Today's date:
Summer 2007

A Union of Civilizations

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the prime minister of Turkey and the chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party. He orginally spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in Davos, Switzerland in 2004. After the interview, Erdogan, a moderate Muslim leader, hosted a reception that featured Miss World for 2003, who is Turkish. Radical Muslim riots forced the Miss World contest out of Nigeria, and the contest was finally held in London.

NPQ | Many people don't want Turkey to be part of Europe because it is Islamic. Why, indeed, should Turkey be in Europe?

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN | Turkey's accession process to the European Union, which will begin in 2004, is going to provide an opportunity to show that a culture of Islam and democracy can work together. Eighty percent of Turks want to be in the European Union—a figure higher than most countries already a part of the EU.

And since democracy and Islam hardly coexist anywhere in the world, Turkey will prove to be a great model. This will change the view of the Islamic world toward the EU in a positive manner and vice versa. At this point in history, Turkey has a special role as the bridge between Europe and Asia.

Our accession to Europe will, in fact, prove Samuel Huntington's idea of a "clash of civilizations" wrong. On the contrary, it will show that a union of civilizations is possible.

The EU is about the unification of values; it is not about geographical union or a question of borders. By accepting Cyprus, they have already admitted this.

Clearly, the so-called "identity" of Europe has not been decided. It is only in the process of being defined, politically, economically and culturally. Turkey's process of accession will help ultimately to define what Europe is.

NPQ | Speaking of values, Europe today is a place where the military has no role in governance. Yet under the so-called "Kemalist" state in Turkey, the military still stands as the ultimate arbiter of power. Will this change?

ERDOGAN | During the creation and building of the Turkish Republic, the military had a very special role and important responsibilities. If politicians left a gap in political life, then the military would take part of it.

But this role of the military has evolved over the years toward a situation where policy is left to the politicians. Today there is stability and a strong political will in Turkey—we have the strongest parliament in the last 50 years with two dominant parties. My party has 66 percent control of the parliament. So today, the political will of the people is the last word. It makes the final decision. The political will is the highest authority according to democracy and our constitution. The military is not at an equal level. It is one of the organizations that supports the political will.

NPQ | There are many Kurds in exile or as refugees in Europe who dream of going home to a Kurdish entity. Can you one day envision that?

ERDOGAN | No. There is only Turkey.

NPQ | You are the head of a Muslim party in a secular state. How will that relationship work?

ERDOGAN | First of all, a party cannot be Muslim or not Muslim. A party is an institution. Individuals can be Muslim, Christian or atheist. It is personal.

Personally, I am a human being who tries to be religious. But my party is not based on any religion. Our identity is that of a conservative democrat political party. We will never have a religious identity. This is a founding principle of our party: We are neither Islamic nor Islamist.

There are many who think that "since there are Christian Democrats in Europe, then these guys must be Muslim Democrats." That is wrong. If we placed the word "Muslim" or "Islamic" in front of the name of our party—the Justice and Development Party—that would be using religion for political purposes. And we are opposed to that.

Our religion, Islam, is infallible. But political parties and their leaders are not—they make mistakes. So, we have to separate the two.

NPQ | You talked often about religious freedom during your campaign. Now that your party is in power, can you recite the poem that once got you arrested for religious incitement? (The poem spoke of "mosques as barracks.")

ERDOGAN | The poem I recited was written by a famous pan-Turkish writer who was an ideologue of Ataturk. I did recite that poem in a different situation in a different time. Now, for a limited period of time, I am on leave, so to speak. Maybe later I will recite it again.