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from issue no. 04 - 2010

Turkey and the Holy See. Fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations

“Because we are Muslims, democrats, Europeans”

A meeting with Ahmet Davutoglu, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Turkey

A meeting with Ahmet Davutoglu by Giovanni Cubeddu

The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu greets the Arab foreign ministers, attending the meeting at Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, 3 March 2010 <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu greets the Arab foreign ministers, attending the meeting at Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, 3 March 2010
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. One of the most relevant questions for my country today is how to deal with the issue of being both a Muslim and democratic country at the same time. This discourse between modernity and tradition seems also to be linked to what the old Christian Democrat statesmen did when they were confronted with the problem of constructing Europe. Furthermore, many would like to understand the ratio of the “new” Turkish foreign policy.
To understand the background of this question we have to know the historical roots of Turkey and the Turkish nation. Turkish history is an interesting combination of several civilizations. From the geographical point of view in Anatolia there was a succession of many peoples: the Hittites, the Lydians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Seljuks; so we’re in the presence of a great historical background. With its history and geography the Turkish nation, in the adventure journey of its people from central Asia as far as central Europe, came into contact with all the Asian and Mesopotamian civilizations. All the traditional civilizations mingled in Anatolia producing an amalgam of different cultures: the Mediterranean, the Greek, the Mesopotamian…
In Ottoman society cultures different from each other lived together. Unlike many European and Asian centers, for example, the Turkish cities in Anatolia or the Balkans have always been multicultural; in many Turkish cities, mosques, churches and synagogues are to be found next to each other. This is not the case in western or central Europe. Instead in the Balkans under the Ottoman empire, in Sarajevo, Salonika, for example, Muslims, Christians and Jews, lived together for five or six centuries.
So Turkish society has this multicultural background.
Unfortunately there’s an error of perception whereby there is a problem of tolerance, so to speak, in Muslim societies; this is not true, especially in Turkish society. Our tradition has been that of multiculturalism, not of uniformity in the religious sense. This multicultural character also brings with it a spirit of democracy because without accepting differences you cannot be democratic. This is an important point.
In those societies that want to create “monoculture” or a “monoreligion” – there can be no democracy or at best only superficial democracy can be created.
Instead, in Turkish society this historical background is present and people should not think that it is something exceptional for Turkey, as if it were an anomaly. Democracy in Turkey is rooted in society, it was not just imported from outside, it is part of our culture. Here, throughout the centuries different religions and different ethnic groups lived next to each other.
I would like to give some examples regarding the basis of this democratic culture. I don’t know when the first real municipal election was held in European societies; in Turkey this happened in the early nineteenth century, about 1820, and the right of women to vote and be elected came about around1930. Therefore in a period when in some European societies – without mentioning names – women were not eligible to vote, in our case women were already members of Parliament. The first democratic and multi-party elections in Turkey were held in different election ballots in 1908, 1909, and in 1912. At that time there were not many European States that guaranteed such elections… In 1912, in particular, the elections were characterized by a highly competitive election campaign. This is our history. And today we have a democracy based on this culture.
A view of theYeni Cami mosque in Istanbul [© Laif/Contrasto]

A view of theYeni Cami mosque in Istanbul [© Laif/Contrasto]

Nobody should feel authorized to identify Muslims in general or Turks in particular with a culture of an authoritarian regime or a culture of uniformity or intolerance. The opposite is true: our history is a history of tolerance. The Jews came to Turkey in 1492 when they were massacred and driven out of Spain and we welcomed them: Salonika became the center of Jewish culture for five hundred years. I could also give several other examples that show that Turkey was a safe haven for many men and women from Europe. In the 18th century, for example, the Swedish king Charles XII sought refuge in my country at a time when he was fighting against Russia.
This is our perspective: we are defending a culture of tolerance, a culture of human rights, of respect for multiculturalism, of respect for different cultures and religions.
In Konya, my hometown, in the 13th century, there lived a Sufi philosopher named Maulana [a title that means our father, ed.], Gialal al-Din Rumi. During that time people were fleeing from Mongol attacks and those of other peoples, it was a time of crisis, and Rumi raised his voice: “Whoever you are, whether you are Muslim, Christian or Jew or non-believer, the place where I live, my congregation, my dergah [the loggia where the dervish members of his congregation held the ritual prayer dance in honor of God, ed.] is for everybody. You should not be without hope, you should come here, whoever you are”. This happened in the 13th century and this is the culture of Anatolia, while in Europe a century later the Hundred Years war began because of different religious policies. And as is known, it was a long war, a religious war…
I am certainly not trying to condemn Europe, no, but we have to change the perception: Anatolian culture is a culture of tolerance, harmony, mutual respect and today it does not seem at all paradoxical for us Turks that we are good Muslims and good democrats at the same time. It might be surprising for others, but for us being Muslims means being democrats. We don’t consider these to be two different categories. I am proud of being a Muslim, given that I am a practicing Muslim, because I think that to believe in God, and whoever believes in God, bestows strength on humanity; but at the same time my cultural policy is a culture of mutual respect.
And all this reflects on Turkish foreign policy. For example we are now trying to act as mediators, on different issues, between Israel and Syria and between Bosnia and Serbia. In the first case, one side is Jewish, the other Muslim; in the other, one side is Muslim and the other Christian. We are trying to help all sides. And again, in Lebanon, where I have been several times, we are trying to encourage national reconciliation, because Lebanon is like our home. The people of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and the Balkans all have the same destiny and we are working very hard, truly, to establish peace.
This is the philosophy of Rumi, the philosophy that is influencing our foreign policy.
A statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, in Ankara city center; in the background the European Union and Turkish flags [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

A statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, in Ankara city center; in the background the European Union and Turkish flags [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Recently I have been frequently asked about the perspective of Turkish foreign policy and about the secret of its successes. Kemal Attatürk in one of his speeches stated: “Peace at home, peace in the world”: this was the philosophy of the Turkish Republic. During our administration, when I became chief adviser to the prime minister, I personally launched the “zero problems with our neighbors” policy and this was adopted by the executive. We know very well the risk that this may remain only an ideal. But we want it to be the main and concrete principle of our foreign policy. In order to show that Turkey wants to have good relations with our neighbors, a neighborhood based on peace and security, our prime minister, our president and all of us are working very hard to achieve this goal.
Fifteen years ago Turkey had difficulties with its neighbors, but it wasn’t our fault: then too there was a problem of perception. For us the Greeks, Russians or Syrians represented threats and enemies; just as for the Syrians, Greeks or Russians – our neighbors – Turkey was an enemy. We didn’t have a chance to meet each other, our societies didn’t know each other properly. Now we have abolished the visa with Syria and thousands of people come and go every day, free to enter Syria and Turkey. Now we are working to abolish the visa with Russia. With Greece we are setting up a mechanism that will allow joint meetings between our governments. We have abolished visas with more than ten countries in the past five or six months. Why? Because we want to let people get to know each other, we want all of our neighbors as our best friends, we want to share all that we have and show our good intentions: this is the great secret.
Policy problems are anomalies of psychology and perception, many issues are psychological ones. If you think everyone is your enemy then you have to be reactive. But if instead you think that others are friends, then you are more qualified for peace and you will not be scared, and, on the other hand, the others will not be scared of you. This is a psychological transformation and one of mentality and is really very relevant. We have succeeded in achieving this and we don’t employ two languages but only one: sincerity is important. In order to gain the confidence of others, you have to show that you too are really trusting.
Thus in Turkish foreign policy there is no “diplomatic duplicity”, no Machiavellian type policy, oriented toward power and based on sheer interest rather than on values. We have certain values to achieve, some of them belong to our culture, some are universal human values. Politics are just an instrument to achieve these values, otherwise there would be no meaning for us participating in this type of meeting.
Today Turkey is not following a policy of egoistic interests only, but a policy of values, which in concrete are justice, equality, mutual respect and the feeling of a common destiny.
I recall that Pope Benedict said here in Turkey that he was in favor of our entry into the European Union. What was and what is the Turkish reaction to this statement? I can give you a religious response and a political response.
The religious response is that he is a spiritual personality and may understand things behind the scenes. When he made that affirmation I thought that, as a spiritual personality, he saw the great potential that Turkey represents for Europe.
As regards a political response, the Pope made a human analysis and all rational beings making such an analysis would find themselves favorable to relations between Turkey and the European Union because such a relation is based on rationality. Turkish integration in the European Union is a reinforcing factor and from now, for the next twenty years, the European Union with Turkey as a member means a global power. The European Union without Turkey means a continent that is not outward looking, is less competitive, is less relevant in global policy, and is less inclusive in the cultural sense.
This is a challenge for everybody. I believe that the Pope has understood this challenge and he was courageous enough to accept it, whereas some politicians in Europe are neither so spiritual nor so courageous. Because of this his statments in Turkey were splendid. We all supported the Pope. His visit to Turkey was very successful and we hope he can repeat it again.
Muslims and Christians have had a long history of relations and of mutual respect. Today I can say the positivist philosophy of enlightenment has come to an end. Everywhere in the world there is a rise of spirituality and the good relationships between Muslim and Catholic societies, between the Vatican and Muslim society and between Turkey and Catholic political forces will create a new momentum and will give a message to humanity that such cooperation will be a great asset for global peace.
Benedict XVI with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, while visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, 30 November 2006 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Benedict XVI with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, while visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, 30 November 2006 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

What do we want to achieve at the end of the day? We want to achieve as Muslims and Christians, peace on this earth and a peaceful heart, a peaceful mind for the afterworld. If we are preparing ourselves for this objective, then we have to understand one another and not look at ourselves through the lens of stereotypes. I am sure that such cooperation will help us to solve, for example, the question of Jerusalem, the problems of Lebanon or the Balkans, the many problems in the African continent, in Iran or in the Philippines. At the request of the Philippine government, where Muslims and Catholics live together, Turkey is now, part of the Contact Group, composed of three countries: Turkey, Japan and Great Britain. Both the Catholic majority of the Philippines and the Muslim minority want us to be the ones to mediate and this is good...
Wherever it is possible, at community level, at nation-state level or at international level we will work together and the Vatican is present at all of these levels. The same can be said for Muslims: in some countries they exist at community level – as in Europe – and at the same time are national and international forces.
And in this scenario, Turkish society is important, because we are in the center of Europe, given that Turkish communities exist in Berlin, in Paris and London and other places. Turkey is a nation- state in Europe and today it is a growing country which is very active within international organizations: in the United Nations Security Council we are working for global peace, in the G20 we are promoting a more just, more distributive economic order and we are part of the Alliance of Civilizations – of which Turkey is co-president, along with Spain – so that there may be good and efficacious cooperation.
So, today we have the great opportunity of contributing together to regional and global peace.

(Conversation with Giovanni Cubeddu revised by the author)

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