Turkey should revisit its secular character to fight global terror

Turkey should revisit its secular character to fight global terror

On Feb. 12-13, 2002, Turkey hosted a rare gathering of countries from the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Istanbul, in a bid to create a major platform to respond to a growing global problem - often described as a clash of civilizations - in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Under the chairmanship of late Turkish Foreign Minister İsmail Cem, 15 full members, plus 13 candidates from the EU and 54 countries from the OIC, as well as observer countries, discussed paths to find adequate ways of peaceful co-existence between different religions, cultures and so on, and to promote understanding.

As a diplomatic correspondent, I had the chance to cover the meeting for daily Cumhuriyet and I remember how it was important for a country like Turkey to host such a meeting in those very chaotic days. It was not Turkey’s geopolitical and strategic importance that made this meeting possible. On the contrary, it was the country's secular tradition as a Muslim country with a pro-Western vision that allowed it to host dozens of foreign ministers at that time. It may be seen as a cliché, but Turkey’s role as a bridge between different religions, culture and ways of life was highly appreciated by the world at that time.

Turkey was given a date to start full membership negotiations in December 2002 and hosted the NATO Summit for the first time in history in June 2004, in which it produced the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, aiming to contribute to long-term global and regional security by offering countries of the broader Middle East’s practical bilateral security cooperation with NATO.

Just a year after this, the Turkish and Spanish prime ministers launched the Alliance of Civilizations initiative, to be later adopted by the Secretary General of the United Nations as a U.N. initiative. The initiative, aiming to avoid further polarization between the Islamic world and the West, is still an official U.N. project, but it has lost its momentum in recent years.

The developments I have cited coincide with the early years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which had the profile of a pro-EU, reformist country aiming to hasten its integration with the modern world. Despite its conservative outlook, the AKP government had undertaken important reforms and had launched processes to break taboos in Turkey, which was later awarded with the start of full membership negotiations in October 2005, in a historic development.

Comparing the post-Paris process with the post 9/11 attacks, however, we see a completely different Turkey. It is now regarded as a country drifting toward authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule, at the expense of reversing the last decade’s democratic achievements, which is causing the deterioration of its ties with both European allies and the Islamic world. Once a bridge between the EU and the OIC, Turkey is now like a deserted island in the middle of an ocean.

That’s perhaps why Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s rightful decision to attend the Paris march was criticized, and that’s perhaps why Turkey can no longer convince its partners when it says that it is doing everything to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Syria to join the jihadists.

It’s true that racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and other sorts of discrimination are on the rise in Europe, and the Turkish government has every right to ask its interlocutors to take all measures to protect Turks and Muslims in their countries, as well as to stop such polarizing policies. It’s also very timely to ask European leaders to move with common sense and avoid hate speech against Muslims or foreigners.

However, it’s equally timely to ask the Turkish government to review its policies and restore its secular understanding if it wants to be taken as a serious partner in the fight against global problems, as it was in the beginning of the 2000s.