Thoughts on Turkey [Archives:1998/18/Viewpoint]

May 4 1998

Last week, I visited Turkey – for the 6th time. I want to devote this editorial for my new thoughts about the transformation of this important country.
1. An Image Problem:
In my opinion, Turkey suffers from an image problem. The very word “Turk” still conjures negative connotations in some Western circles.
The Europeans have been hesitant to accept Turkey in their fold. They would like to see it more ‘Europeanized’ before they would accept it.
Some Arabs and Iranians would like to re-Islamize the nation. It seems some nations want to transform Turkey.
But the Turks are not willing to be what others want them to be. As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk succinctly put it, “We resemble ourselves.”
Turkey’s image problem, however, is not entirely the fault of others. The country has done little to better present itself to a world, that is increasingly built on perceptions. Can you imagine that the last statistical yearbook about Turkey was issued in 1993?
2. Islam and Turks:
One of the key components of modern Turkey is Islam. It is not something that is going to fade away from society’s fabric. Nor is the nation running away from it. Actually, I find Turks to be sincere Muslims.
Turks have served Islam greatly in the past, and they are likely to serve it well in the future. But Turkey’s Islam is unique to it. The people of Turkey understand their it as a constantly adaptive religion. To me, that is in many ways superior to the fossilized version that exists in other Muslim lands. Turks are at ease with their religion. It seems they have processed a reformation of their own. I was impressed with the way they openly and candidly discuss their thoughts on religion. In many other lands, there are a lot of taboos and worry in addressing religious issues. Indeed, Turkey’s Islam is far more advanced and useful than the regimentalized and fossilized one we have in other lands.
3. Future Bedfellows:
Turkey is trying to choose its future partners in a logical and rational way. It has built solid relations with the USA. It has something going with Israel. It is working out an arrangement with the European Union. None of those associations are built to the exclusion of others.
From the Turkish interests’ view, it is my opinion that Turkey has chosen its partners intelligently. Some Arab countries cry foul when they see such developments. The truth of the matter is that Turkey is an independent country, and it is free to choose its partners. Those who object would like to exercise a veto without offering alternatives; not that Turkey is waiting for their blessings, anyway.
4. The Transition:
Turkey’s transformation process continues. There is more democratization, more openness, and more socio-economic growth. But there are 3 key issues that I believe will be critical in the future of this process.
a) First and foremost, there is the Kurdish issue.
Now that the PKK movement is almost crushed, Turkey should be able to reconcile itself with this matter. It should rise to recognize that a small portion of its population calls itself Kurds. These people should be given their full rights and must be accepted as a proud and important part of the Turkish nation. For example, why doesn’t Turkey’s yearbook even mention them?
b) The role of the military is another issue.
While this institution has played a vital role in the formation and evolution of the Turkish modern state, it cannot continue to be the final and direct arbiter of power. In a modern civilian system, a nation is guided by laws and governed by elected officials. The military must not, under whatever pretext, dictate the politics of a democracy.
c) The last problematic area has to do with political Islam.
The basic issue here is that a group of politicians are trying to mould society according to their vision. Unfortunately, they claim religion to be their bench mark. This is neither democratic nor logical. In fact, it is also not Islamic. Those who promote political Islam are politicians who are simply using religion as their vehicle to reach power and make money.
Turkey, like most other Muslim countries, needs a clear system which addresses this abuse of religion.
Let me conclude by wishing success for the Turkish experience. It could offer a useful model for the transformation of other Muslim countries.
Prof. Dr. Abdulaziz AL-SAQQAF
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher