Molder of new world vision: Turkey's Necmettin Erbakan

Political leader, senior Turkish statesman Necmettin Erbakan inspired generations, built trust, founded new vision for world

Sefa Sahin and Vakkas Dogantekin   | 27.02.2019
Molder of new world vision: Turkey's Necmettin Erbakan

By Sefa Sahin and Vakkas Dogantekin


Eight years have passed since the death of former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the founding leader of the religio-political National Vision (Milli Gorus) movement, whose political wisdom and struggle have profoundly shaped Turkey’s political landscape in the 21st century.

Throughout his life, Erbakan brought new concepts to politics with his vision of a "livable, grand Turkey" and a "just, new international order."

Erbakan, who argued that all Muslims believing in rights and justice must unite, was instrumental in a political awakening in the Islamic world by establishing the conservative concept of a National Vision outside the conventional politics of left and right.

Born in Sinop in 1926, Erbakan spent his childhood in various cities such as Kayseri and Trabzon due to his father's work.

After finishing high school at Istanbul’s prestigious Erkek Lisesi (Boys School), he passed the exam to join Istanbul Technical University's mechanical engineering department.

His high scores on the national university entrance exam helped him skip the first year and start directly from the second.

Upon graduating, he continued as an academic at the same university and, marking one of the milestones in his career, in 1951 he was sent to Aachen University in Germany for further studies.

As an engineer, Erbakan attracted the attention of Germany’s Economy Ministry after submitting three theses, one at the Ph.D. level.

Erbakan prepared his thesis to become an associate professor on the subject of the mathematics of fuel ignition by diesel engines.

Erbakan later worked as chief engineer at Germany's largest engine plant, the manufacturer of the famous Leopard tanks.

Launches heavy industry in Turkey

At a time when many of his opponents claimed that Turkey was incapable of even producing peaches, let alone engines, Erbakan identified a heavy industry initiative as one of the important goals of his National Vision, a theme -- one among many -- later picked up by Turkey’s current ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party.

After returning to Turkey, he founded Istanbul’s Gumus Engine Factory with a handful of like-minded, dedicated people.

The factory, which later changed its name to Pancar Motor, started mass production in March 1960.

However, no good deed went unpunished, and the foreign firms that dominated the sector applied economic and political pressure to drive the factory out of business. It finally closed its doors in 2012.

After becoming chairman of the Turkish Chamber of Industry, Erbakan got married to Nermin Erbakan, and the couple later had three children: Zeynep, Elif, and Muhammad Fatih.

Political journey

Erbakan's political career started in 1969, when he won a seat in parliament’s lower house -- in the bicameral Turkish parliament of the time -- representing his hometown of Konya.

During his journey as a hard-working MP, he told reporters: "A single flower does not make a spring, but every spring starts with one."

In 1970 Erbakan founded the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi) with 17 colleagues, paving the way for institutionalization of his National Vision movement.

Under his new party, Erbakan conducted a policy of opposing both Westernism and capitalism.

The fight against Zionism was also at the forefront of his fight.

Under Erbakan's guidance, Turkish politicians and the nation developed a deeper sensitivity to the Palestinian cause.

Above all, he was the first Turkish leader to urge Turks to pray in Hagia Sophia, the landmark mosque-turned-museum in Istanbul.

His ideas attracted the attention of many circles and also raised eyebrows.

Following the closure of his party in 1971, on charges of harboring an anti-secular agenda, Erbakan founded the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi).

In 1973, the party won 48 seats in the lower house and three in the Senate.

As deputy prime minister through most of 1974, he defended the military operation to Cyprus to protect the Turkish Cypriots there from ethnic violence. In recognition of this, his followers started calling him "Mujahid Erbakan" or “Fighter Erbakan.”

Bans and 2 coups

After the military coup of Sept. 12, 1980, Erbakan and his political movement found themselves targeted, and he was arrested and spent nine months in prison.

Unbowed, immediately after his release, Erbakan initiated efforts to establish a new party.

When his political ban was finally lifted in 1987, he became the chairman of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), whose foundation in 1983 he spearheaded.

Welfare enjoyed tremendous electoral success, especially in Turkey’s local elections, including the commercial capital Istanbul and the capital Ankara, who combined make up over one-fifth of Turkey’s population.

This success also provided an opportunity to introduce Erbakan's National Vision to the entire country.

In the 1995 general elections, Welfare was the top party with 21.7 percent of the votes.

However, then-President Suleyman Demirel did not give Erbakan the deserved right to form a government, giving that right instead to a coalition government that lasted a mere three months.

In 1996, he finally got a chance to form a government with the True Path Party (DYP) and became prime minister of Turkey. As premier, in 1997 Erbakan also established the Developing-8 or D-8 bloc of developing Muslim countries.

By all measures, Erbakan's government was yielding stellar results and improving the quality of life of both the middle class and the underprivileged.

But his opposition to Turkey’s elite establishment came with consequences.

After months of propaganda against Erbakan and the demonization of his movement in the mainstream media, on Feb. 28, 1997, a military coup ended his barely year-long rule in order to "restore the secular character of the regime."

As the government was toppled by pressure rather than bloodshed, it was called a “post-modern coup,” but the result was little different.

Following the coup, Vural Savas, a pro-coup prosecutor, lost no time targeting the closure of Erbakan’s Welfare.

In 1998, the Welfare Party was closed and Erbakan and five of his associates were banned from politics for five years.

At the time, Erbakan told reporters then these moves would only grow his movement in the hearts of the people.

Later years

In December 1997, seeking to pre-empt efforts to kill Erbakan’s movement, his colleagues founded the Virtue (Fazilet) Party, the fourth party of the National Vision movement.

Erbakan's longtime friend Recai Kutan took the party helm, but the knives of the secular establishment were already out.

Sabih Kanadoglu, the chief prosecutor appointed by fiercely-secular then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, closed the Virtue Party in 2001.

The political duel continued with the formation of the Felicity (Saadet) Party only a month later, when Erbakan famously said: "Those who stole our horse did not steal our track."

In the early elections of November 2002, the Justice and Development (AK) Party, founded by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other former heavyweights of the National Vision movement, became Turkey’s ruling party, a position it holds to this day.

In those elections, the Felicity Party won no seats, as it failed to meet Turkey’s 10 percent threshold.

In May 2003, following the lifting of his five-year ban, Erbakan was elected chairman of the Felicity Party.

On Feb. 27, 2011, just short of the anniversary of the Feb. 28, 1997 post-modern coup, Erbakan died due to respiratory failure, heart, and multiple organ failure.

Per his will, instead of a state funeral, Erbakan was buried after services at Fatih Mosque in Istanbul.

Millions attended his funeral and paid their respects to "Mujahid Erbakan."

Speaking of his political forerunner Erbakan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- then prime minister, now president -- said: “He set a good example for the young generations as a leader, as a teacher, with his struggle, with his devotion to his cause, and with his principles. May he rest in peace.”

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