Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu: A very good choice

Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu: A very good choice

In the past couple of months, a curious theme in Turkish politics was the candidate that opposition parties would show for the presidential race in August. It had become clear that the governing AKP (Justice and Development Party) would support its leader Tayyip Erdoğan for this top post. So, the opposition needed a name who could challenge this “Great Master.” A candidate who would reflect the values of only the CHP (People’s Republican Party) or the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) would be destined to lose. What was needed was a “joint candidate” as MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli put it well.

But who would this “joint candidate” be? This was speculated for weeks, but finally, June 16, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and his counterpart Bahçeli announced their choice: Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, a long-time professor of history of science and the former president of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

This, I believe, is a very smart decision for two reasons. First, Prof. İhsanoğlu is a very qualified man who would be a perfect fit for Turkey’s presidency. Secondly, he has the Islamic credentials that might balance those of Erdoğan in a way that no secularist candidate could.

İhsanoğlu’s long career as an academic is already very impressive, but it is his work at the OIC, which he directed for a decade between 2004-2014 that made him globally famous. Under his supervision, the old-school and uber-conservative organization went through significant reforms, under the motto, “modernization and moderation.” The concept of “human rights” was introduced to OIC texts, while İhsanoğlu had many efforts toward dialogue between Islam and other civilizations and among Muslim factions themselves.

I had the privilege to be hosted by İhsanoğlu for a dinner at his official OIC residence in Jeddah a couple of years ago. My impression was that he is a scholar, diplomat and gentleman of the finest degree. He is fluent in English, Arabic and French, and is always a mild, balanced, level-headed speaker. If Erdoğan can be seen as the synthesis of the Muslim identity with confrontationalism, then İhsanoğlu would be the synthesis of the same identity with erudition and moderation.

As I said, his Islamic credentials are important, and it is both wise and brave for the CHP leadership, in particular Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, to welcome those credentials. Not too surprisingly the party’s hardcore secularists, who can’t stand to see anything that is remotely religious, will be unhappy about this. One of them, the militant secularist Nur Serter, openly voiced this line, saying she is “ashamed” to see that her party can support “such a figure.”

What people like Ms. Serter don’t get is at least 80 percent of all Turks are deeply religious, or least very respectful to religion, and they will forever remain as a tiny opposition party unless they realize and come to terms with this fact. They can begin by realizing that their narrow-minded and highly authoritarian secularism is one of the key reasons why Erdoğan keeps winning.

Will İhsanoğlu change this course and give Erdoğan his first defeat at the ballots? Well, it is too early to tell. Erdoğan, probably, is still the candidate with the best shot. But if there were a handful of people in Turkey who could challenge Erdoğan, one of them was İhsanoğlu. I wish him good luck.