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In Memoriam: Necmettin Erbakan

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments] The 84-year-old Turkish politician, who passed away last Sunday, had a fascinating story to tell — and to remember. Necmettin Erbakan, whose first name literally means "the Star of Religion," was undoubtedly the star of Turkey's political Islam, which he began to build in the late ’60s. Since then, he founded five subsequent political parties, four of which were closed by the secular state for not being secular enough. He suffered three military coups and a prison term, not to mention many court cases and political threats. Yet he never gave up. When he gave his last breath, he was the leader of his fifth party, the Saadet (Felicity) Party, and still the promoter of an ideology he hardly ever changed. Personally speaking, I have never been a fan of Erbakan's ideology, the "Milli Görüş" (National View), which was a uniquely Turkish form of Islamism. I have found it too radical, utopian and authoritarian — even bordering on theocratic. Erbakan's dreams of an "Islamic NATO" or a "just economic order" free of interest, for example, were unrealistic. His "anti-Zionism" easily devolved to anti-Semitism. And his push for "heavy industry" was emotional rather than rational. But I must also acknowledge Erbakan's contributions. Unlike more radical forms of Islamism that emerged in the Middle East, Erbakan never renounced democracy. He rather became a willing and active partner of the democratic system, giving the latter a religious legitimacy. Besides, Erbakan never promoted or even tolerated political violence. Hence, in the 1970s, when Turkey's youth was divided between a violent Marxist left and a militant nationalist right, Erbakan's pious followers remained resolutely peaceful. "Terrorism" was a very secular concept at the time, and Islamism looked all too docile. This probably was not too unrelated with Erbakan's personality. Even his ideological foes grant that he was a very polite man who always spoke with respect, restraint and wit. He was what they call here "an Ottoman gentleman" — and a relic of an age when being rude and arrogant was not yet considered being charismatic. However, Erbakan's most definitive legacy on Turkey seems to be something that he failed to foresee: the new line that some of his former "students," such as Tayyip Erdoğan or Abdullah Gül, took at the turn of the 21st century. This young and more open-minded generation in Erbakan's party gradually outgrew their "teacher." Hence they broke up with him, "took the National View shirt off," and founded the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2001. The European Union, which Erbakan always rejected, was now the AKP's preferred destination. And "global capitalism," which Erbakan always condemned, was the AKP's new medium. You know the rest of the story: Erbakan's former students have done pretty well, and are now heading toward their third major election victory. Meanwhile, Erbakan remained on the sidelines of Turkish politics. In the general elections of 2007, the Saadet Party his loyal followers founded could get only 2 percent of the votes, while the AKP skyrocketed to 46 percent. The next year, a new leader emerged in Saadet: former academic Numan Kurtulmuş, who gave the party a new momentum and a more liberal-sounding rhetoric. Kurtulmuş criticized the AKP for not being reformist or democratic enough, made many reasonable comments on various issues and doubled Saadet's votes in just a year. He also received praise from many liberals and secular democrats. Erbakan, who was then the party's "spiritual leader," watched this happily for a while. Yet when he sensed that Kurtulmuş was willing to be a real leader and restructure the Saadet according his own vision, Erbakan refused. Perhaps worrying about "a second AKP affair," by which his renegade "students" would once again do their own thing, Erbakan did his deus-ex-machina move: Kurtulmuş and his followers were expelled from Saadet (to form the People's Voice Party, or HSP), and the 84-year-old Erbakan, who could barely walk, became the party's active leader. Many, including myself, criticized Erbakan then for being too ambitious. But it was, perhaps, also the last effort of a dedicated idealist to keep his line intact. I am saying so, for people can criticize Erbakan for many things, but certainly not for a lack of principle or stamina. He, as Jacques Chirac said after Arafat, was a man of "conviction and courage." He was also, as his former student Bülent Arınç said the other day, "a man who did politics for the sake of God." So, may God bless his soul, and let him rest in peace.
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