Over the next fortnight, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be visiting Australia and New Zealand. His tour will be the first visit by a Turkish Prime Minister for at least 10 years.
Mr Erdogan represents a new generation of conservative Muslim leaders. In the past decade, Turkish politics has stepped in a more Islamist direction, especially as Muslim parties have enjoyed increased popularity after more secular parties have been wracked by corruption and scandal.
Mr Erdogan came to power as the leader of the conservative Islamist AK Party. The term “Ak” literally means “purified” and has been used by a number of Sufi groups as a pronoun to their various operations. A group of Islamist radio and TV stations in Turkey are called “AK-RA” and “AK-TV” respectively. But in reality, the AK Party is little more than a Muslim version of the Christian Democrat parties common in other European countries.
Indeed, even the most sceptical observers of Turkey agree that the present Turkish government is not turning its face totally eastward. Erdogan is a firm believer in liberal democracy, and he has proven to be the most active Prime Minister in terms of seeking Turkey’s entry into the European Union.
Turkey’s proposed entry to the EU is being opposed by some European leaders who see Turkey as too big, too poor and too Muslim. During a recent visit to the conservative Centre for Independent Studies, Swedish economist Johan Norberg suggested that Turkey’s entry to the EU should be supported for these very reasons.
In relation to Turkey’s Muslim culture, Norberg suggested that the influx of Turkish workers will force EU nations to free up their over-regulated labour markets and break down existing migrant ghettoes which are categorised by high unemployment and simmering resentment.
He also suggested that Turkish Islam is hardly the type which would reinforce existing pockets of extremism. If anything, Turkey’s more liberal Ottoman Sufi approach to Islam and its historical engagement with Europe will be an effective antidote to the threat of alleged radicalisation of European Muslims.
Norberg’s words are not the observations of a neo-capitalist idealist. His views are grounded in an understanding of Ottoman and modern Turkish trends of Islamic thought. The Ottoman Empire was a very European empire. It should be remembered that the Ottomans were already in Europe prior to the conquest of Constantinople, and indeed that conquest took Ottoman armies eastward and not westward. Further, Ottoman religious institutions tended to be dominated by European converts.
Modern Turkish Islam has a very strong foundation in the classical Sufism of universalist thinkers such as Rumi. Indeed, the city of Konya where Rumi is buried is regarded as Turkey’s Islamic heartland.
My own experience with Turkish Islamic scholars has been that they place enormous emphasis on this-worldly affairs, especially on business. Turkish Imams (who make up the majority of Imams in Australia) emphasise engagement with the mainstream in all areas of life. Their message is a far cry from the isolationist theology of some more radical Middle Eastern Imams.
Erdogan himself is a reflection of this thinking. Despite his impeccable Islamic credentials, he is also no stereotypical mullah. He is a father of four whose son is currently studying at Harvard. Erdogan refused to follow the lead of the newly elected Iranian president by calling for the destruction of Israel.
If anything, under the Erdogan government Turkey’s relations with Israel have improved. Turkey has sponsored talks between the foreign ministers of Israel and Pakistan, and Turkey maintains close diplomatic, military and cultural ties with Israel.
The current Turkish PM is also firmly opposed to all forms of Islamic extremism and terrorism. In this regard, Erdogan is following Turkish public opinion. During a recent terrorist attack on an Istanbul synagogue, Mr Erdogan vowed to pursue those responsible and bring them justice. By all indications, his calls resonated positively across all sectors of Turkish society. Further, as an active NATO member state, Turkey continues to support the war on terrorism.
Turkey’s engagement of European liberalism goes beyond merely winning the Eurovision song contest. In April 2004, the Turkish government led a campaign for Cypriot Turks to support the re-unification of Cyprus.
Greek Cypriots voted overwhelmingly against Cypriot unity. Ironically, despite their rejection of UN-sponsored reunification, the Greek section of Cyprus was granted EU membership.
Australia has a large and well-established Turkish community. Over 100,000 Turks and their descendants have had a presence in Australia since the 1950’s. Out of all Muslim ethnic groups, they are the most organised, the best integrated and have the greatest number of mosques. Australia needs to make greater use of its Turkish communities with a view to secure the substantial advantages flowing from closer economic ties with this growing economy.
Both Australia and New Zealand forged their first links with Turkey on the battlefields of the Gallipoli peninsula. Each year, our embassies and high commissions across the world hold ANZAC Day ceremonies, and we make a point of inviting Turkish diplomats to also attend.
Turkey’s economic and cultural ties with Australia and New Zealand have overcome the effects of that initial encounter. And with Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit, it is hoped these ties will grow stronger.
Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf