All these compliments for a visitor from Turkey to the American capital. No, it wasn’t President Abdullah Gül or Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who visited Washington. There is no way they would be welcomed like that. In fact, let alone the president and prime minister, we haven’t seen any Turkish official or any other person from Turkey receive as much praise in Washington ever before. So what is the name of the Turkish citizen who was deemed worthy of this extraordinary protocol and treatment? Bartholomew. Those who see him as the religious leader of a small Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey and as a counterpart to the district governor of Fatih in the line of protocol generally refer to him as the “Greek Patriarch at Fener.” Those — including many states around the world and especially the US — who see him as the leading spiritual leader of the approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world refer to him as “His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch.”
There is a wonderful phrase in Bediüzzaman Said Nursi’s works that goes “A person who closes his eyes makes it dark for just himself.” The respect to the Patriarchate and its connections transcended Turkey’s borders a long time ago, whereas it is belittled, excluded and deprived of due attention by some segments of the Turkish state and society. Wouldn’t it be better if we kept the Patriarchate happy and tried to benefit from it to assist Turkey’s national interests and especially its image promotion, instead of making it upset over frivolous issues and creating a pother in the international scene? Which other lobby in Turkey, that we hope to get support, or consulting company, which costs us millions of dollars, has the power and esteem to get Western leaders to respectfully wait hand and foot on them?
If we don’t take offense in spending money and trying to persuade foreign men to work in our favor, then why should we take offense in working with the leaders and members of minority groups that came from the heart of this country? It is known that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew supports Turkey’s EU membership. I don’t think it’s very difficult to carry this perspective to America as well. We just need to be able to overcome antiquated narrow national security considerations and socio-psychological obstacles.
Religious and ethnic minority issues top the list of issues that “we’ve closed our eyes to” since the Republic of Turkey was established. By simply igoring the facts, we thought the Kurdish issue would be solved, what we did to Armenians would be forgotten, Alevis would stop complaining about discrimination and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate would lose its “ecumenical” status. The current democratic initiative that the state and civil society are carrying out in the above-mentioned areas constitutes one of the most notable steps in terms of reopening Turkey’s eyes to the facts and rejuvenating its historical wisdom.
There is benefit in extending the democratic initiative process to include all problematic areas, and handling the issues as smaller pieces of the bigger picture. I know that there are major responsibilities and burdens on the shoulders of the state, which has awakened from many years of sleep, and especially President Gül and the Erdoğan government, which are leading this process by taking great political risks. But if problems are not evaluated as a whole within a conceptual framework and coordinated works are not carried out, there could be an erosion of credibility both inside and outside the country.
Indeed, Turkey is carrying out initiatives for the sake of its own national interests and domestic peace, not to look cute for others. On the other side, international human rights agreements signed by Ankara and the expectations of multinational institutions where Turkey is a member cannot be overlooked. The initiatives are also a requirement of the “value-oriented” realist foreign policy line, which the highest authorities proclaim Turkey has adopted. Making peace with its minorities will add strength to Turkey’s power, reinforce its national security and increase its respect and influence in the international scene.
I think I have developed a better understanding of the minority psychology ever since I came to America. For example the killing of 13 people in a fusillade opened by an American Muslim major against his fellow soldiers in Texas on Thursday was perhaps nothing more than an unfortunate piece of news for most of those living in Turkey that won’t have any effect on their daily lives. But despite the generally prudent attitudes of the state, media and intellectuals, the Muslim minority in America is on pins and needles, worried that the incident will incite Islamophobia and push extremists in society to carry out hate crimes.
Some capitals in the Muslim world including Ankara are supporting efforts to fight against Islamophobia and that gives us a little sense of comfort. On the other hand, if and when Turkey can overcome its minority phobia and address their fair complaints its ability to stand for Muslim brothers and Turkish-Kurdish kin in the US and Europe will improve.
In my opinion, “zero problems with minorities” within the context of the democratic initiative should be an equally important goal as our “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Initiatives being carried out inside and outside are supplementary per se. The fruits of the democratic initiative will give momentum to Turkish foreign policy’s regional and global initiatives. Imagine a Turkey that has zero problems with all its minorities and majority members that have a minority psychology for various reasons. It is that kind of Turkey that would truly be a “soft power” or a “smart power.”