official suppression of religion.

Mr. Erbakan became prime minister through a pact with former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, who is Western, secularist, conservative, free-market, pro-U.S. and female. Ms. Ciller and Mr. Erbakan despised each other until each made a pact with the devil in the form of the other. Ms. Ciller, head of the True Path Party, is deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

In the deal, she gets control of foreign and national security policy. The army, or at least its high command, is resolutely secularist, committed to NATO and cooperative with Israel. Meanwhile, Mr. Erbakan takes control of the domestic ministries, which gives him a chance to build a patronage base for greater popularity next time.

As an Islamist, Mr. Erbakan is a moderate compared to most who bear that label in other Islamic countries. He is not likely to try to impose Islamic rules on the people, but rather to make their observance more tolerated. He also presides over a weak coalition that is not likely to remain long in power. Turkey will almost certainly remain a secular state. Meanwhile, Mr. Erbakan may turn out to be an effective bridge between the Middle East and Europe, which need not be a bad thing.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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