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Exclusive Interview with Recap Tayyip Erdogan

Aired September 7, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the weekend edition of the program, which today we devote to our exclusive interview with one of the world's most prominent power brokers, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

We met in Istanbul at the Dolmabahce Palace that sits on the Bosphorus, the waterway which enables Turkey to straddle both Europe and Asia. If Erdogan gets his way, Istanbul is about to get even grander as he seeks to leave his mark with monuments and infrastructure for, as he tells me, he is not ruling out running for president after his three terms as prime minister expire.

We spoke about Syria, the crisis that's spilling into his own country, especially since Assad has been using planes and helicopter gunships against his own people.

And now word from U.S. intelligence that Assad's stockpiles of chemical weapons may be greater and more scattered than the world knew. Erdogan told me Assad's capable of using them to quell the uprising. That, he says, would be the world's red line.

Meantime, the world looks at Turkey as an example for the Arab Spring, and we spoke about secular democracy in Muslim Turkey. But first a reminder of how the Erdogan story began.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Erdogan's populist politics are rooted firmly in Istanbul's working class Kasimpasa neighborhood, where he built a loyal following among conservative religious voters in this Muslim land.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language)

AMANPOUR (voice-over): But Turkey's adamant secular military establishment feared his growing influence.

When Erdogan was Istanbul's mayor, he was jailed for reading a poem that celebrated Turkey's Islamic culture although it was written by one of the country's leading secular writers. Erdogan was promptly charged with incitement of religious hatred and served four months in prison. Afterwards, he formed the Justice and Development Party, and was elected prime minister 10 years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Turkish).

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Since then, he has forged Turkey on a path not towards fundamentalism but to a stronger and secular democracy, whose economy has been outperforming crisis in Europe and much of the rest of the world, too.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): But now in his third term, there are complaints that Erdogan is growing increasingly authorization as journalists are jailed and political oppositions suppressed.

AMANPOUR: Hello, Prime Minister?

ERDOGAN: (Inaudible).

AMANPOUR: How are you? Thank you. (Speaking Turkish).

ERDOGAN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And, he tells me, he is not ruling out the growing speculation that he does want to run for president when his term as prime minister ends, looking to give that office more executive power by making changes to the constitution.



AMANPOUR: And when we sat down to talk, we discussed all of this and also the most pressing global crisis that he's dealing with.


AMANPOUR: Prime Minister, thank you very much for joining me.

ERDOGAN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about Syria. Is it too late to stop the slaughter in Syria? Is anything going to stop it?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I don't believe we're late yet. We made the concerns heard at the time. But despite all of those concerns, Bashar al-Assad is following the footsteps of his father. And unfortunately, it's threatening the future of Syria.

AMANPOUR: You're saying all the things that Bashar al-Assad is doing. But what about the international community? You did try to lead, and there has been no action. Your own foreign minister spoke very passionately to the Security Council just a few days ago, and basically said nobody is willing to do anything.

Why do you think that is?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I need to be very clear and frank in my remarks. That is to say that the Security Council of the United Nations and its structure is impossible for us to serve the world peace in this day and age under these circumstances. I'm being very frank.

If one of the permanent seat holders veto against the resolutions within the Security Council, you cannot reach to a resolution at all. And I believe this is not a very fair way of functioning for the Security Council.

We have five permanent seat holders and there are 10 temporary seat holders. And the temporary seat holders have no presence whatsoever. They're just there. And whatever the five countries want to do, that gets done. And the entire world is depending on the verdicts (ph) to be taken by these five permanent seat holders.

I've requested so humbly from Putin and from the Chinese president to stand up and do something.

AMANPOUR: China and Russia, you say, are preventing action. But do you think that actually the United States, the rest of the Security Council, is hiding behind that as an excuse not to do any action?

ERDOGAN (through translator): They have casted (ph) their votes against this manslaughter in Syria.

But that is exactly what we expected from Russia and China.

AMANPOUR: Would Turkey have taken action if the U.S. had been on board? Would you have taken some kind of military action, like there was action in Kosovo, for instance? If the U.S. was leading, would Turkey have done that?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Of course, under these circumstances we will do whatever the international law would require. Kosovo's situation was quite similar, was quite identical.

And in Kosovo, you will find NATO to be present. It's really crucial whether NATO will take up an initiative here or not.

AMANPOUR: So again, the question is, your foreign minister has been to Washington. He's spoken at length with Secretary Clinton. You've spoken with Secretary Clinton and President Obama.

And what we understand from Turkish officials is that everything that Turkey proposed -- a buffer zone, a safe zone, humanitarian corridors, supporting the Free Syrian Army -- all of those were turned down by the United States.

Do you think it's because there's an election coming? Why do you think that's happening? Does it surprise you that they don't want to arm the rebels, for instance, or talk about a no-fly zone, or buffer zones or safe zones?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Right now, there are certain things being expected from the United States. And the United States had not yet catered to those expectations.

Maybe it's because of the elections; maybe it's because of the pre- election situation in the States. Might be the root cause of this lacking of initiative. Nobody has spoken to us about their reasons, and they are not obliged to state anything.

We are very thankful and pleased that they have stated that they're against this regime.

And that's exactly what we expect from Russia and China. We want them to state at least they are opposing this regime. Bashar al-Assad could be dispatched to another country and peace could be prevailing. Peace could be established.

AMANPOUR: Let's turn to Iran, where you have tried to be a bridge between the Iranians and the West. Now it seems to be a crisis in Iran over the nuclear program. Do you believe that Israel will attack Iran over its nuclear facilities, over its nuclear program?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Frankly speaking, as you suggested in your question, I do not believe Israel will attack Iran in the fashion that you described in your question. It's a very null probability. Otherwise, would have caused an apocalypse in the entire region. It would be very tormenting for Israel as well. The picture would change overnight in an unprecedented pace.


AMANPOUR: And when we come back, the paradox of power. After three terms in office, Erdogan's Turkey is the democratic model the rest of the region looks to. But there is a darker side on Erdogan's watch, Turkey has jailed more journalists that even China or Iran.


AMANPOUR: And, really, the question has to be, Turkey is a beacon of hope and democracy in this part of the world.

But how do you maintain that if you're the biggest jailer of journalists?



AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program and continuing my exclusive interview with Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan, I asked him about the direction of the democracy that's coming to the region for the first time after years of authoritarian rule. And I also asked him why there's an increasing clampdown on political dissent and even on journalists in Turkey.


AMANPOUR: Let's talk about the great Arab Spring. We've seen what's happened in Tunisia and in Egypt and in Libya. And we've been talking about Syria.

What do you think is the future of those governments and those systems? Is it democracy? Is it Islam? How do you think Islam and democracy will work itself out in Egypt, for instance?

ERDOGAN (through translator): This spring, Arab Spring is actually a spring of democracy. The process in Tunisia gave a great example as to how democracy and Islam could coexist beautifully. And it's improving on a daily basis.

The best example is the Turkish example. Ninety-nine percent of the Turkish people are Muslims, and Turkey is being run as in a democratic, secular and a parliamentarian system, where the rule of law reigns.

Being secular is not being against religion.

On the contrary, secularism is within my party program. Secularism allows all groups of faith to be protected by the state and when they see the details of secularism, they heaved a sigh of relief.

Mohammed Morsi, for example, in Egypt, there are Coptic Christians within his advisers. There are Muslims from his party and from other parties. He has got female representatives, using headscarves and not using headscarves.

So he's communicating a beautiful message. He's telling all the stakeholders not to be concerned about the future of Egypt. Everybody can breathe and live through their beliefs and faiths in the most comfortable fashion possible. And we need to support Egypt no matter what happens right now.

AMANPOUR: You talk about everybody being able to breathe and you talk about headscarves or no headscarves. You yourself, even as prime minister, had that issue here in Turkey, where there was a ban on headscarves in universities. And you had to send your own daughters to university in England and in the United States to be able to freely wear their headscarf.

How did that make you feel and what does it say about democracy and Islam?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Thank you so much. You have brightened my horizons. At party, when we came into the power -- or let's say before then, ladies wearing headscarves were not allowed to attend universities. And just as you suggested, I had to send my daughters abroad to the United States to attend colleges. That's exactly right.

America allowed them to attend college wearing their headscarves and America does still do that. My country was not doing that. And we are just recently solving that problem in Turkey. Although we took over the office about 10 years ago, we were not capable of solving that problem overnight.

We want people to be free. If a person cannot attend college wearing a headscarf, and another one who does not can, this is a very clear discrimination. We want all the children of a country to be given full liberty to decide what they want to do with their lives.

We want all of our children to attend college, regardless of what they choose to wear on their heads. And we should not put it within the framework of Islamophobia.

And I will ask you one question: for example, nowadays, there is a very painful campaign launched in Germany, a campaign against people wearing headscarves. Posters are being put up. This is something inacceptable.

On the one hand side, you are going to be the most significant and influential partner of the European Union and, on the other hand, you are going to discriminate against ladies wearing headscarves in your country.

There is a lady wearing a headscarf depicted on those posters, and it says underneath, "Lost. We're looking for you." But they want the person to be found not wearing a headscarf. They believe a woman wearing a headscarf is a lost case.

And we told them that we shall always fight against anti-Semitism and similarly we are going to fight against Islamophobia.

AMANPOUR: Let's talk a little bit about power. You have been in power for now 11 years. You're in your third term. So much has improved in Turkey since you've taken over. There's been an explosion in GDP. You've undertaken certain reforms in the judiciary, minorities.

But people are now beginning to ask, does Prime Minister Erdogan want to stay in power forever?

Does he?

ERDOGAN (through translator): On the contrary, on the exact contrary, in our country, within the provisions of my political party, a member of the parliament can be elected for three consecutive terms, and then he has to give a break for an entire term. And then he can get into the elections again.

I only have one concern. I want to serve the people of my country. And that doesn't necessarily -- has to be done under the auspices of a political party or the parliament. You can get involved within the foundations and you can get involved in think tanks and you can serve your people exactly the same way.

AMANPOUR: But there are lots of people saying that, actually, what you would like to do, is be president, maybe change some of these regulations or do whatever it takes to be president and maybe do sort of a Putin-Medvedev situation with you and President Gul swapping jobs.

Would you want to be president?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Until so far, the president of Turkey would be elected by the parliament. But only now the people of Turkey will be able to elect their own president. Whoever that shall be, Ahmet or Mehmet or whatever.

AMANPOUR: Would you like to run for the presidency?

Do you think you would?

ERDOGAN (through translator): We have two years ahead of us. And whoever shall die, whoever shall prevail in the next two years to come, nobody can be sure. Many things can change.

AMANPOUR: You're not ruling it out, though.

ERDOGAN (through translator): No, of course not. It can be possible.

AMANPOUR: Again, you said, democracy, people should always be free. People should be able to breathe free. Well, there's a big sense here in Turkey that that's becoming more and more difficult for those who want to criticize, for those who want to be in the opposition, for journalists who write critically.

I happen to be a member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and in October, there's going to be a report, saying that there are some 60 or more Turkish journalists in prison for their work. That's more than China. It's more than in Iran. And, really, the question has to be, Turkey is a beacon of hope and democracy in this part of the world.

But how do you maintain that if you're the biggest jailer of journalists?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Let me be very clear in my statements. I don't know about the very source of the news that you have been let in on. But I am a person who was incarcerated because of having recited a poem. I know what it means to be in prison. And I know what freedom of speech is all about.

And whatever is being said to you, whatever is being conveyed to you are just mere attempts to obscure our party and obscure our government. There are 80 people who are in prison right now. Only nine of them have yellow press identification cards. And the rest have been charged with carrying unlicensed weapons or getting involved in terrorist acts and organizations.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Prime Minister, I've, you know, heard many, many leaders say that, you know, if you're a journalist and you're in prison, you must be a terrorist. I want to just keep pressing this point with you, because I am a journalist and freedom of expression is one of the beacons of democracy.

Is the prime minister off limits when it comes to criticism? Can the prime minister of Turkey be criticized without a journalist or a commentator or a columnist fearing for his job, fearing for his freedom?

ERDOGAN (through translator): I'm being criticized on a very harsh basis.

I wish I could put all those criticisms together and submit them to you. It's not criticism. My family and myself, they're all being insulted. Would you say yes to insult? I am always saying yes to criticism. I'm always paying attention to criticism.

And I am the prime minister, I'm the sole prime minister who has to put up with highest and harshest level of criticisms. For the last 10 years, I have been fighting against criticism in very harsh terms. I've been very patient, but I was not patient from time to time, and I had to actually file a lawsuit against those critics.

But after a while, I withdrew my applications and I gave up on my rights, let's say. But insult is one thing; criticism is another thing. I will never put up with insult. But I will always say yes and put up with criticism.

And I will always be grateful to criticism, because I will always find some sort of benefit to be derived out of criticisms, and I try to forge my future and forge my path ahead of me in the light of the criticisms that I receive. This has always been my attitude. But I will never put up with insult towards me or towards a member or the members of my family.

AMANPOUR: Let's talk about the European Union. Obviously, press freedom and many other issues are important regarding accession to the European Union. You've done a lot of things in order to get that right to get in.

Why do you think you're not being accepted in the European Union? Why is Turkey still outside?

ERDOGAN (through translator): They always say, oh, you have a very large population.

But there's something you never say. They can never come up with the fact that we are Muslims and they never say, "You are Muslims. That's why we don't take you in." They never say that.

We are really more powerful than many of the current members of the European Union.

We're doing better than the European Union member states right now. The Eurozone is obvious. The suffering of the Eurozone is quite obvious. Our neighbors are going through a very difficult turmoil. We have covered a great distance in terms of what we were supposed to do. But unfortunately we are still facing barriers. We're still facing obstacles.

AMANPOUR: You mentioned that you're doing better in many instances. You're doing very well economically, for instance, compared to the European Union. Many people want to know why you would even want to join now. Do you still want to join?

ERDOGAN (through translator): Right now we have about 5 million Turkish people living within the European continent, within the European member states. We are natural members to the European Union. Only in Germany there are 3 million Turkish people. That's a demand of Germany. That's what they needed to live with and about 50 years ago, they invited the Turkish laborers to Germany.

But it's been 50 years in the making and we have been waiting at the threshold of the European Union. No other country faced such a story whatsoever. We will be patient to a certain extent. But once we cross over a certain threshold, we will try to reveal the situation and decide accordingly.

AMANPOUR: Prime Minister Erdogan, thank you very much for joining me.

ERDOGAN: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: You heard the prime minister talk about his strong feelings on women having the right to wear their headscarves. When we come back, we'll see how some Turkish women are making the headscarf a fashion statement.

But first, take a look at this wonderful photograph. These are Turkey's vanishing nomads, captured in the 1970s and `80s by the late American photographer, Josephine Powell. And far from bustling Istanbul, dwindling tribes of nomads still tend their flocks, weave their kilim rugs and help keep a mighty civilization alive.



AMANPOUR: And finally, imagine a world where fashion and faith walk the same runway. My guest, Prime Minister Erdogan, insisted on the right of Turkish women to choose to wear the headscarf or not.

That blend of liberty and devotion can be seen in a new magazine, Turkey's version of "Vogue." It's called "Allah." It promotes high fashion to women who want to match the headscarf with their high heels.

And since its launch a year ago, "Allah" has provoked criticism from Islamic fundamentalists. But it's also attracted tens of thousands of subscribers, women who, like Turkey itself, walk the tightrope between the secular and the sacred.

And that's it for this weekend's edition of our program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, Thank you for watching, goodbye from New York and have a great weekend whatever you are.