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'We're Not in Any Rush to Join the EU'
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Turkish President Abdullah Gül, 57, discusses Ankara's bid for EU membership, Turkey's progress on the road to modernization and his advice for Turks living in Germany.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, why is the debate being waged in your country over Islamic headscarves so fierce?

Abdullah Gül: In my current office, I am no longer allowed to pursue partisan politics. But I am proud that I was a member of the government and made my contribution to the reform process. The headscarf debate also touches on the process of democratizing Turkey, something which also includes basic rights and liberties, including the right to practice religion. My country is a secular and democratic state. Whether a woman wears a headscarf or not is her personal choice. By the way, this is not a big issue at the family level. The time when the issue gets most emotional is when politicians focus on it and transform it into a cultural phenomenon.

SPIEGEL: But many Turks see the headscarf issue as proof that the government is seeking to Islamize the country.

Gül: That's not how I see the conflict. When it comes to the headscarf issue, we are adhering exactly to European criteria concerning freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

SPIEGEL: The government lifted the ban on headscarves at universitiesand the Constitutional Court reversed this decision. During the summer, the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was nearly banned. Isn't this a power struggle between the old Kemalist elite and the new conservative elite gathered under the banner of the AKP?

Gül: Turkey is currently undergoing an important process of change. The goal is to modernize and democratize our country. During this process, we are merely introducing the standards of the European Union. For some Turks, this can be very painful; but I still see it as being a positive development.

SPIEGEL: The Turkish government is modernizing the economy. At the same time, though, it is also socially conservative, as has been illustrated by the headscarf debate.

Gül: The ruling party makes no secret of the fact that it is a conservative, democratic party. But we also have social democratic and nationalist parties. What's important is the fact that our economy has grown very rapidly in recent years. We are prospering and moving forward. At the same time, Turkey is not neglecting to use its influence to champion democracy, human rights and the principles of a free market economy. The government is modernizing a predominantly Muslim society -- and that makes Turkey a rather unique country.

SPIEGEL: Will the global economic crisis now wipe out all this economic progress?
Turkish President Abdullah Gül: "The government is modernizing a predominantly Muslim society -- and that makes Turkey a rather unique country."

Gül: Turkey numbers among the countries that will be affected least. In 2001, we experienced an extremely similar crisis. At the time, we had to invest 25 percent of our gross domestic product -- some $45 billion (€33 billion) -- in the banking sector. This has paid off, particularly when you look at the situation from today's perspective. Owing to this, and thanks to our independent banking oversight agency, the Turkish financial market has become extremely solid.

SPIEGEL: But, of course, trade is going to suffer, especially since other European countries that import Turkish goods haven't gotten off so lightly.

Gül: It could very well be that our exports will decline next year since we also do business with countries that have been directly affected by the crisis. Over the past six years, we have enjoyed an average growth rate of 7 percent, and this year we still anticipate that it will be 4 percent. We are also among the countries in Europe with the lowest budget deficits. Unlike many other European countries, we actually have fulfilled the Maastricht criteria.

'We're Not in Any Rush to Join the EU'

Part 2: 'We Expect the Europeans to Honor their Agreement'

SPIEGEL: In early November, the EU will release its latest progress report on Turkey. Once again, it is expected to contain many low marks for your country, especially on account of the sluggish speed of reforms.

Gül: That may appear in the report, and it may well be true owing to the fact that, in 2008, we were extremely busy with domestic political issues. It's quite possible that we have fallen behind our targets, but I'm confident we'll make up for this lost ground in 2009.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, when will Turkey become a member of the EU?

Gül: We're not in any rush. But there is one thing that you should know: Turkey is a very different place than it was in 2003 and, five years from now, the country will also be very different than it is today. My country will undergo enormous changes. In addition to that, we are currently involved in accession negotiations, and the EU will be very closely monitoring our progress. When this process is successfully completed, Turkey will have to make a political decision about whether it should join the EU. At that point, we will also expect that each and every country will stand by its signature. We expect the Europeans to honor their agreement.

SPIEGEL: Your handling of foreign policy has received quite a lot of praise from the Europeans. In the past, your country was surrounded by enemies; but, today, with the exception of Cyprus, you maintain good relations with all your neighbors. How did this happen?

Gül: Our foreign policy is being pursued with an eye toward finding solutions. We believe that we can solve not only our own problems, but also those of the region as a whole. Turkey can contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East.

SPIEGEL: For example, Ankara is serving as a mediator in the talks between Syria and Israel. How are things progressing there?

Gül: It helps that we have won the trust of both countries. That is why we play a special role in the Syrian-Israeli peace process. We make it easier for the parties in the conflict to talk with each other. And both sides are working very openly and earnestly to reach an agreement.

SPIEGEL: Does the same solutions-oriented approach that you take with foreign policy also apply to the conflict with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party? Why has the Kurdish question remained such a festering wound?

Gül: You have to very clearly separate the Kurdish question from the PKK issue. According to our constitution, anyone holding Turkish citizenship enjoys the same rights. They can hold any office no matter what their ethnic background. In the past, there's no denying that we had problems: Many Kurds were discriminated against on account of their origins, and they weren't allowed to speak or write in Kurdish. That has changed; the cultural rights of the Kurds have improved.

SPIEGEL: And relations with the PKK?

Gül: The PKK is a terrorist organization. It carries out murderous attacks in the hearts of big cities. It has killed a large number of women and children. Many of these terrorists have crossed over the Iraqi border into Turkey. We must all appreciate the fact that the PKK is pursuing a merciless and ruthless campaign. We have to stand up against them.

SPIEGEL: In Northern Ireland, the IRA also carried out bomb attacks for decades and was responsible for horrible bloodbaths, even in the heart of London. Nevertheless, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair still lifted the ban on holding talks with the IRA and -- slowly but surely -- achieved peace after years of civil war. Can this serve as a model for Turkey?

Gül: Of course, there are countless ways to cope with terrorism. I am sure that our experts have studied and analyzed the British approach in Northern Ireland.

SPIEGEL: During your visit to Germany, you spoke with representatives of Turkish groups and associations on the occasion of the Frankfurt Book Fair. What advice do you have for Turks living in Germany?

Gül: I would advise them to be realistic. They live here (in Germany); it's a fact. If they want to be genuinely happy in Germany and become productive members of society, above all, then they should acquire an excellent command of the German language and make the most of the opportunities offered by the German educational system. They should be enthusiastic and involved citizens. They should invest here and join a political party. There is no point in living physically in Germany but mentally in Turkey. They should become part of society. These people serve both countries best when they forge a bridge between Turkey and Germany.

Interview conducted by Gerhard Spörl and Daniel Steinvorth. Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.


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