In May 1994, during a trip to Istanbul to address a conference of Turkish women, I asked colleagues whether there were any rising stars in the then obscure firmament of Turkish politics. Their almost unanimous answer was: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a 40-year-old politician who had won the mayoralty of Istanbul, the nation’s most populous city, against all odds.
However, their recommendation came with a caveat: Erdogan had a history of activism within several Islamist associations and political parties, a fact that, Turkish friends believed at the time, limited his prospects in a system founded on a peculiar understanding of secularism.
But, a few days later when we met Erdogan in his office, we found ourselves in the presence of an energetic reformer more interested in pragmatic concepts than ideological shibboleths.
Erdogan’s clean shaven face, apart from the almost mandatory Turkish moustache he sported, his well-cut suit and Cerruti necktie depicted him more like a European-style politician than an aspirant to sultandom in the ancient oriental tradition.
His diagnosis of what ailed Turkey had nothing to do with ideology.