The President of Turkey is paying a Sate Visit to this country, and has been received by the Queen. The Daily Telegraph has a report but otherwise I have not seen much coverage in the media. Nevertheless this is an important event. The President is a largely ceremonial figure, real power residing with the Turkish Prime Minister. Abdullah Gul has been both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Turkey; he was the former, keeping the seat warm for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after their party won the elections back in 2002, because Mr Erdogan was at that time banned from Parliament having received a jail sentence for reciting a poem. The poem was judged to be inflammatory. In fact this jail sentence, and the previous banning of his political party were all politically motivated manoeuvres designed to keep Mr Erdogan and his Islamic friends out of power.
When Abdullah Gul was first proposed as President, this was blocked by the courts. One of the objections to his candidacy was that his wife wears an Islamic headscarf. Anyway, Madame Gul has accompanied her husband to London and been received at the Palace, wearing her Islamic headscarf, which must be very distressing for Turkey’s secularists. There are photos of her accompanying the Telegraph report, and I have to say that Madame Gul looks very smart indeed in what may well be Sharia-compliant fashions, and seems to be sporting a very arresting pair of shoes.
All of this goes to show what an interesting country Turkey is, and how different from our own. Turkey is of course a member of NATO, wants to join the EU, and has been a longstanding ally of Great Britain, as well as being an object of considerable fascination to the western mind. It is an astonishingly beautiful country, with a wealth of heritage, architectural, archaeological, cultural and of course religious. Turkey, whatever way one looks at it, counts for a great deal.
But all this squabbling about headscarves reveals that Turkey has rather a lot of baggage from its past. It is lumbered with the heritage of Atatürk, who, while unquestionably a great man, bequeathed Turkey with a far from ideal political system, and a personality cult that makes any questioning of that system problematic. Just as Gul and Erdogan have suffered at the hands of the law (as has Madame Gul, who was banned from a public university on grounds of dress), so have numerous others. There are dozens of journalists in jail, Christians suffer legal discrimination, and God forbid anyone should mention the Armenian Genocide, criticise Atatürk or insult the Turkish nation (an offence that is liberally interpreted and which carries a jail sentence, which is a wonderful way of silencing people you do not like.)
Turkey is changing, and needs to change further – and will change further, though the process may well be fraught with difficulty. Turkish history is littered with failed reform movements, as I have mentioned before now. But one thing is clear: we must wish the Turkish people well in their efforts to become a fully functioning democracy. What is happening in Turkey is just as important as current events in Egypt, if less spectacular, for it represents the emergence of the first Islamic democracy, a style of government that is religious in inspiration, but democratic in form; a reconciliation between revealed religion and worldly pragmatism. If Mr Erdogan succeeds in this (and if that is what he is attempting to do, which I think it is) he will go down in history as the greatest Turk since Suleiman the Magnificent, which will have huge benefits for Turkey and the rest of us as well.