The place of Islam in society is an issue which looms large in two important presidential contests which will be decided over the coming days.
In Turkey, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, 56, a pious religious conservative, has been nominated for the presidency of Turkey by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). He seems certain to be confirmed in the post by a parliamentary vote on Friday. This has alarmed liberal Turks who fear that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of secularism will be eroded.
Turkey’s presidential palace of Cankaya, first occupied in 1923 by Ataturk, the founder of the Republic, has ever since been seen as a citadel of secularism. Its occupation by a practising Muslim, whose wife Hayrunisa wears an Islamic headscarf, marks something of a revolution in Turkey’s public life.
In France, presidential front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy makes no secret of his distaste for militant Islam -- and perhaps, if the truth be told, for Arabs and Muslims in general -- especially in the form of alienated youths of North African origin in the rundown suburbs of Paris and other French cities.
He is viscerally opposed to the entry of Turkey -- a country 99 per cent Muslim -- into the European Union. He is the only French presidential candidate to make his position on this issue absolutely clear. If he is elected President, Turkey’s accession negotiations with the European Commission in Brussels are likely to face serious obstruction from Paris.
Sarkozy’s evident Islamophobia has clearly proved attractive to right-wing voters. When a suicide bomber blew himself up in central Algiers on April 11, Sarkozy pledged in a radio interview to "wage a war without mercy against terrorist networks."
More controversially, however, he praised the Algerian army for cancelling the second round of general elections in 1992, thus preventing an almost certain victory by an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). "Algeria was very brave to interrupt the democratic process," Sarkozy said. "If the army had not acted, one could have had a Taliban regime in Algeria." He failed to mention that the army coup triggered a 10-year civil war in the 1990s in which well over 100,000 people died -- and of which this month’s suicide bombing was worrying evidence that the struggle is not yet over.
Whereas Ségolène Royal speaks of France as a mixed-race country -- une France métissée -- Sarkozy has thundered that those immigrants who do not love France should go back home. If elected president, he has proposed creating a new Ministry for National Identity and Immigration -- perhaps a warning that entry into France will not be as easy for North Africans and Black Africans as it was in the past.
In the first round of the French presidential elections on 22 April, Sarkozy, the right-wing candidate, won 31.11 per cent of the vote compared with 25.83 per cent for his main rival, the Socialist Ségolène Royal. The centrist candidate, François Bayrou, came third with 18.55 per cent.
The two leading candidates -- Sarko and Ségo, as the French call them -- will now spend the next few days fighting to see who can attract more of Bayrou’s voters in the second round of voting on May 6. Sarkozy will also attempt to capture votes from the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen -- down to a mere 10.51 per cent in the first round, having already been plundered by Sarkozy -- while Ségolène will hope to garner the votes of half a dozen far-left parties who together attracted some 9 per cent of the voters in the first round.
Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner, masterful and hyperactive, with a lawyer’s fluency in debate. His weakness lies in his abrasive, nakedly ambitious and somewhat intimidating personality.
Ségolène Royal is a tough, good-looking and capable woman but she does not have the well-oiled party political machine that her rival commands. The Socialists seem a divided and quarrelsome bunch compared to the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement, united in hero-worshipping its leader, Sarkozy.
The contest remains wide open. Sarkozy’s victory is by no means assured, nor should Ségolène Royal be dismissed as a loser. Undecided French voters, alarmed at the prospect of a Sarkozy presidency, may rally to Ségolène at the last moment.
Undoubtedly, however, Sarkozy’s image as ‘Mr. Security’ has helped propel him to the front of the pack. As Minister of Interior for the past four years, he has made a fearsome reputation for himself as a severe upholder of law and order. Young delinquents could expect no mercy from him. It is no accident that immigrants or sons of immigrants in the suburbs recognise him as their enemy and voted massively for Ségolène in the first round.
Not wanting to seem softer on crime than her rival, Ségolène has suggested that youthful troublemakers should be sent to military boot camps. But, this apart, she projects a gentler, more caring image than Sarkozy.
In the run-up to the first round of the elections, Sarkozy had himself photographed visiting the tomb of General Charles de Gaulle, but his pro-American and pro-Israeli views are far from being Gaullist. In fact, they seem to augur a considerable break with the policies of outgoing President Jacque Chirac. It is Ségolène who seems more of a Gaullist than Sarkozy, when she recently declared that "We will not go down on our knees before George Bush."
In Turkey, the paradox is that the AKP-dominated government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, rooted in the conservative Muslim heartland, has been far more reform-minded and enterprising in shaking up Turkey’s economy and society than its secularist predecessors. Erdogan has been a highly successful leader, generating a boom that has practically doubled the economy in five years.
It is well known that he aspired to be president himself, but he decided instead last week to step down and nominate his old friend and colleague, Abdullah Gul, for the job. In deciding to forego the presidency, Erdogan may have been influenced by the recent massive demonstration of secularists opposing his nomination, which ended at Ataturk’s Mausoleum.
He may also not have wanted to provoke the army, the self-proclaimed guardians of Ataturk’s legacy. In a recent statement, Turkey’s Chief of Staff, General Yasar Büyükanit, declared that, as a citizen and a soldier, he hoped for "the election of a President devoted to the Republic’s fundamental values not in words but in deeds." He added, however, that the army would act "within the limits of the law."
This was taken to mean that the army would not carry out a coup -- such as had overthrown Necmettin Erbakan, a more overtly Islamic premier, in 1997 -- but would keep a watchful eye on the president’s performance.
In a warning against radical Islamism, Turkey’s outgoing President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer -- himself a stalwart secularist -- went so far as to declare that Turkey’s secular system was facing its gravest threat since the founding of the Republic in 1923.
Erdogan must clearly have been influenced by this scare-mongering campaign against him, but he may also have wanted to remain prime minister to fight next November’s general elections and win a new term of office for his AKP party.
The moderately Islamic AKP which now controls the government and parliament will soon control the presidency as well -- a unique concentration of power in one party. Erdogan and his colleagues are determined to prove that the West has nothing to fear and a great deal to gain from a moderately Islamic government in a key country like Turkey.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.
Copyright © 2007 Patrick Seale