Asharq Al-Awsat, Istanbul – Necmettin Erbakan was the first Islamist to become prime minister of Turkey. A mechanical engineer, academic and veteran politician, he served as prime minister of Turkey between 1996 and 1997. Among his supporters, Erbakan is regarded as more than just a political leader; he is a religious and spiritual leader. His advocates bow down to greet him and kiss his hand three times.
An 81-year-old man who cannot walk or stand without support due to problems with his spine, Erbakan still has a formidably sharp mind and can speak for hours on end in a systematic and lucid manner. He currently heads the Islamist movement Millî Gِrüş [The National Vision] and the Felicity Party [Sedaat Partisi], both of which he founded.
Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed the prominent politician to discuss Turkey’s past elections, his views on the Islamic world and Zionism, and the threat Iran confronts today, among other topics. Following is the text of the interview:
Q: How did the Justice and Development Party (AK) achieve such huge success?
A: Turkey is a large state, with a population of 75 million; it also represents a strategic key worldwide and has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that is among the highest in the Islamic world. Thus, starting from this point; the election results do not belong to Turkey alone; rather they belong to the whole world.
These past elections were important and the results are even more so. The results and figures are known; however, what is the message behind these figures, what is the truth? The truth is that the Turkish elections were like a tempest and the Turks who were voting were affected by it.
This storm may be summarized into five factors: First is former Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer’s position, he had adopted a negative attitude towards the veil and said that there are public places that should not allow the presence of veiled women, which contradicts secularism in its truest sense. The former president’s understanding of secularism is a violation of human rights. Of course such a negative stance stems from an incorrect understanding of secularism; it is an understanding that has greatly affected the Turkish people and it had been silent before but it exploded during the parliamentary elections.
The second factor is that at the time of the presidential elections, some groups upheld that the wife of the president who gets elected must be veiled. This position caused a great deal of resentment among the Turks and the results of the parliamentary elections were a reaction against this trend.
The third factor that could be understood in light of the results of the recent elections is the statement the army issued on the Internet on 14 April, which was in fact a direct warning to the government. This statement indicated the Turkish resentment. Since there is an important issue: Cyprus had joined the European Union (EU) but the army did not address this issue. Additionally, there are the latest developments in the Middle East, such as Iraq and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and likewise, the army did not issue any statements regarding these issues.
Also, in Turkey, there is a presence of organized terrorist cells that have been responsible for the deaths of civilians, and once again; the army has not discussed these terrorist operations. As for the army’s statement on 17 April, it regarded Turkey’s secularism to be under threat because celebrations had been held on the occasion of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday and there were young veiled girls participating in the celebrations and the army believed that their presence constituted a threat to secularism.
The fourth factor was the decision issued by the legal committee for higher education, which supervises over all Turkish universities, to close down all the imam and preacher training schools and the religious seminaries. The committee’s negative position was the reason behind the public outrage that ensued.
As for the fifth factor, it was the negative stance that was adopted by the opposition party, the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) and Deniz Beykal’s antagonistic stance towards the AK and the repeated accusations he made stating that the AK was against secularism. This was the reason behind the public’s sympathy towards the ruling party; it also indicated that if oppositional CHP were to come to power, it would tighten its grip on the people’s practices.
All these factors made the public effectively become a time bomb. Prior to the elections the oppositional CHP had staged demonstrations in which 3 million people participated to protest that secularism was in danger, some of them were chanting “death to Shariah”. Many Turkish people regarded these demonstrations against the AK Party as a tsunami against Islam and Muslims that was spearheaded by the oppositional party and that the response to it would be to defend religion through voting for the AK party. Many Turks disapproved of these attacks. There were some who did not vote for the ruling AK Party because of the country’s considerable debt, unemployment, poverty levels, poor management and governance and external policies – especially relations with Israel.
But these elections did not occur within a normal context, but rather within the framework of the tsunami against the ruling AK that the main oppositional party and others were chiefly for. What were the options for the Turkish people as a response to this threat? There were a few options including the Felicity Party, however it only got three percent of the votes in the past elections ¬– it did not stand a real chance in the elections. Meanwhile, the AK had gained 34 percent of the votes.
The Turks who usually vote for the Felicity Party feared that their voices would be to no avail if they voted for us so they voted for the AK instead. All the Turks that regarded the tsunami wave of secularism as a threat to religion and the people’s choices voted for the AK. This is the meaning of the past election results; it is not related to the AK policies but rather to the exceptional situation in the country prior to the elections.
Q: Do you believe that the people’s vote for the AK was a difficult decision to make?
A: Fifty percent of the Turkish people’s vote was correct because they had no other options, and 50 percent was wrong. The public wanted to defend itself against the tsunami ignoring the fact that the AK itself was responsible for that tsunami. The AK cast off its religious mantle since it came to power five years ago and the leaders of the party declared that publicly and did not deny it. After closing down the imam and preachers’ training schools and banning Quran lessons, and to meet the EU requirements [to join], they abolished laws that incriminate adultery. Moreover, the AK has officially changed some Quranic verses in schools and omitted the last verse of the ‘Al-Fatiha’ (opening Surah of the Quran) “The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors, not (the path) of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray” from the Turkish translations of the Quran. They did not even translate it or translate its meaning so as not to anger the Jews, “those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down” and the Christians, “those who go astray”.
Moreover, the AK has granted considerable attention to its relationship with Europe and the US and stated that an Islamic Union is not possible and instead said that Turkey was more inclined towards Europe. [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s government has been reiterating this rhetoric for five years. How will the new generation be reared? Media and journalism poison the public’s thoughts. In short, voting for the AK Party was voting for hatred not love; hatred for the alternative (secular extremism) and not out of love for the party.
Q: You said that the AK Party won the elections because the alternative was secular extremism and that it is a result of hatred for the latter rather than a love for the former, so what of your party? Why did the Felicity Party only get 2.5 percent of the votes? Was the party’s political discourse and ideology too complicated for the ordinary man to understand since you focused on the impact that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank’s policies had on the Turkish economy?
A: I do not believe that the Felicity Party’s discourse was complicated; I think the public understood it well and understood the ideas, many Turks were sympathetic towards us and regard our political program as the best; however, the political tsunami was mightier and there was no choice for the public other than the AK Party. This is due to the fear of the secular CHP emerging victorious. This is not the first time that the Turkish people vote based on this logic. Thirty years ago, before the 1980 military coup, there was a right-wing group called the Justice Party (JP) and we were the oppositional party, the National Salvation Party (NSP), and we attempted to explain the danger of the JP’s policies for Turkey. However, there was intervention by Western ‘hands’ that had interests in Turkey and were interfering to serve their interests. Despite the fact that many Turks supported the policies of the NSP, most of the public voted for the right-wing JP because they feared the alternative far-left option. At the time, we (the NSP) said that the difference between the communist leftist party and the right-wing party was that the communist method was like surgery without anesthetic, while the right-wing party ‘drugged’ before surgery so that you would be numb and not feel a thing. Upon waking you would find that the right wing took more than the communists. The NSP lost but because the party did not lose hope, we re-entered the arena and in 1997 we won the elections with the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) and formed the government.
Q: Erdogan was a member of the Welfare party (Refah Partisi) and he left it to form the AK party with Abdullah Gul, do you feel that he has fled your school. In your view, has he succeeded or failed?
A: Yes, Erdogan is a failure as a student and he has fled through the school’s back door. He attended school but did not pay attention to the lessons. Despite the fact that he was educated in religious seminaries, his actions prove otherwise. He states that Muslim urbanization cannot compete with Western urbanization, while the Prophet Mohammed says that religion is capable of transcending everything. Is any knowledgeable person capable of saying that? Erdogan is inclined towards the EU and is complying with its demands and at the same time he maintains that an Islamic Union is not possible. Is this reasonable? Are we serving Islam or Zionism?
Since Asharq Al-Awsat is a substantially large newspaper, I want to send out a message through it, which is that Asharq Al-Awsat defends and supports the AK Party through what it has published about it. (Asharq Al-Awsat’s response to Erbakan was to explain that the paper was not biased towards any party and that it had previously published criticism of Erdogan issued by Turkish citizens who spoke against his closeness to Israel and the US and also his economic policies, while the newspaper also had readers who admire and respect Erbakan and his experience as prime minister of Turkey.
In response, a laughing Erbakan said that Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper was like the Turkish people in that they loved them but supported the Justice and Development Party). Academics and intellectuals throughout the Arab and Islamic world all read Asharq Al-Awsat but when I read the paper I find that it makes no distinction between the Felicity Party and the Justice and Development Party. Our brothers at Asharq Al-Awsat should not mix between truth and falsehood.
Q: It’s true that there is a lack of information about your relationship with Erdogan and differences in the policies of the Felicity Party and the AK Party. The prevalent belief until recently was that Erdogan’s experience in the government is an extension of the Islamic governance at your hands in 1997 during Refah Party’s term.
A: The AK Party did not follow in our footsteps. In fact; until now, it does not seem that they have an understanding of what happened. The Prophet said, “Beware of the vision of the believer for he sees with the light of Allah,” the AK party needs to have a vision. Islam is not a doctrine-based religion, rather it is a religion characterized by reason, understanding and awareness. This is why Islam must be accurately apprehended. In all the Shariah schools in the world there are two things lacking: the establishment of a department that specializes in the implementation of Shariah in our contemporary world, and another that specializes in the correct understanding of Islam. A Muslim must be aware and have a good grasp of Islam. Do not consider the Jews and Christians as patrons [for Islam]. How can any person who deals with the Jews be a real Muslim? This problem with awareness [the lack thereof] exists throughout the Islamic world.
Q: Can you tell me more about the motives that drove Erdogan to split from the Refah party to form a new and rival party?
A: We all know the founder of Israel is Theodor Hertzl and Jewish thinker and activist Haim Nahum and former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brezinski. What did Brezinski say? He said when we view the Islamic world; we see two types of people; the people of the world and the people of religion, we want to weaken the latter and collaborate with the former. You ask why Erdogan broke away from us and set up a new party? My answer is Brezinski’s words. Tayyip Erdogan did not establish the party by his own initiative; he was given orders to found the party. And why has Erdogan become a puppet in this project? Because he is weak with regards to location, money, leadership and position.
Q: What is the nature of your relationship now with Mr. Erdogan? Are you still in contact with one another, for example?
A: Tayyip phones me sometimes to inquire about my health but that means nothing. “How are you” and “how are you doing” are not important, what is important is the return of the true Islamic consciousness.
Q: Would you say you are dissatisfied with Mr. Erdogan’s policies?
A: I am dissatisfied with his actions, behavior and the direction in which he is headed. We complain because he is leading the Turkish people towards big problems. We are not satisfied with his loyalty and partnership with Zionism in some aspects. Why did Tayyip Erdogan dispatch Turkish forces in Lebanon within the framework of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations in Lebanon? To disarm Hezbollah.
Q: Why don’t you attempt to discuss your differences with Mr. Erdogan, since in the end any harm will befall all Turkish Muslims?
A: There is a saying that maintains that if God wills something to happen, it will happen. We have issued numerous advices but it has been futile.
Q: Ten years have elapsed since the Refah government you led was overthrown; have you reevaluated the reasons that led the Turkish army to topple your government?
A: The reason is clear: The secular Zionist circles are behind it. The Jews have a dream to build the grand Jewish state between the Nile and the Euphrates. The Zionist forces wanted to seize control of Istanbul to build that Israeli state. If conquering Istanbul had been successful, it would have been the birth of the Israeli state. But what happened? They came with 600 ships and 600,000 soldiers and they failed, however founding a Jewish state between the Nile and the Euphrates is a quintessential part of Jewish beliefs and they will never change this idea.
Over 80 years, the Zionist forces have been working on distancing the Turks from their religion, in addition laying an economic siege to Turkey. In 1990, what happened? Communism collapsed and the US became the sole superpower, and America is in the hands of the Jews. Following the absence of the Soviet Union, the Jewish dream of building a state between the Nile and the Euphrates became alive again. So, what did they do? During one of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) meetings in 1990 Margaret Thatcher said: We founded NATO to confront the Soviet, now the Soviet is over so should we end NATO? And because ideology that does not have enemies does not stay alive, there arose a need to find another enemy to substitute for the Soviet Union. Thatcher said the enemy is present and it is Islam.
It was under these circumstances that the Refah (Welfare) Party’s government emerged in Turkey. What I am about to say is in the words of Brezinski, he said: As long as Refah Party is in power in Turkey, we cannot achieve our goals – we must dissolve the Welfare Party. How can we eliminate the Refah government? The American state department does not want the Turkish army to seize control of power and replace the elected government. So what did they do? They turned their attention to the other party which was in the coalition government with us, the True Path Party, which is headed by Tansu Ciller, and threatened 50 members of the aforementioned party by saying that if they continued to support the coalition government with Refah Party that they would be subjecting Turkey to another military intervention such as the one took place in 1980 to oust Kenan Evren. Our partner in the government, Ciller, came to me and said: 50 members of my party do not support the coalition with you. We are enduring a crisis and must have new elections and after the elections, we could continue down the path of a coalition government again. In our agreement in principle with Ciller, we said that if we had to hold elections early because of a crisis, then we would change the prime minister – meaning that I would relinquish the position and she could assume that post. We voted in parliament with a majority of 251 MPs to run the elections within a three-month period. But what happened after that was a violation of the principals of democracy. We had 291 parliamentarians backing us; however during the crisis Mesut Yilmaz, whose party was a minority in parliament, was granted the right to form the government.
Q: In your view, why were the Zionist circles dissatisfied with you? What are the policies they adopted and which ones disturbed them?
A: During our time in the government we fulfilled three things: First, we abandoned the International Monetary Fund and stated that we no longer wanted to adopt its economic programs. Second, we set a budget to balance between the state’s expenses and resources – this had never been achieved before. Third, we founded the alliance between eight Islamic countries [D-8 or The Developing Eight, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Iran]. Our aim was to create a “voice” for the Islamic world [that could be heard] in world affairs and to create a more equitable international community – but this did not win the favor of international and Jewish forces. I always used to ask Ataturk: Why couldn’t you understand my position before the Jews did? The Jews were aware of the potential impact of the D-8 and they made a move to prevent it, but the Islamic awareness lacked that awareness for the huge potential that could have come out of such an alliance.
Q: Following your removal from the government, how did you feel? Did you feel a sense of sadness or treason, especially since there were Turkish businessmen that opposed your government?
A: Of course I felt sad and betrayed but I was confident about the importance of what we stood for. Some of the businessmen were opposed to us because when we set the budget for the state, we wanted a fair budget. The businessmen placed their money in banks and they receive very high interest rates and many exemptions from the state that cost us US $10 billion. In our budget plan we took that amount of money and allocated it to serve the needs of the poorer classes and that was met by the disapproval of many.
Q: You spoke about your fears for the future of the Islamic world; do you think Iran could be subjected to a US attack?
A: Of course there is a real danger confronting Iran. George Bush is a religious conservative who regards Islam as the enemy. He views Iran as a danger. Anything Islamic in his eyes poses a threat, Iran, Turkey and others.
Q: Turkey is in danger too?
A: Not only that, Turkey faces the greatest danger. For the US, Turkey is the most important state in the region; if it allies itself with the Islamic world then America would have lost everything. This is why the US and the Jews are fighting the Islamic trend and this is why the Islamic world must strengthen its ties and cooperation.
Q: Some say that the Turkish army has become weaker than the AK Party’s government, which got 46 percent of the votes, do you agree?
A: No… The army is not weak at the moment; the army remains the most powerful institution in Turkey.
Q: What is your view of the experiences of political Islam in the Arab world?
A: Each experience has its own particularities. Such experiences aim to end the leftist and capitalist hegemony over us, and that is required.
Q: However, there were totalitarian Islamic experiments that were not democratic. What is your assessment of those?
A: There is no such thing as a totalitarian Islamic government.
Q: But not running elections, for example, is not democratic?
A: Any government must derive its legitimacy from the public. Canceling elections and disregarding the public are not compatible with Islam.
Q: Finally, does the epithet the “father of political Islam in Turkey” please you?
A: God forbid. I do not care for titles. I want justice for all Muslims and all humanity. Islam is a religion of love and mercy. Our objective is to make 6 billion humans on earth content – not just the Muslims.