Charismatic, colorful, ambitious, stubborn and controversial. He was all of such adjectives, and more. Necmettin Erbakan was, undoubtedly, one of the most influential politicians in Turkey. His struggle, ideas and deeds created a lot of discussion, as much as they helped form a sui generis Islamist movement, which at later stages through evolution, surpassed him.
The fact that he was recently re-elected as party leader, at the age of 84, says a lot about his persona. The crowds, in a way, never left him, as he never appeared to accept being pushed into the background.
He was one of those characters that divided people sharply. Ever since his entry into politics, his chief plight had been to get himself accepted by the centre, by the so-called mainstream politics. When he made his first leaps into the centre-right Justice Party (AP) in the late 1960s, it was his university classmate Süleyman Demirel, then the popular PM, who resolutely blocked him. To what Demirel represented, Erbakan was a far-right, ultraconservative, “adventurous” figure. But he managed to be elected as an independent deputy from the district of Konya, and ever since then he remained a key actor defining the course of politics.
Just as he seemed too “adventurous” to Demirel’s cautious, military-friendly, Cold War-oriented political line, he was also deeply disliked and kept under constant, strict suspicion by the then powerful top commands. The fact that the parties he founded and led were closed four times in the past 40 years is telling enough of his image within the “establishment.”
Although he was a magnet for the conservative masses, the suspicion was also rather common among moderate Islamist circles. The figures profoundly influential in various “mild” and “democratic-minded” movements, believing that Turkey has a different path of Islam, with the emphasis on humanism and tolerance, did often not hide their views on him as an “Arabist.” This was a pejorative remark, which came to alienate Erbakan more and more from the massive changes that have taken place in Turkey, particularly from the mid-nineties onward.
He saw major defeats, not only before the military, but also from his peers. After Demirel, he had clashes with the late Turgut Özal, who publicly declared that “Erbakan has a screw loose.” There was no doubt over his intelligence, which was proven by the fact that he started university studies in the technical faculty from second year and was praised for his acumen during post graduate studies in Germany. But this was in the sciences. In politics, Erbakan became known for his appetite for adding large doses of religion into his rhetoric and deeds, as well as becoming a feared leader who had a hard time distinguishing between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. He sought -- and often found -- Israel behind everything he opposed.
Certainly, the fact that his death coincides with the anniversary of the “semi-coup” of Feb. 28, 1997 is a final irony of history, underlining all the controversy surrounding his turbulent life. Many people agree today that he was unfairly treated when he was forced to leave his post as prime minister in 1997, following a series of threats by the top command and with the help of a hostile, militarist media.
Was he a threat to democracy? Given that he led an utterly weak coalition and new elections were on the horizon, he was, despite his stubborn mindset, certainly targeted by illegitimate acts. Paradoxically, the way he was (mis)treated opened the path for the emergence of a “post-Islamist movement, an evolution which led to the rise of Justice and Development Party (AK Party), as a democratic derivative.
Erbakan was a powerful orator, but was never known to be a listener. Interviews with him often turned into lengthy monologues. So were his meetings with foreign diplomats and statesmen. During his time as PM, an ambassador of a large EU country paid him a farewell visit. The conversation turned as expected into a very lengthy monologue, which in the end became a test of patience for the guest. Towards the end, Erbakan, jumping from subject to subject, looked at the ambassador and said: “Do you know, your Excellency, that the city of Iskenderun is the center of the world?” The ambassador, overwhelmed by the flood of narrative until then, wearily replied, “Prime Minister, you know, I was just recently there, but I am sad to inform you that those living there do not seem to be aware of it!” There are many other anecdotes like this one.
With the passing of the colorful and controversial Erbakan, an era is also coming to a close. It is impossible not to refer to him while going through the course of political Islam here. He belonged to a generation of “old style” politicians, known for “lifetime” leadership and a persistence of “unchangeable” ideas. A new generation is now taking over; hopefully not building upon, but challenging such a legacy.