The Turks consider themselves Europeans

"Why we are Muslims, Democrats, Europeans"


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

This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. One of the most important questions for my country is how can we be a Muslim and a democratic country at the same time. This question of the interweaving of modernity and tradition is reminiscent of the Christian Democratic statesmen who were once confronted with the problem of building Europe.
In order to be able to understand what the ratio of the “new” Turkish foreign policy is, we have to know the historical roots of Turkey and the Turkish nation. Turkish history is an interesting combination of different cultures. From a geographical point of view, many peoples followed one another in Anatolia: the Hittites, the Lydians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Seljuks; so we are dealing with an important historical background. On its adventurous migration from Central Asia to Central Europe, the Turkish nation came into contact with all Asian and Mesopotamian civilizations. These have mixed in Anatolia and produced an amalgam of different cultures: the Mediterranean, the Greek, the Mesopotamian ...
In Ottoman society, cultures lived side by side that were very different. In contrast to numerous other European and Asian cities, the Turkish cities in Anatolia or the Balkans have always been multicultural; In many Turkish cities we find mosques, churches and synagogues close to one another. That doesn't exist in Western and Central Europe. At the time of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans - for example in Sarajevo or Saloniki - Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together for five or six centuries.
So Turkish society has this multicultural background.
Unfortunately, these things are often seen in the wrong light, as if there was a problem of tolerance in Muslim society. But that is not the case, especially not in the case of Turkish societies. Our tradition has always been multiculturalism, not uniformity in the religious sense. This multiculturalism brings with it a spirit of democracy, because whoever cannot accept the differences cannot be democratic either. This is very important.
In communities that want to create a “monoculture” or a “mono-religion” there can be no real democracy, at best a democracy that is only a facade.
Turkish society has this particular historical background, and one should not think that this is anything unusual for Turkey. Democracy is rooted in Turkish society, it was not "imported", but is an integral part of our culture. For centuries, religions and ethnic groups have lived side by side with us.
I would like to give you a few examples of this democratic culture. I do not know when the first true municipal elections were held in European societies; in Turkey it was at least the beginning of the 19th century, around 1820. The right of women to vote and to be elected has existed since 1930. At a time when women were not even allowed to vote in some European societies they are already members of parliament with us. The first democratic multi-party elections were held in Turkey in 1908, 1909 and 1912: at that time there were no such elections in many European countries ... That is our story. And today we have a democracy based on that very culture.

A view of the Yeni Cami mosque in Istanbul.
[© Laif / Contrasto]

Nobody should feel authorized to identify Muslims in general, or Turks in particular, with an authoritarian regime, with a culture of uniformity or intolerance. The opposite is true: our story is a story of tolerance. The Jews came to Turkey in 1492. We took them in after they were driven out of Spain: Saloniki was the center of Jewish culture for 500 years. I could give you many other examples that show that Turkey was a kind of “safe haven” for men and women from Europe. In the 18th century, for example, the Swedish King Charles XII. took refuge with us when he was fighting the Russians.
We advocate a culture of tolerance, a culture of human rights, respect for multiculturalism, respect for different cultures and religions.
In the 13th century in Konya, the city of my birth, there lived a philosopher and follower of Sufism named Maulana [which means "our father", editor's note], Gialal al-Din Rumi. At that time people fled from the invasion of the Mongols and other peoples, and in those times of crisis Rumi used to say: “Whoever you are, whether Muslim, Christian, Jew or non-believer, the place where I live, my congregation, mine Dergah [the lodge where the dervishes of his congregation held the prayer dance to God, editor's note] is open to everyone. You must not be without hope, you have to come here whoever you are. ”That was in the 13th century, and that is the culture of Anatolia; in Europe, on the other hand, the Hundred Years War broke out a century later. And it was a long war, a religious war ...
In no way do I want to try to cast Europe in a bad light. I just want to say that we have to see things in the right perspective: the culture of Anatolia is a culture of tolerance, harmony and mutual respect. And today it does not seem paradoxical to us Turks to be good Muslims and good democrats at the same time, as surprising as that may be for others: for us these things go hand in hand. We don't see them as different. I am proud to be a Muslim, especially a practitioner, because I believe in God, and whoever believes in God gives strength to mankind. My political line is the line of mutual respect.
All of this also has an impact on Turkish foreign policy. For example, we always try to act as a mediator - be it between Israel and Syria or between Bosnia and Serbia. In the first case, we have a population that is partly Muslim, partly Jewish; in the second case, Muslims and Christians. We try to help everyone. In Lebanon, on the other hand, where I have been many times, we are trying to promote national reconciliation. We almost see Lebanon as our home. The peoples of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and the Balkans all share the same fate and are working hard to bring about peace.
That is Rumi's philosophy, the philosophy that influenced our foreign policy.

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

I have been asked a lot lately what the recipe for success in Turkish foreign policy is. Kemal Ataturk once said: "Peace at home, peace in the world": that is the philosophy of the Turkish Republic. When I was an advisor to the Prime Minister, I represented the policy that propagated “no problems with our neighbors” and that was promptly adopted. We know all too well that there is a risk that all of this will remain an ideal. But it is the main principle of our foreign policy. To show that Turkey wants to have good relations with its neighbors, a neighborhood based on peace and security, our Prime Minister, our President, yes all of us, are working really hard to achieve this goal.
Fifteen years ago, Turkey had trouble with its neighbors, but it wasn't our fault: it was a wrong perspective problem back then too. The Greeks, the Russians and the Syrians were a threat to us, they were our enemies; Likewise, the Syrians, the Greeks and the Russians - our neighbors - also viewed Turkey as an enemy. We didn't have the opportunity to meet each other, we basically knew far too little about each other. In the meantime we have abolished the visa requirement for Syria, people now have free access to Syria and Turkey. Now we are working on abolishing visa requirements for Russia. We want to hold joint negotiations between our governments with Greece. In the past five or six months, we've gotten rid of visas for more than ten countries ... Why? Because we want to give people the opportunity to get to know each other; because we want our neighbors to be our friends. We want to share everything with them and prove our good intentions: that is the secret.
The political problems are psychological and have to do with a wrong perspective. If you see enemies in everyone, you are considered an enemy yourself. If, on the other hand, you see others as friends, you become an ally of peace, you are less afraid of the others, and the others are less afraid of us. It is a mechanism that has to do with psychology, with mentalities, and that is very important. We have set this mechanism in motion, we do not mince words: honesty is very important. You can only gain the trust of others if you show that you have complete trust yourself.
There is no such thing as “diplomatic duplicity” in Turkish foreign policy, a policy à la Macchiavelli that only craves power, pursues its own self-interest and cares nothing about values. We, on the other hand, have values ​​that are important to us. Some of them have to do with our culture, others are universal human values. Politics is just a tool for the implementation of these values, what would be the point of encounters like today's?
Turkey today is not pursuing a policy of selfish interests, but a policy of values ​​that are specifically justice, equality, mutual respect and the feeling of having a common fate.
iert. Turkey's accession to the European Union is a strengthening factor. With a member like Turkey, the European Union will be a world power in 20 years. The European Union without Turkey, on the other hand, stands for a continent with no foresight, which is not very important in world politics or in the cultural sense.
It's a challenge for everyone. I think the Pope understood that and was brave enough to accept it. Some politicians in Europe, on the other hand, were less spiritual and nowhere near as brave. This is exactly why what he said in Turkey was so terrific. We all supported the Pope. His visit was a great success and we hope it will not be the last.
Muslims and Christians have a long history of relationships and mutual respect. I can say today that the positivist philosophy of the Enlightenment has reached a dead end. There is spiritual growth all over the world, and the good relations between Muslim and Catholic society, between the Vatican and Muslim society, and between Turkey and the Catholic political forces, give us new impetus and can convey the message to humanity that this collaboration is a unique opportunity for world peace.

Benedict XVI with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, during a visit to the Blue Mosque of Istanbul (November 30, 2006).
[© Associated Press / LaPresse]

After all, what do we want to achieve in the end? As Muslims and as Christians, we want peace in this world; we hope for a peace-loving heart and spirit with a view to eternal life. If that is our goal, then we have to understand each other and not let stereotypes obscure our view. I am sure that this cooperation will help us to solve, for example, the question of Jerusalem, the problems of Lebanon or the Balkans, the many problems that arise on the African continent, in Iran or the Philippines. At the request of the government of the Philippines, where Muslims and Catholics live together, Turkey now belongs to the contact group consisting of three countries: Turkey, Japan and Great Britain. Both the Catholic majority and the Muslim minority of the Philippines want us to mediate, and that's a good thing ...
Wherever possible, at community level, at national level or at international level, we work together - and the Vatican is present at all of these levels. The same can be said of Muslims: in some countries they are present at community level - as in Europe -; at the same time, they are also national and international forces.
And Turkish society plays an important role in this. We are represented in the heart of Europe: after all, there are Turkish communities in Berlin, Paris, London and elsewhere. In Europe, Turkey has the position of a nation-state and a country that is growing today and is very active within international organizations: in the United Nations Security Council we work for world peace, in the G20 we work for a fairer economic order, and are part of the Spanish-Turkish cultural alliance for good and efficient cooperation.
So today we have the opportunity to jointly contribute to regional and global peace.


(compiled by Giovanni Cubeddu)