Turkey's New President

The new Turkish President faces skepticism from within and outside his country. But the West has little to fear from the new leader.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is expected to be voted in as Turkey's new president today after months of confrontation with the secular establishment.

As a member of the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), secularists' fear he plans to dilute the country's strict separation of religion and state, dating back to the country's founding in 1923. Furthermore, his wife wears the Islamic headscarf, considered a provocation by the very same group.

In May, millions of Turks demonstrated against the prospect of a president from the AKP and the military, which has ousted four governments since 1960, issued stern warnings about the threat to secularism.

But the AKP went on to win almost one in every two votes in an early parliamentary election, propelled inter alia by the country's strong economic growth. The headscarves-issue did not bother a majority of the voters, who believes religion belongs in the private sphere. In fact, the AKP's efforts to loosen the country's ban on headscarves proved popular amongst more than 60% of the country's women, who prefer covering up when entering government buildings and universities.

Yet, this also provoked this spring's protests, which were led by the country's secularist military elite.

The new president also faces skepticism from abroad. On Monday 27 August, France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, reiterated his unequivocal opposition against Turkisk membership of the European Union (EU), Turkey's number one foreign policy goal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds more or less the same view. A recent survey by the Centre for European Policy Studies concluded that Turkey-skepticism is on the rise throughout the entire continent, mainly because Europeans feel that their identity would be threatened by allowing a predominantly Muslim country to join. Some U.S. officials have also expressed concern about the rising influence of Islam in one of Washington's primary Middle East allies, though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said she would support a new democratically elected AKP-affiliated president.

Based on the new president's track record in government, the West has little to fear.

In course of his five years as Foreign Minister, Mr. Gul and his government have cultivated an image of moderation across the board.

It has not passed one single law that could be described as Islamist.

At the same time, it has liberalized restrictive laws on the property of Turkey's religious minorities, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. And more importantly, it has introduced sweeping reforms that scrapped legal restrictions on freedom of speech and granted Kurds more cultural rights, reforms that last year allowed Turkey to open formal negotiations to join the EU.

As Foreign Minister, Mr. Gul has consistently pursued pro-Western policies, for instance by staging high-level visits to the White House and preventing a trip to Iran by his former boss, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at a rather politically sensitive time in September 2003.

With regards to anti-Semitism, the AKP have displayed a very different manner than did former Islamist parties. Mr. Gul himself has repeatedly strongly condemned it, including in speeches to the Organization of Islamic Countries. Furthermore, he has made it a priority to improve relations with Israel and positive trend in bilateral relations has remained unabated as seen in the conclusion of new joint projects such as the modernization of helicopters by the Israeli defense industries.

But developments in other parts of Turkey's "near-abroad", in particular, in neighboring Iraq, are less promising.

Ankara accuses members of a Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), of seeking shelter in northern Iraq, and Turkey has reportedly amassed over 200,000 troops on its Iraq border. Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Steven Cook recently warned that border operations remained "extremely dangerous" for Turkish troops. He said the PKK security threat continues to sow discontent within Turkey, potentially boosting nationalist power. A recent report from the Center for Defense Information concluded that a Turkish invasion could significantly undermine the US mission in Iraq.

The AKP-affiliated new president has a great opportunity to allay fears of both the secular population and international decision makers by contributing more actively to the resolution of challenges facing the region. That also includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In doing so, Mr. Gul would show the face of a tolerant Islam that would be accepted by all Turkish people, by the EU and the West, direly needed right now. The country could finally become the bridge between east and west, at the junction between the Orient and Occident, as its geography and history suggest.

But Western leaders, in particular within the EU, must also do more. President Sarkozy and others should stop their negative rhetoric and instead focus on how to speed up ongoing accession-talks with the country.

If not, the country could eventually drift towards militant secularism among nationalists, which poses a far greater risk than a president with a wife wearing a headscarf.