Full Name: Recep Tayyip Erduğan, also spelled Erdogan
Born: February 26, 1954
Significance: One of Turkey’s most popular and charismatic leaders, he led the resurgence of Islamic-oriented politics in the Muslim world’s most secular democracy.
Current Status: Prime Minister of Turkey (since March 14, 2003)
Notable Life-Markers: Was mayor of Istanbul, was imprisoned for 10 months on subversion charges related to his pro-Islamic stances, was banned from politics, returned as leader of the Justice and Development Party in 2002.
Erdogan was born on February 26, 1954, in Rize, a small city on Turkey's Black Sea coast, in a poor family. He was one of five children. His father worked for Turkey’s coast guard. When Erdogan was 13, the family moved to Istanbul, hoping for better opportunities. Erdogan went to an Islamic school then studied business management at Istanbul’s Marmara University. While there, he joined the country’s growing political Islamist movement. He played soccer professionally and worked for Istanbul’s transportation authority until he was fired for refusing, on religious grounds, to shave his mustache.
Mayor of Istanbul:
After he was fired, Erdogan entered politics full time. In 1994, partly on the strength of his charisma and oratorical skills, partly on account of the deterioration of social services and the city’s exploding population, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. He promised better services and better jobs for the huge influx of rural immigrants into the city. He delivered on most of his promises.
Imprisoned for Subversion:
In 1997, Erdogan said in a speech: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes are our helmets, the minarets are our swords, and the faithful are our army.” He was the leader the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party at the time. In January 1998, Turkey’s highest court closed the Welfare Party and banned its members from politics, saying the party sought to undermine Turkey’s secular basis. Weeks later, Erdogan was indicted on subversion charges, including inciting “an army of jihad” and “using democracy to establish an evil order.” A military court sentenced him to 10 months in jail, which he started serving in March 1999.
2002 Parliamentary Victory:
Upon his release from prison, and facing the court’s ban on the activities of the Islamist Virtue Party and Welfare Party, Erdogan helped found the Justice and Development Party, known in Turkey as Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AK, in August 2001. It was the 281st political party created in Turkey since the first party was set up in 1859. Erdogan was elected its leader. Two months later, the AK swept to power in parliamentary elections with 34.2 percent of the vote, winning 363 of 550 seats.
Because of his previous conviction, Erdogan was banned from serving as prime minister or holding any government post. His party’s parliamentary majority quickly changed that by passing a constitutional amendment effectively revoking the ban. Erdogan ran for office in a by-election and became prime minister on March 14, 2003. He replaced Abdullah Gül, who resigned to make room for Erdogan. Gul served as foreign minister until 2007.
Continued Rise of Turkey’s Islamists:
In July 2007, the Islamist Justice and Development Party won 46.6 percent of the popular vote in nationwide parliamentary elections, solidifying Erdogan’s position. Erdogan backed Abdullah Gul’s bid for the presidency, which Gul won on Aug. 28, 2007, becoming Turkey’s 14th president.
In early 2008, Erdogan led the parliamentary charge to repeal Turkey's ban on wearing the Islamic head scarf on private or public university campuses, in government buildings or in schools. Parliament voted in February 2008 to repeal the ban, handing Erdogan a major victory. But the changes must first be approved by the president and pass constitutional muster through the nation's Constitutional Court, a secular institution.
A More Moderate Erdogan?:
Erdogan has moderated his positions the stronger his party’s hold on Turkish politics has become. Even though he once called the European Union a “Christian club,” he supports Turkey’s bid to join the Union. He supported the Bush administration’s request in 2003 to use Turkey as a staging ground for the invasion of Iraq, but Erdogan and Bush were rebuffed by the Turkish Parliament. Erdogan has overseen the moderation and reform of many Turkeish policies, including, in 2001, the abolition of the death penalty (except in times of war and for acts of terrorism), the abolition of torture in Turkish prisons, and allowing the use of the Kurdish language in broadcasting and education. But Erdogan has maintained a hard line against Kurdish separatists in eastern Turkey and has led the charge to pursue and bomb Kurdish militants in Iraq, or invade northern Iraq if necessary. The European Union is resisting Turkey’s bid to join, saying Turkey’s human rights violations and its uneven economy remain a major concern.