Winning the war of ideas starts with Turkey

January 13, 2004|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - While visiting Istanbul, Turkey, the other day, I took a long walk along the Bosporus near Topkapi Palace. There is nothing like standing at this stunning intersection of Europe and Asia to think about the clash of civilizations - and how we might avoid it. Make no mistake: We are living at a remarkable hinge of history, and it's not clear how it's going to swing.

What is clear is that Osama bin Laden achieved his aim: 9/11 sparked real tensions between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim East. Preachers on both sides now openly denounce each other's faith. Whether these tensions explode into a real clash of civilizations will depend a great deal on whether we build bridges or dig ditches between the West and Islam in three key places - Turkey, Iraq and Israel-Palestine.

Let's start with Turkey - the only Muslim free-market democracy in Europe. I happened to be in Istanbul when the street outside one of the two synagogues that were suicide-bombed Nov. 15 was reopened.

Three things struck me: First, the chief rabbi of Turkey appeared at the ceremony, hand in hand with the top Muslim cleric of Istanbul and the local mayor, while crowds in the street threw red carnations on them. Second, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who comes from an Islamist party, paid a visit to the chief rabbi - the first time a Turkish prime minister had ever called on the chief rabbi. Third, and most revealing, was the statement made by the father of one of the Turkish suicide bombers who hit the synagogues.

"We are a respectful family who love our nation, flag and the Quran," the grieving father, Sefik Elaltuntas, told the Zaman newspaper. "But we cannot understand why this child had done the thing he had done. ... First, let us meet with the chief rabbi of our Jewish brothers. Let me hug him. Let me kiss his hands and flowing robe. Let me apologize in the name of my son and offer my condolences for the deaths. ... We will be damned if we do not reconcile with them."

The same newspaper also carried this quote from Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek: "The Islamic world should take stringent measures against terrorism without any `buts' or `howevers.'"

There is a message here: Context matters. Turkish politicians are not intimidated by religious fundamentalists, because - unlike too many Arab politicians - they have their own legitimacy that comes from being democratically elected.

At the same time, the Turkish parents of suicide bombers don't all celebrate their children's suicides. They are not afraid to denounce this barbarism, because they live in a free society where such things are considered shameful and alien to the moderate Turkish brand of Islam - which has always embraced religious pluralism and which most Turks feel is the "real" Islam.

For all these reasons, if we want to help moderates win the war of ideas within the Muslim world, we must help strengthen Turkey as a model of democracy, modernism, moderation and Islam all working together. Nothing would do that more than having Turkey be made a member of the European Union - which the EU will basically decide this year.

Turkey has undertaken a huge number of reforms to get itself ready for EU membership. If, after all it has done, the EU shuts the door on Turkey, extremists all over the Muslim world will say to the moderates: "See, we told you so - it's a Christian club and we're never going to be let in. So why bother adapting to their rules?"

I think Turkey's membership in the EU is so important that the United States should consider subsidizing the EU to make it easier for Turkey to be admitted. If that fails, we should offer to bring Turkey into NAFTA, even though it would be very complicated.

"If the EU creates some pretext and says `no' to Turkey, after we have done all this, I am sure the EU will lose and the world will lose," Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, told me in Ankara. "If Turkey is admitted, the EU is going to win and world peace is going to win. This would be a gift to the Muslim world. ... When I travel to other Muslim countries - Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia - they are proud of what we are doing. They are proud of our process [of political and economic reform to join the EU]. They mention this to me. They ask, `How is this going?'"

Yes, everyone is watching, which is why the EU would be making a huge mistake - a hinge of history mistake - if it digs a ditch around Turkey instead of building a bridge.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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