Masses mourn at funeral of Turkish Islamist leader Erbakan

March 1, 2011

(Mourners surround the coffin of Turkey's former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan at his funeral in Istanbul March 1, 2011/Osman Orsal )

Turks, including the country’s political leaders, paid their respects on Tuesday to former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of the country’s modern Islamist movement, who died on Sunday.  Sombre music poured from loudspeakers outside Istanbul’s 15th Century Fatih Mosque and street vendors sold scarves emblazoned with the message “Mujahid Erbakan”, celebrating the Erbakan as a holy warrior, as mourners chanted “Allahu Akbar”, or “God is Great”.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, proteges of Erbakan, joined other leaders for prayers in front of the coffin, laid out in the mosque’s courtyard and draped in green cloth adorned with Koranic verses. The streets, rooftops and balconies of houses surrounding the mosque were crammed with men wearing skull caps, and women, either veiled or wearing head scarves — marks of respect. Some mourners carried Palestinian flags.

Mourners in the immediate vicinity of the mosque were in tens of thousands, though some media estimated the throng in hundreds of thousands.

“Erbakan was a genius,” said 17-year-old student Talha Celik, as he tied a green ribbon with a Koranic inscription round his head. “Though they had their differences, Erdogan followed in his path.” Erbakan, who died of heart failure in an Ankara hospital aged 85, pioneered Islamist politics in Muslim but strictly secular Turkey and paved the way for the subsequent success of Erdogan’s ruling conservative AK Party.

Erdogan’s party, embracing pro-market policies and reforms designed to secure European Union membership, has gone on to dominate Turkish politics for the last decade, whereas Erbakan’s party, staying close to his Islamist roots, had limited support. Erbakan reached the pinnacle of his success in 1996 when he became the first Islamist prime minister in Turkey’s modern history at the helm of a coalition government after his party won 1995 elections.

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