He is well known as the smiling face of Turkish diplomacy. Having worked as foreign minister since March 2003, Abdullah Gul can boast the international experience that any president needs. As with any other head of state, symbolism is hugely important, and Gul’s wife’s decision to wear a headscarf has stirred a storm of controversy. The president is meant to embody the secular state.
Many Turks see the Muslim veil as a political statement and her decision to wear it at political events as a threat to Turkey’s secular state. They believe that Gul’s party is trying to Islamise the country where government institutions and universities ban all signs of religious affiliation.
Gul, whose party draws support from Turkey’s conservative heartland, brushed off the comments about his wife, telling reporters that it was a personal decision and did not affect his work. “More than half of Turkish women wear the veil,” he said.
Gul is politically moderate and a skilled negotiator, which should help him convince the sceptical army that he will not try to cross Turkey’s strict divide between state and religion. In a recent interview Gul said as President he would put his foreign office experience to the fore representing Turkey on the world stage, but his biggest challenges may well come from much closer to home.