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Turkey's first Islamic leader Erbakan dies

February 27, 2011

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Former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Felicity party, addresses party supporters in Istanbul, in this April 20, 2003 file photo. Erbakan, the founder of Turkey's modern Islamic movement, died from heart failure on February 27, 2011, aged 85. -Reuters Photo

ANKARA: Necmettin Erbakan, the mentor of political Islam in secular Turkey and its first Islamic prime minister, died Sunday, aged 84, after a tumultuous four-decade career, marred by feuds with the army.

In a post-mortem gesture, the military honoured Erbakan with a message of condolences, saying that his “great services to our country will be always remembered.”

Under treatment in an Ankara hospital since early January, Erbakan died of a heart failure following “an abrupt disorder in his heart rhythm,” doctor Ali Kucukbas said.

President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both Erbakan disciples who would later revolt against him, expressed sorrow, with Erdogan shortening a visit to Germany in order to attend his mentor's funeral in Istanbul Tuesday.

“We will always remember him with gratitude for what he taught us and for his persevering character,” Erdogan said.

Erbakan, who died as head of the small Islamic Felicity Party, had looked increasing frail recently and often used a wheelchair. But he lost nothing from his political zeal and held meetings with party associates even in hospital, aides said.

Despite his plump and genial exterior, Erbakan was a fierce ideologue and tough political survivor who tirelessly spread his message.

Nicknamed “Hoca” (Master), he loathed Turkey's pro-Western tradition, preaching a blend of Islamic and Turkish nationalism.

He called the existing international system a “Zionist order” responsible for worldwide poverty and contested some economic pillars such as the interest rate, which Islam rejects.

“Humanity owes everything to Islam. Our civilization is superior to the West... They do not know how to wash their faces, they do not know running water and, excuse me, but they come out of the toilet without cleaning themselves,” he said in November, in remarks carried on a party website.

Erbakan became Turkey's first Islamic prime minister in 1996 in a coalition with a centre-right partner after his Welfare Party won 21 per cent of the vote and became the largest parliamentary group.

But Welfare moves to raise the profile of Islam in social life and seek closer ties with Islamic states such as Iran and Libya quickly irked the staunchly secularist and then-omnipotent military.

A harsh army-led secularist campaign forced Erbakan to step down in 1997, after about a year in power.

The following year, the constitutional court outlawed Welfare and banned Erbakan from politics for five years, which eventually led to a split in his movement as moderates, led by Erdogan, broke ranks with their mentor.

In 2001, Erdogan set up the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), which disowned its Islamic roots and pledged to respect secularism.

The AKP came to power in 2002 and was re-elected in 2007, with Erbakan's movement failing to even enter parliament.

Under Erdogan, the army has been humbled and forced to lower its profile as dozens of its soldiers were arrested and put on trial as part of unprecedented investigations into alleged plots to overthrow the government.

In a gesture to his former leader in 2008, President Gul pardoned Erbakan while he was under house arrest, serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence for embezzlement of party funds.

Born on October 29, 1926, Erbakan earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1948 and pursued an academic career that took him to Germany, where he also worked on projects for the German army.

He entered politics in 1969, creating a pro-Islamic party, which was banned in 1971 but quickly replaced with another.

He served as deputy prime minister in three coalition governments in the 1970s, marked by Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus and deadly political unrest, which prompted a military coup in 1980.

Coup leaders banned Erbakan, and many others, from politics, but he made a comeback after the ban was lifted in 1987.