Turkey's Powerful Prime Minister Who Can Challenge Erdogan?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP expects victory in this Sunday's parliamentary elections -- partly because his opponents are so weak. While intellectuals warn against the establishment of a theocracy, the old Kemalist elite is fighting for its privileges.

Istanbul's Ortaköy district, located on the banks of the Bosporus, is the city's most westernized neighborhood. High-end nightclubs such as Reina rub shoulders with classy restaurants along the waterfront. In the pre-dawn hours, staff at trendy clubs hand out "türbans" -- the headscarves worn by devout Muslim women -- to those revelers who are looking to conceal their identity because they are too drunk to really be driving.

The last of the all-night party crowd have hardly left the scene before a grand gentleman of the old school walks into his office high above the waterfront road, in a building once occupied by the city's psychiatric hospital where the mentally ill former king Talal of Jordan spent his last days in exile.

Ishak Alaton, almost 80 years old, is the wealthy head of Alarko Holding and one of Turkey's most respected industrialists. He is also among the discreet supporters of the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in office since 2002, and his program, which has been widely labeled as "moderately Islamist."

But this is no deterrent for Alaton, the descendant of Sephardic Jews expelled from Cadiz, Spain. He indefatigably preaches the benefits of Western values, supports political foundations, cultural exchange and religious dialogue. He also enjoys inspecting -- with a healthy dose of sarcasm -- the front lines of the struggle over the achievements of the Turkish Republic.

"Turkey is a dictatorship, but one with six dictators," says Alaton. "The chairmen of the major parties determine everything in this country." According to Alaton, those who single out Prime Minister Erdogan and his fellow Islamists are overlooking the fact that Deniz Baykal, the opposition leader and chairman of the Republican People's Party, is "a fascist" when it comes to his political character -- a man who controls his own party with an iron fist but is weak when dealing with the military.

Western values, believes Alaton, the strong-willed cosmopolitan from Ortaköy, ought to be defended on both large and small fronts -- including in daily life. This conviction is one of the reasons why, in Istanbul's stifling summer heat, he sometimes wears a sign on his jacket that reads: "Please do not kiss -- shake hands!" This, says Alaton, smiling, is the only way to keep one's distance from "sweaty Turkish men" with moustaches eager to plant the traditional brotherly kiss on his cheek.

Alaton takes a decidedly relaxed approach to the parliamentary elections scheduled for this Sunday, a race from which Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is slated to emerge even more triumphantly than in 2002. If, as Istanbul's liberal contingent persistently claims, Erdogan and his cohorts were truly pursuing a secret agenda to take the country through a lengthy series of constitutional barriers to establish an Islamic theocracy, Alaton would be the first for whom it would be a good idea to leave the country.

But he has no such intentions. He trusts his business sense, his good judgment and, last but not least, the word of Erdogan, the former avowed Islamist, who now respectfully refers to Alaton, a Jewish philanthropist and free spirit, as "Abi," or older brother. Erdogan also values Alaton's advice.

"The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers." It was by publicly reciting these poetic words of pan-Turkish activist Ziya Gökalp 10 years ago that Erdogan, then the popular mayor of Istanbul, managed to land himself in political oblivion -- and in prison, on charges of inciting the people. But three years after his release, Erdogan -- who claims he learned his lesson -- and his newly founded Justice and Development Party (AKP) had already achieved an absolute majority of seats in the Turkish parliament. He became prime minister in March 2003.

His pupil has proven to be a good learner, says Alaton. "Gaining European Union membership did not correspond with Erdogan's convictions at first," he says. "But then we managed to convince him that it would be the only way to gain control over his army."

This remains a distant goal for Erdogan, as evidenced by a barely concealed threat by the Turkish military leadership, disseminated via the Internet on April 27, to overthrow the government should Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül be elected president. Gül's qualifications for the country's highest office mattered less in the end than the question of what sort of outfit his wife, a devout Muslim who wears a headscarf, would wear when representing the secular republic at official events.

The army's intervention, says the patrician Alaton, was "a shameful affair" not unlike a "coup." As Alaton sees it, the debate over whether the potential first lady's headscarf would jeopardize Turkey's self-image was artificially placed at the "center of the political confrontation."

The controversial garment is a square piece of material, usually made of rayon or polyester, about three and a half feet long on each side. Devout Muslim women wear the "türban," as it is known, wrapped tightly around their heads and secured with pins, together with a floor-length robe, even as they walk across Istanbul's Taksim Square in the searing heat.

These shrouded women are still a minority in this neighborhood, where their dress contrasts sharply with the prevailing fashions. Bare bellies, legs and shoulders are more common among women in the square, where a 1928 monument commemorates Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the "Father of the Turks" and founder of the republic, with two bronze statues covered with medals. On one side of the monument, a woman wearing a headscarf looks to the West; on the other side, a woman wearing no scarf and with her hair exposed peers eastward.

The Smug 'White Turks'

Equal rights for women and their liberation from the constraints of Ottoman days are among the fundamental values of the republic, symbolized by Turkey's ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools, universities and government offices. Anyone who challenges this prohibition, say members of the Kemalist establishment, is challenging the legacy of Ataturk and the very framework of modern, secular Turkey.

This legacy includes, aside from the strict separation of religion and state, wide-reaching powers for the military and a lifestyle Ataturk imposed with dictatorial means and consistently demonstrated in his own behavior; he set about storming the bastions of conservative Islam by drinking raki, dancing tango and stripping off to sunbathe. But today Ataturk's legacy has lost some of its allure.

What makes Erdogan's system so powerful are the weaknesses of his opponents. Aside from secularism, which has been elevated to a national doctrine, they lack ideas to counter the religious pragmatist. It is as if they had exhausted the defenses of democracy in their unified struggle against Islamism.

And so those who call themselves "white Turks," the descendants of prominent Istanbul families for the most part, look on as something begins to rise from the ruins of the defeated Ottoman order, something that responds to neither logic nor violence: the yearning of the Turkish people for transcendence.

The "white Turks" have become smug and complacent, says Mehmet Umur. "They are secular, which they believe qualifies them as modern." Umur is the manager of Club Jezair in a basement in Istanbul's trendy Beyoglu neighborhood, where members of the urban opposition to Islamism, who come here to sip white wine and eat ravioli, practically have the place to themselves.

At least until Egemen Bagis walks into the bar. Bagis, 37, is Erdogan's foreign policy advisor and his connection to the White House in Washington. A graduate of Baruch College in New York, Bagis is one of the members of Turkey's cosmopolitan elite that Erdogan has recruited as secret weapons for the AKP in the last few years.

In 1998, Erdogan told his supporters, "Your brother Tayyip is one of the black Turks" -- in other words, those who are excluded from the establishment. Nowadays, however, Erdogan insists that his party is no longer called the AKP, but the "Ak Parti," or "White Party." A man like Bagis, who has no qualms about crossing class boundaries or showing up at Jezair during an election campaign, is perfect for the prime minister's new strategy. He glances at a long table in the middle of the room, where the leaders of the Rotary Club are holding a meeting, and promptly joins the group.

"The different camps are finding common ground," says Umur, the club's manager. Serif Mardin, the doyen of the Turkish sociology community whose résumé includes stints at Harvard, Princeton and Oxford, calls the phenomenon "milieu pressure." With migrants from Turkey's less cosmopolitan regions coming to Istanbul, he says, "people move about more than in the past, causing former cultural enclaves to burst like boils."

Mardin's social theory of shifts within Turkish society suggests that the AKP is pursuing a double-edged strategy. It fights for the votes of the elite by launching a charm offensive in the strongholds of the middle-class intelligentsia, the captains of industry and the opposition parties. The people living in the burst "boils" -- the poor neighborhoods lining the shores of the Golden Horn -- and in the slums known as "gecekondus" on Istanbul's outskirts already support the party.

In the Kasimpasa neighborhood where Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the son of a seaman, was born in a wooden house at Altyumak Street 15, the Istanbul of nightclubs, designer boutiques and art galleries seems a sinful temptation from days gone by. In Kasimpasa, groups of women wearing the black carsaf, Turkey's version of the Muslim chador, huddle in front of houses. The sale of alcohol in the neighborhood was discontinued years ago without the need for any official directive.

It is more than just a footnote in history that here in Kasimpasa, of all places, the old "Valley of Springs," the troops of Sultan Mehmet II dragged their boats across the mountain in May 1453 to launch their decisive assault on then Christian Constantinople.

As if the Turkish population were subconsciously following the traces of its suppressed history, devout Muslims are now settling in areas around historic Islamic sites along the Golden Horn -- places like Eminönü, where hair from the beard of the Prophet Mohammed is on display; in Eyüp, the burial site of Mohammed's standard bearer, who died before the walls of Constantinople in the seventh century; and in Fatih, where it is said that the sheikh of the Iskender Pasa Mosque initiated the later President Turgut Özal and the later Prime Minister Erdogan into the banned Naksibendi Order, a powerful Sufi Muslim brotherhood.

On the bazaar street of Fatih's Carsamba neighborhood, women wearing black robes that reveal only a strip of skin between the nostrils and the forehead already make up a majority. Conservative Muslims deliberately chose the area for its geographic distance from cosmopolitan Istanbul. "Turkey is a bottle," say members of Akder, a women's rights organization. "The Islamic lifestyle and the Western lifestyle are like olive oil and water," she says -- no matter how much the republic's leaders try to shake up the bottle, mixing the two is nearly impossible.

Outside Istanbul, the desire of groups to isolate themselves from modern society and the fear of anything that is different is not as clear-cut. There are cities in which fear of the Islamists combines with fear of the government's sinister machinations and of one's own neighbors.

Malatya is one of these places. The city, more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) east of Istanbul, is the world capital of apricot production and home to 385,000 people, up to a third of them members of the minority Alevi sect of Islam. Malatya is a city that spans East and West or, as the local saying goes, lies "in the East of the West, in the West of the East."

Tilman Geske, a German translator who had settled in Malatya with his wife and three children, died there on April 18. He was found in his office at the Zirve Publishing House, lying next to two murdered Turkish Christians. A towel had been stuffed into his mouth, his body stabbed 156 times, his hands tied behind his back and his skin pulled from his fingers.

Five young male students were charged with the crime. They lived in dormitories operated by the Ihlas Foundation, which has taken up the cause of reconciling Islamism and Turkish nationalism. The attackers were already known to the police. Two days before the murders, they were arrested for using the city's football stadium as a shooting range, but were promptly released.

The Role of the Deep Government

More than 100 mourners attended Geske's funeral at the "Cemetery of the Infidels." But not a single representative of the government in Ankara, not even the mayor of Malatya, was there. The message, clearly, was that the Turkish government had nothing to do with the bloodbath at the Zirve Publishing House.

Senel Karatas disputes this. Carefully made up and wearing a tight, strapless top, Karatas, who heads the Society of Human Rights in Malatya, says: "The murder of Tilman Geske followed the same pattern as the murder of journalist Hrant Dink and priest Andrea Santoro. I am 100 percent convinced that the deep government was behind this."

"Derin devlet," the deep government, is a Turkish expression for anything that cannot happen without the approval of the state and may not happen with the approval of the state. It is a synonym for a network of dark forces consisting of former and current members of the administration, the military, the judiciary and the intelligence services, who redirect the course of events in the country, employing violence, if necessary, the minute they believe such action is warranted.

The trail of derin devlet has repeatedly led to Malatya. Mehmet Ali Agca, the would-be assassin of the pope, was born there and, in the late 1970s, was a member of a guerilla organization supported by the state. The popular independent mayor of Malatya, Hamid Fendoglu, was killed in a bomb attack in 1978, at a time when the government was involved in campaigns to combat a growing leftist movement. The goal of the attack was apparently to scapegoat the traditionally leftist-oriented Alevis, and the plan succeeded.

The city's non-Alevi residents directed their fury against Alevi houses and apartments, transforming a political battle into what appeared to be a religious conflict. Thousands of Alevis left the city, an exodus that is being repeated by members of the Armenian minority. The birthplace of Hrant Dink, the democracy and human rights activist murdered in January 2007, stands like a memorial today in Malatya's old Armenian neighborhood. "The lions attack a herd, and then they isolate a single animal and attack," Dink said the day before he died.

Today Malatya is "one of the three centers of radical Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey," says Ibrahim Göçmen, one of the city's most prominent journalists. In the 2002 parliamentary election, the AKP captured five of the seven seats representing the city, and it plans to improve on that performance this Sunday. The seeds of xenophobia, violence and political repression that the deep state has been sowing for years appear to have sprouted, and religious extremists are now reaping the harvest.

What makes Erdogan's system so powerful are the weaknesses of his opponents. They seek to lay the blame for their country's excesses on whoever they can: the "reactionaries" (Islamists), the "separatists" (Kurds), the Americans and the EU. The only place they do not apportion blame is precisely where the flames of these excesses are being fanned in the most cold-blooded manner: in the belly of the state.

"Europe and the USA" are to blame for the inroads fundamentalists are making in Turkey, says Fatih Hilmioglue, a respected physician and the dean of 17,000 students at the University of Malatya. "They accept Turkish extremists and do nothing against their subversive activities."

Only a literal interpretation of the principles of Ataturk, whose likeness hangs in three versions on the walls of his office, is sufficient to fight the Islamist threat, says Hilmioglu. This is why Hilmioglu will no longer tolerate headscarves on university grounds in the future. "These people know no restraint," he says. "They'll start with the universities, and then they'll move on to schools and government offices. In the end we'll have Shariah here."

The most fanatical and powerful campaign event Turkey has seen in years is taking place in Cizre, in the country's Kurdish southeast. Close to 100,000 people have flooded the streets, men dressed in the checkered Kefiye or wearing linen cloth draped over their heads, women wearing the black carsaf and emitting loud screeches, lining the street to the north to see the candidates pass by. Behind dusty car windows and wearing mirrored sunglasses, they hold up their index and middle fingers in the victory sign, relishing the crowd's attention like pop stars. They are the independent Kurdish candidates for a seat in the Turkish parliament in Ankara.

It appears to be their day. But appearances are deceptive. The crowd shouts: "We are with you, Öcalan, with our blood, our lives." "On the mountains and on the plains, the PKK is everywhere," they chant. "The PKK is the people, and the people are here." Suddenly it seems as if this were the day of the banned Kurdish Workers' Party, the PKK, and its chairman, Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in prison for the past eight years. But this too is deceptive.

The crowd parts for an open flatbed truck surrounded by fanatical mourners, men and women wearing every imaginable color and traditional outfit of this Kurdish region. On the bed of the truck is a light brown coffin carrying the body of Orhan Dogan, the Kurdish lawyer, human rights activist and politician. Released in 2004 after spending 10 years in Turkish prisons for allegedly collaborating with the PKK, Dogan died on June 29, 2007 from the complications of a heart attack.

As an attorney, Dogan went to the European Court of Justice to argue the case of a group of farmers in the town of Yesilyurt who, in 1989, were forced by Turkish soldiers to stuff excrement into each other's mouths. The trial ended with the court handing down a judgment against the Turkish state. Dogan survived the 1992 massacre at the Nevroz Festival in Cizre, when the military slaughtered more than 100 residents of the city, as well as several attempts on his life. It is because of this history that Dogan's funeral is such a harrowing and unsettling demonstration of unbroken Kurdish resistance.

One of the mourners is Mehmet Öcalan, the brother of the PKK leader and one of the few people who has been allowed to visit Abdullah Öcalan at a prison on the island of Imrali, where he is serving a life sentence. PKK veteran Seydi Firat, a guerilla leader in the border region with Iraq from 1981 to 1999 and now a member of a "peace initiative," is also there. Firat says: "I used to stand up there, on the top of Mount Cudi, and look down on this city. Now I'm looking up at the mountain from here." He doesn't elaborate on whether he welcomes this change of perspective.

And then there is Bahros Galali, an envoy of the PUK, the Kurdish party of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Galali says that he is not concerned about the large numbers of Turkish troops that have been deployed to the region surrounding Cizre or about the threat of a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq to fight PKK units hiding out there. "We have seen many tanks in our lives," he says. "We are not afraid."

The signs are not good. Since the beginning of the year, both the PKK and the Turkish army have claimed more than 100 of their respective enemies' lives. Once again, the Kurds find themselves fighting for their rights on two fronts. The first is the region in Iraq's Kandil Mountains where the PKK guerillas are holed up, and the second is at the party's headquarters, where officials hope that up to 30 independent Kurdish delegates will gain seats in parliament this Sunday, circumventing the 10-percent threshold written into Turkish law.

"This prime minister, Erdogan, has also said: The Kurdish problem is my problem, and I will solve it; and, like others before him, he too has failed," Orhan Dogan said shortly before his death. His words seem especially significant now, in the stifling late evening heat, as his body slides into a grave at the Cizre cemetery, and even the "Öcalan" chants fall silent for a moment.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan