Nov 23rd 2011: The President of Turkey was welcomed to Britain by the Queen today amid a spectacle of pomp and pageantry.

The Turkish National Culture Foundation, which was founded by conservative businessmen, bureaucrats and scientists such as Turgut Özal, Professor Nevzat Yalçıntaş, Sabri ?lker and Professor Sabahattin Zaim, was formed in 1969 to grant scholarships to promising young people.

The “mission” of the foundation was, as described in those years, “to raise and assist in their career planning, scientists, intellectuals, artists and technical people who have high caliber character and leadership traits and who are dedicated to national culture and traditions.”

A conservative Turkish lad in London

One of the scholarship holders of the foundation in 1976 was Abdullah Gül, who was accepted to the economic doctoral program of Istanbul University. He was only 26 years old when he came to London with the scholarship he won from the foundation. It was the first time in his life he was abroad. He resided at the Muslim Students Federation hostel in London’s Camden Town.

 
 (L-R) Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, President of Turkey Abdullah Gul and his wife Hayrunnisa Gul during their visit to Clarence House on November 23, 2011 in London, England.

In a chat with journalists here the other evening, Gül talked about his first days in London: “I recognized what the world was at that time. I thought the world was made up of us. I saw the black people for the first time here. When I went to the big mosque at Regent’s Park, I saw how diverse Muslims were, their colors, their different sects, blacks and whites of Muslims; all of them I saw here at that time…”

 Gül remembered the London of that time as “just like today, a place where freedoms are exercised without any constraint.” He suddenly remembered the demonstrators organized to protest the racist regime in South Africa. “Those two years contributed a lot to me in regards to thinking freely and getting to know the world.” He also said his London years had a significant effect on his intellectual development and shaping of his world views.

Comparing London to the Islamic world

Gül’s second stop abroad after London was Jeddah. Between 1983 and 1991 he worked as an expert at Islamic Development Bank. He used the opportunity to become more acquainted with the Islamic world. He also had the opportunity to meet in person outstanding names of the Islamic world, several of them whose translated books he had already read.

Interestingly, while Gül is assessing the impressions left by the Saudi Arabia period he does so by comparing it to his London years: “I had the opportunity to see the weaknesses, the soft belly and the inadequacies of this world also and was able to compare...”

In Gül’s life journey, the second Western door that opened after London was Strasbourg. In 1991, after being elected to Parliament as one of the “princes” of Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party, Gül regularly went to Strasbourg for 10 years to attend Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly meetings.

However, despite the Strasbourg window, London has always kept its significance for Gül. After he was elected president, one of his first visitors was the Queen of England, Elizabeth II. Also, one of the most distinguished think tanks of the United Kingdom, Chatham House, had elected him as the statesman of the year in 2010.

‘Destiny has brought me here’

London, at any rate, is a city that has left significant marks on Gül’s life and political venture and continued to do so. Gül, who walked past Buckingham Palace in London exactly 35 years ago as a Ph.D. student, was greeted with a spectacular ceremony as a guest of the royal family the other day.

Did Gül, when he lived in London years ago, ever think at the corner of his mind that such a frame would exist one day in his life? What would he have felt, when entering the Buckingham Palace, as he remembered his London days?

While he was answering my question the other day, the president said, “Destiny,” and continued: “Destiny has brought me to such a position. Of course, it is very exciting, full of pride. On our way to the palace, all streets leading to the palace were decorated with Turkish and British flags. The fact that I am representing the Turkish state is a separate pride, honor and responsibility for me, indeed.”

Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this piece appeared Nov. 23.