Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul recently visited Tehran to gauge whether it would be possible for officials from the United States and Iran to meet face to face in Istanbul. If it happens, it will help to de-escalate the nuclear stalemate, leaving behind the question of regime change in Iran to be the most difficult one to solve.
Mr. Gul’s role, including his trip to Washington next week, could represent an opportunity for Turkey to regain some footing that it lost with the Bush administration when it did not support the war in Iraq. It could greatly enhance Turkey’s stature if it were able to help broker a normalization in U.S.-Iran relations.
Caution, however, is key. Washington needs to be very careful about how it reaches out to Tehran while using an “Islamist” party as an intermediary. If things are not well orchestrated, Turkey-U.S. relations may take an irrecoverable turn.
Turkey refused to give the United States a northern front into Iraq because of geographical, historical and religious baggage. It shares borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria. It has been able to keep its sovereign land without ever being occupied by a foreign power, and it’s the only country in the region that created a secular democracy out of a majority-Muslim population. The Islamic states of the region are engaged in a “hidden war” against Turkey, which, coupled with changes in the culture that make headscarves and the black hijab increasingly standard garb for women, indicate a larger friction between its secular government and political Islam.
Eric Edelman, the undersecretary of defense for policy and the ambassador to Ankara from 2003 to 2005, displayed a perfect understanding of Turkey’s history and current challenges during a speech at the Washington Institute last week. Mr. Edelman discussed the legacies of the founding Turkish leaders Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Ismet Inonu and Turgut Ozal. “[T]he nation’s strength remains in its strong founding principles, which still hold true decades later,” he said. “Turkey can proudly look back on a great heritage for guidance in today’s world: Kemal Ataturk’s vision of a modernized Turkey anchored in the West; Ismet Inonu’s commitment to carrying out democratization; and Turgut Ozal, whose courageous leadership during critical times made decisions that restored multiparty democracy, opened the economy, and positioned Turkey as a reliable ally committed to working with partners and friends on a shared vision for a better future.”
Mr. Edelman also delicately addressed the most crucial vulnerability of Ataturk’s government. “In some sense, Ataturk’s successors have spent the past 70 years bringing means and ends back into balance,” he said. “For that reason, the work of both the [Bulent] Ecevit and Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments over the past years has been both breathtaking and important.”
Indeed, when Ecevit visited Washington for the last time as Turkey’s prime minister in 2002, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told Turkish journalists at the White House that Turkey is an “excellent model” for Islam. Secretary of State Colin Powell then erred by referring to Turkey as an “Islamic state,” an assertion that took a while to correct. However, both the Turkish president and the Turkish military emphasized that the country is secular — neither an Islamic state nor an Islamic country, even though most of its population is Muslim.
Obviously, the United States needed an example of secular democracy to show to the countries whose regimes it wanted to change. But there’s no road map to bring democracy to the Middle East. The democracy Ataturk built in Turkey contradicts James Madison’s vision of religious freedom. “Because it will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several sects,” Madison wrote in 1785. “Torrents of blood have been split in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish religious discord, by proscribing all difference in religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease.”
Each time AKP challenges secularism in Turkey, however, it would be naive to believe that it is following the footsteps of Madison. Turkey’s secular democratic principles are quite different. And although the secular movement predated Ataturk, he pushed for it. And as Madison writes, when the opposition rises, it may do exactly the same.
That is Turkey’s fear. Islamists don’t believe in separating religious and governmental affairs, so Islam is their guide to every walk of life. With the number of women wearing headscarves and the hijab at an all-time high in Turkey, it’s clear the country is failing to preserve the secularism it was founded on eight decades ago. If the state is threatened, America will have failed as well. And in the midst of these concerns, one can only hope that the United States knows where and how to keep Turkey if the talks with Tehran do not prevail to any desirable ending. Therefore, Mr. Edelman’s speech should stand as the right way to talk about Turkey, its relations with the United States and the future.
Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.