By Gethin Chamberlain in Alanya, for the Sunday Telegraph, 15 July 2007
It could have been a scene from any beach in Turkey: a cluster of young women reclining on sun-loungers, soaking up the midday rays, thumbing through novels and smoking cigarettes, while fellow holidaymakers splashed in the sea.
Yet there was not an inch of bare flesh on them; these sun worshippers were clad from head to toe in headscarves and cover-all swimsuits. A couple of girls strolled past, their skimpy bikinis fighting an unequal battle against their contents. A teenage boy gawped, but if the other women noticed, they paid little attention.
A holiday complex on the gulf of Antalya seems an unlikely frontline for a clash of cultures that is dividing a nation. But the question of whether these two very different ways of living can co-exist, or whether one must inevitably impose itself on the other, holds the key to Turkey’s future.
Next Sunday the country goes to the polls. Opponents of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fear that the Right-wing religious conservatives at the helm of his ruling AK party are set on diverting Turkey from its fiercely secular traditions down a path of creeping Islamisation. Educated liberals in cities such as Istanbul and Ankara look askance at rural incomers and what they consider to be their backwards-looking religiosity.
At the upmarket Bera Alanya hotel, a little way down the coast from the fleshpots of Alanya, middle- class religious conservatives are voting with their wallets. Most guests come from cities in Anatolia, while the rest are generally Turkish expatriates, and they have chosen the hotel for a reason: it has a swimming pool for women only. Every room has a copy of the Koran, a prayer mat and a sticker pointing towards Mecca. The bar serves no alcohol.
“It is better for my wife because she is a strong Muslim,” said Mustafa Ekina, a 43-year-old furniture salesman from Rotterdam, staying at the hotel with his wife Nuriye and their 13-year-old daughter.
Mrs Ekina, resplendent in elegant silk headscarf, had packed both a bikini and a hasema, the two-piece swimsuit reminiscent of a shell suit with a close-fitting hood. The hotel shop sells the top of the range version for 120 Turkish lira (about £45). The makers claim it is possible to achieve a tan through the material.
“I have a hasema to swim in the sea and a bikini to swim in the women-only pool,” she said. “Our beliefs say only our men should see our bodies, not everybody.”
Her daughter is unconvinced, however. Eschewing a hasema, she had taken herself off to the pool in her Western swimwear. “My children don’t like hotels like this,” said Mr Ekina. “My daughter is more European. She wears a bikini. She can choose, however, when she is older. I will talk to her and tell her my beliefs. But I will never say to her what she must do.”
People had the wrong idea about religious conservatives, he said. “We are strong Muslims but we do not want terrorism or a fight, we want only a holiday.” This is certainly the view of the ruling AK party’s leaders. The government claims the secularists are worrying about a threat that does not exist.
It points to the booming economy and the strides made towards joining the European Union, claiming it is the opposition parties, playing on growing Turkish nationalism, who have taken a more confrontational stance towards Europe and towards the United States.
Nothing encapsulates the divide between the two sides better than the debate over headscarves.
Many of the ruling party’s women supporters – including the prime minister’s wife, Emine Erdogan – wear them, yet they remain banned from official buildings under Turkey’s strictly secular constitution.
“People ask ‘Why do I see more women in the street with headscarves?'” said Egemen Bagis, Mr Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser. “The answer is that in the past they were ashamed to go out. Now they are saying that the prime minister’s wife wears it, so why should they be ashamed? I defend a woman’s right to wear a headscarf as much as I defend her right to wear a miniskirt. We are against central government telling people how to live their lives.”
This weekend the AK party is well ahead in the polls and is hoping to win the 367 seats – a two thirds majority – it needs to get its own presidential candidate elected, later this summer, in a vote by MPs.
Although Turkey’s complex electoral system makes that unlikely, the party has pledged to hold a referendum on the direct election of the president. Either outcome would put it on collision course with Turkey’s all-powerful generals, who see themselves as guardians of Turkey’s secular identity.
In April the military, which has staged four coups since 1960, issued a stern rebuke to the government for putting forward the foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, as its presidential candidate. In the absence of a second chamber, the president is seen as a check on parliament. But Mr Gul’s wife wears a headscarf – a political statement, many say, which shows he was not the man to defend the secular status quo and prevent the government pushing through a radical programme of Islamisation. The opposition argues that the Gul stand-off revealed the government’s true colours.
“People want a secular country, but if you look at the lifestyle of the prime minister, it is not a modern lifestyle,” said Sinasi Oktem, a candidate for the main opposition party, the Left-leaning CHP, in the Umraniye -district of Istanbul. They were just biding their time, he said. “With the AKP, Turkey is in danger.”
But out on the streets, his party workers were struggling to get their message across. Three dejected canvassers sat at a stall, stacked high with election leaflets. No one was stopping. Just 30 yards up the street, the AK party caravan was thronged with people – including women in headscarves who stopped to pick up free gifts.
A solicitor, Hatice Kacmazoglu, her long red hair uncovered, said: “I’m modern and open minded. They don’t force me to cover my hair. If the AK party thought like that, I don’t think I could be a member.” She giggled nervously. “It’s not going to be like Iran.”
Bruiser in the mould of Prescott
The man who has led Turkey to what many regard as a political crossroads is a no-frills political bruiser in the John Prescott mould, writes Gethin Chamberlain.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the 53-year-old prime minister, was brought up in the working class Istanbul district of Kasimpasa. His critics mock his tendency to use slang and to swear. Some say he likes to play on the tough-guy image and that he used to affect a street swagger until his media advisers suggested it was a little too much.
But supporters like his image as a political street-fighter and admire his religious beliefs, while opponents dislike what they regard as a Calvinist streak to his party’s character.
The former Istanbul mayor served four months in jail in 1999 after he was convicted of inciting religious hatred at a public meeting by reading out a poem that included the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers&ldots;”
But he is said to have softened his views and many now consider him a moderate in his party.
Emin Turan, 65, who runs a grocery shop across the street from where Mr Erdogan was brought up, remembers him as a hard worker. “They were living next door to our shop. You could see him in the window, hard at his lessons,” he said. “They said their prayers five times a day. They took it seriously, but that’s normal around here.”
He was 12 when the future prime minister was born in 1954, but the men have stayed in touch. Mr Erdogan called in a month ago to see a member of his family who was sick.
“How could I not like him? In his heart he is still the humble man he was. You can still go to his door and see him,” he said.
The street where Mr Erdogan was brought up stands near the top of a steep hill up narrow streets through an old part of town. Most of the old wooden houses have gone, including the Erdogan family home.
“These are humble people here. You won’t find doctors or lawyers here, these are workmen,” said Mr Turan.