Spiegel Interview with Turkish President Gül 'We're Not in Any Rush to Join the EU'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Turkish President Abdullah Gül, 57, discusses Ankara's bid for EU membership, Turkey's progress on the road to modernization and his advice for Turks living in Germany.

Tulips are seen at a public garden in Istanbul. The flowers are best known in Holland, but originated in Turkey.

Tulips are seen at a public garden in Istanbul. The flowers are best known in Holland, but originated in Turkey.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, why is the debate being waged in your country over Islamic headscarves so fierce?

Abdullah Gül: In my current office, I am no longer allowed to pursue partisan politics. But I am proud that I was a member of the government and made my contribution to the reform process. The headscarf debate also touches on the process of democratizing Turkey, something which also includes basic rights and liberties, including the right to practice religion. My country is a secular and democratic state. Whether a woman wears a headscarf or not is her personal choice. By the way, this is not a big issue at the family level. The time when the issue gets most emotional is when politicians focus on it and transform it into a cultural phenomenon.

SPIEGEL: But many Turks see the headscarf issue as proof that the government is seeking to Islamize the country.

Gül: That's not how I see the conflict. When it comes to the headscarf issue, we are adhering exactly to European criteria concerning freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

SPIEGEL: The government lifted the ban on headscarves at universitiesand the Constitutional Court reversed this decision. During the summer, the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was nearly banned. Isn’t this a power struggle between the old Kemalist elite and the new conservative elite gathered under the banner of the AKP?

Gül: Turkey is currently undergoing an important process of change. The goal is to modernize and democratize our country. During this process, we are merely introducing the standards of the European Union. For some Turks, this can be very painful; but I still see it as being a positive development.

SPIEGEL: The Turkish government is modernizing the economy. At the same time, though, it is also socially conservative, as has been illustrated by the headscarf debate.

Gül: The ruling party makes no secret of the fact that it is a conservative, democratic party. But we also have social democratic and nationalist parties. What's important is the fact that our economy has grown very rapidly in recent years. We are prospering and moving forward. At the same time, Turkey is not neglecting to use its influence to champion democracy, human rights and the principles of a free market economy. The government is modernizing a predominantly Muslim society -- and that makes Turkey a rather unique country.

SPIEGEL: Will the global economic crisis now wipe out all this economic progress?

Gül: Turkey numbers among the countries that will be affected least. In 2001, we experienced an extremely similar crisis. At the time, we had to invest 25 percent of our gross domestic product -- some $45 billion (€33 billion) -- in the banking sector. This has paid off, particularly when you look at the situation from today’s perspective. Owing to this, and thanks to our independent banking oversight agency, the Turkish financial market has become extremely solid.

SPIEGEL: But, of course, trade is going to suffer, especially since other European countries that import Turkish goods haven't gotten off so lightly.

Gül: It could very well be that our exports will decline next year since we also do business with countries that have been directly affected by the crisis. Over the past six years, we have enjoyed an average growth rate of 7 percent, and this year we still anticipate that it will be 4 percent. We are also among the countries in Europe with the lowest budget deficits. Unlike many other European countries, we actually have fulfilled the Maastricht criteria.


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