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Learning from the Turks

In this age of armed conflicts and global terrorism, threats and insecurity, perhaps there is one country where you land with a dark green passport and you are treated with warmth and respect. You are neither seen with unusual suspicion nor asked to fall out of the queue at the airport for a thorough screening. You speak to a man on the street to ask for directions. On knowing where you have come from, he will smile at you and call you family. Even a shrewd salesperson will make a sizeable discount if you tell her that you have come from Pakistan.

While there are major differences between the two countries, there are many parallels that can be drawn and many similarities that can be found. We have a lot to learn from the Turks. Over decades they have survived economic hardships, military interventions and border conflicts, but they succeeded in staying the course. The modern Turkish republic was established by a visionary leader, Mustafa Kemal, who laid the foundation of a forward-looking country upon the remains of the Turkish Ottoman Empire which had become primitive, weak and decadent by that time.

We forget that while Indian Muslims in their earnestness wanted the restoration of the Turkish Caliphate or the Sultanate of Osmania, as we called it, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his political and military forces were creating a modern republic. Ataturk and Quaid-e-Azam had similar views on the lines upon which modern Muslim-majority states in the 20th century could be created.

However, political circumstances and social conditions in post-first world war Europe and West Asia made it possible for Ataturk to be clearer in his conception of the new state. Like Nehru, he could also live for many years after the state was founded to see his plans unfold. While the Quaid had also said on many occasions that religion would have nothing to do with the business of the state, Ataturk got fifteen years in power as an authoritative head of the state and could embark on social, political and cultural reforms in the Turkish state and society. He declared Turkey to be a secular state. He said in 1924, a few months after the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey and a couple of days before officially abolishing the caliphate, “The religion of Islam will be elevated if it will cease to be a political instrument, as had been the case in the past.”

The conversion of the famous Hagia Sophia or Aya Sophia into a museum is an interesting example of how Ataturk envisioned modern Turkey. The ancient basilica, ordered to be built by Constantine the Great (after whom the present city of Istanbul was named Constantinople) in the 4th century AD, reconstructed by Justinian in the 6th century and used for coronation, religious rites and rituals, prayers and services as the Eastern Orthodox Church for a millennium, was converted into a mosque in the 15th century after the fall of Constantinople to Sultan Mohammed Fateh (called Fatih Sultan Mehmet in Turkey).

Additions and embellishments were made to the building and its interior. Islamic symbols were introduced while the images of Holy Mary, Jesus Christ and Gabriel overlooked the vast prayer hall and gallery on the upper floor. What remained a church for a thousand years and a mosque for five hundred years was finally converted into a museum by the Turkish parliament in 1935. Islam did not came under threat and the erstwhile Christian character of Istanbul did not get resurrected when Aya Sophia became a museum.

In South Asia, neither the Muslim fundamentalists nor the Hindu zealots could ever deal with issues like Babri Mosque in the same fashion. Adjacent to Aya Sophia, the Sultanahmet Mosque, one of the most amazing mosques built anywhere in the world, has the muezzin calling for prayers five times a day in the most enchanting voice and the namaz is offered there by both women and men. The vast majority of Turks and tourists who were saying their prayers were Sunni but one could find a few Shia Muslims praying alongside.

Ataturk was a military commander and the Turkish Army has had a constitutional role traditionally. Its role has been shrinking with time and tensions are evident. One major issue is that the Turkish democracy allowed a moderate Islamist party to come to power; we see Recep Tayyep Erdogan ruling as the prime minister for more than ten years, while Turkish Army subscribes to its purely secular tradition.

Furthermore, there is a difference between the genesis of our military and theirs. Their military was a liberating force, fought battles for Turkish sovereignty before the republic was created and then helped found modern Turkey. Our military was a colonial military, a remnant of the British Indian Army fighting alongside the British during the first and second world wars besides other British expeditions. Same goes for our police and civilian bureaucracy. All our institutions have to be transformed completely into national institutions. Replacing British names with the names of early Muslim warriors or thinkers for our barracks, clubs and office buildings will not suffice. The tradition, the recruitment processes, procedures and practices have to change. Above all, the mindset has to change.

Speaking of the mindset, let us come to the Turkish political mindset. By no means can this be a comprehensive analysis as it has been a really short trip, English speakers are few and far between and television news channels I have access to are BBC and CNN. Speaking to some people and reading a couple of English newspapers with conflicting op-ed pieces make me understand some dynamic of what is happening here. For instance, it will be interesting to remind Pakistanis that while Turkey is being ruled by a religious right-wing party (as ‘right’ as you get here) which is also openly critical of Israel, the diplomatic relations are normal and trade between the two countries is booming.

On the one hand Erdogan virtually cries on local television for victims of Egypt and takes a clear stand in favour of ousted president Morsi and, on the other hand, the Turkish government is going to be the most likely arbiter between the Egyptian army and Ikhwanul Muslimoon.

Erdogan is terribly against Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey is ready to lead an international intervention. Therefore, while his siding with Morsi makes the Saudis, the west and the GCC countries unhappy, his being against Syrian authorities give them relief. Apparently, Erdogan has an independent position on each issue but Turkish commentators say that he falls short of translating his political rhetoric in policy decisions.

They also say that, at the end of the day, Erdogan does get influenced by a small but effective constituency that he grew up in, a constituency he ideologically shares with Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of political Islam in Turkey. Therefore, when he cries on television he is being truly emotional and not faking it. But when there is business as usual with Israel that is his pragmatic side taking over. According to his critics, the risks Erdogan is taking by alienating the modernists in Turkish society besides his coalition partners are still too big. Turkey, according to them, must be prevented from falling into the lap of oppressive theocratic rule.

Tailpiece: Something from Maulana Rumi (Hazrat Mevlana as he is called in Turkey) after visiting his tomb in Konya: “I have not seen any sweeter drink than this poison and there is not better health than this sickness from love. No act of piety can be better than this sin of love. Years compared with this moment are like an hour.”

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad. Email: harris.khalique@gmail.com

Harris Khalique, "Learning from the Turks," The News. 2013-08-28.
Keywords: Social sciences , Policy making , Armed forces , Military-Turkey , World war I , Religious issues , International media , Terrorism , Muslims , Islam , History , Christians , Diplomacy , Shias , Mustafa Kemal , Quaid-e-Azam , Sultan Mohammed Fateh , Bashar al-Assad , President Morsi , India , Pakistan , Turkey , Syria , CNN , BBC