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An Interview with Yusuf Kanli

Without Secularism Turkey Couldn't be a Democracy

Manuela Paraipan, Arad, Romania, July 24, 2006

A statue of Kemal Ataturk, who is the founder of modern Turkey, is reflected in an Islamic garment shop window in downtown Ankara. (Photo: Tarik Tinazay / AFP-Getty Images)

Recently, Manuela Paraipan was in Turkey, where in addition to taking in the Tekfen Philharmonic, she had an opportunity to interview Yusuf Kanli, editor in chief of the English-language Turkish Daily News.

Manuela Paraipan: Do you think that Turkey belongs to the E.U. club of nations?

Yusuf Kanli: I do not know whether Turkey belongs to E.U. or E.U. should take Turkey in, but definitely, Turkey belongs to Europe. Turkey is already part of Europe.

I am well aware of that, but my question was whether Turkey's place from a socio-political perspective is in the E.U.?

Socially, culturally, economically, militarily, and politically to a great extent, Turkey is part of Europe. But will it become an E.U. member? That's something else. It is a political formation, and the members of the club will have to decide themselves whether they see potential in having Turkey in …

Is there an internal tension in the Turkish political arena between the seculars and those who would wish to see Islam or anything else other than secular democracy as dominant in politics?

Yes, there is.

What would the alternative be, if any?

I think there is not any viable alternative to secularism in Turkey if you take into consideration the composition of the society. … We have had pluralism all through our history. We never had the domination of one religion over the others, including in the Ottoman Empire. Because the Ottoman Empire, regardless of what some say, and although the sultan was a caliph, more or less it was a secular state. Just take the fact that none of the Ottoman sultans performed the pilgrimage. With one exception — the one who conquered Mecca.

While I do understand your point of view, there is an open discussion on the possibility of seeing a different political approach in Turkey, ever since the Islamists took power in the country. Can we talk about a possible revival of the caliphate? How do you comment on it?

I do not think that in Turkey we can talk about the revival of the Caliphate. Caliphate is a dead establishment. But of course, there is place in the Turkish society for wider religious support and rights. And I think that it is right. I do not like the way the Islamists are living, dressing, the way they are thinking. But in democracies, people are not obliged to conform to my expectations. And in their private lives, they can do whatever they like.

The state is secular, the system is secular, and this system is guaranteeing the freedom of religion.

Without secularism, it would be impossible for Turkey to be a democracy. Secularism is the key element of the success of coexistence of democracy and religious people together. Otherwise, we will not be able to sustain democracy. That's why secularism and democracy are so much interrelated. Maybe less in Europe, because they have lived the enlightenment age. They lived the separation of church and the state. So hundreds of years ago, they completed the cycle. But in Islam, there weren't any reforms. There was no renaissance. And in essence, Islam is a religion regulating every aspect of life. If you let it dominate the state, then how will you have a national will, when you already have a will that is superior, and divine. So this contradicts with the norm itself.

Where does Turkey stand on the war on terror? And, what are the relationships between Turkey, Iran, and Syria, knowing that these Middle Eastern countries support terrorism (Hezbollah) and Iran might be facing U.N. sanctions in the immediate future?

Saying that these states are supporting terrorism is in itself a prejudice, in my opinion.

We all know that the neighborhood of Turkey is not an easy one. We all know that countries of this region have the habit of using illegitimate means to promote their national goals. Be that supporting the opponent, another country's government, terrorist groups, Islamic terrorists, traffickers, etc.

Turkey is one of the few countries in this region that fight so intensely the terrorist threat. For about three decades, we had terrorism and we lost about 37,000 of our people. And I do not distinguish between those killed by the terrorists, or those killed by the security forces that hunted the terrorists. At the end of the day, all were our own people, irrespective of their fighting the state or the state defending itself.

It is a big trauma, and that is why we are so alert to it. We know what terrorism is. What pain it can cause. And we want our neighborhood, rather than becoming a free terrorism area, an area free of terrorism. For that, we need several things. First of all, we need the states of the region to conform with international laws and the basic conduct of diplomacy. That is, noninterference in internal affairs, respect to each other's territory, borders, and sovereignty.

What about the Kurds? What is their status?

The Kurds of Turkey are not a minority; they are part of the majority. Minority, in the traditional understanding in this country, is a group of people who are different from the main majority, and who while enjoying most of the rights others enjoy, are denied certain liberties.

The Kurds must be given the additional rights. They must have rights and liberties as any other citizens of the state. However, the problems of Kurds are a bit exaggerated. Their issues are not only theirs; others are having the same issues. This is not a minority vs. majority problem; this is the democratization problem of Turkey. And we have to continue the democratization trend, with or without the E.U. perspective.

It is the state's duty to solve these problems, but at the same time, it is the state's responsibility to provide the fundamental rights of people, and the most important one is the right to life. If the state is unable to protect its citizens, whatever other rights it can provide, they mean nothing. For that, it has to ruthlessly combat terrorism, no comprise, no mercy, so clear.

I want to tell you that the state [any state] has the right to protect itself. But that does not mean for Israel to use excessive force. That is a very delicate area. In combating terrorism, no state should be allowed to force people out of their land and homes, to demolish their houses, to threaten them as terrorists, without sufficient evidences. This is another subject, but we have to differentiate between one thing and another. For example, I am one of the strongest supporters of Israel's right to exist. Fifty years ago, we were against this idea but now Israel is a reality of the region. If we are going to have peace, peace must be based on that reality. Another reality is the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, the right of the refugees, the right to have a state of their own. We have to acknowledge this reality, too.

However, that does not mean that I approve of the suicide killers that blow up buses in Tel Aviv, or the state terrorism that Israel uses against the Palestinian civilians. Both are wrong and I condemn both of them.

I think the refugees should be allowed to return to the state of Palestine, not in Israel. You seem to have a different opinion here, so please explain it a bit further.

I strongly believe that the Palestinians must have the right to return to their previous territories and homes, from where they have been evicted by force. Peace is a very painful task. If Israel can compromise in other areas, and that can satisfy the Palestinians, who am I to complain? If they agree on having new settlements as compensation, and they draw a line in history and say the past is past, the future is ours, I will respect that. But, for that to happen they need dialogue, talks. But first, the two sides must recognize each other.

I hope that the people all over the world will see this basic requirement and try to fulfill it. One side is recognized as a state, and the other side as a community asking for its rights.

If you are going to have a two-state settlement, or a federation or whatever, these are the initial needed elements [mutual recognition and dialogue]. And let them solve the problem on the basis of equality.

Recently we had in Europe the Spain bombings, the 7/7 London bombings, the cartoon riots, and a general ascendant trend of Islamic fundamentalism. Why is Europe a target?

We have to look at the root cause. And I differentiate here, between the Islamic rise, and the Islamic terrorism rise. I believe the Islamic rise is good, because as other religions, Islam preaches tolerance, peace, and love for man and woman, is a religion based on love for humanity. According to Islam, killing one person is like killing the entire humanity because you cannot give or take life. This is the mentality of Islam, but when you use it in staging terrorism, and you use Islam as pretext to achieve some political aims, that is the biggest threat — and that is an insult to Islam. Therefore, the first to feel insulted and act firmly against terrorism is not the Christian world, or the international community, but the Islamic states.

Islamist terrorism, or whatever you call it, it's like a cancer in today's society, and we have to cure it. The illiteracy so widespread in the Muslim world is a big threat, and of course, to overcome the problem, you need to consolidate education and democratization. Democratization without proper education ends up in catastrophes, as we have seen elements of it in Egypt. the first stage should be education, not only teaching people how to read their rights, but also teaching people values, morals, gender equality, all those things that constitute the fundamentals of a modern society. Increase the budget for education. And if that were to happen, in 20, 25 years then we would see a real change.

The more educated the society will be, the more they will demand democratic rights.

But, can Islam and democracy go together well?

It can, if the Muslims accept the concept of secularism. This is fundamental, without it, you cannot have democracy in any part of the Islamic world.

Secularism is the essence, the key, the magic wand, if you want. Without it, you cannot have democracy. What is democracy? The people ruling itself by itself, the basic definition.

What is the fundamental element here? Sovereignty, the right to decide, to make errors. If you have a basic as the constitution, and the book of the believers as the supreme book of the country, and if that book says, the only sovereign is God, and if that book is defining everything in that society, how are you going to have civil law? How are you going to have a sovereign people? Or, how are you going to have democracy without people being the sovereign? This is the key. That is why we are so sensitive about it in Turkey. I am not a secular, and I am not an Islamist either; I am a social democrat, committed to democracy, to freedom, values, in all aspects of life. To me, accepting a divine will over a popular will is the end of the game. We may have elections, an elected government; in Iran, they have elections, and an elected president, and government. But is that democracy? Elections are not democracy. The worst government can come to power through elections. Do not forget it. It is the mentality that makes the difference.

Can you please go back to my previous question on Europe and expand your perspective a bit?

We are the sole Muslim country with a democratic rule [in the region]. Indonesia as well, with its own type of democracy and secularism, is a target. There was no difference between the attack in London, or Spain, and the one from Istanbul, or the attacks on hotels in Bali. It was the same mentality.

Can we do something to change it?

Yes, drop the "ifs" and "buts" in describing terrorism. If you continue with "my terrorism is good, yours is bad" mentality, we will never succeed. If the P.K.K. is a terrorist gang, than that's it, end of conversation, and there are ways and means of fighting a terrorist gang.

You have to be determined, clear. And as media, we have a duty there. We have to stop violence appearing on the first page. The more we report that, the humane sufferings on the front page, the more we promote terrorism. We have to report the stories, but the humane aspect, the sufferings, should not be exploited as much. Media must report the issues. Instead of showing how many people were killed, just show the impact of the attack and leave it to that. It is our public duty to report, its our right, and the right of the public to be informed, but we have to draw a line, we should not allow ourselves to be used by the gangs, we must be aware of that.

What is terrorism in your view?

Any act, any use of force on civilian population with political motivation.

But, do you include here the so-called resistances? Like Hezbollah?

The right of resistance is something else. I am coming from a resistance. I am a Turkish Cypriot and we fought the Greek Cypriot attacks on our population, but we defended ourselves. We did not kill civilians. That is the difference. If a resistance movement starts kidnapping, beheading people, that is terrorism.

Resistance is a legitimate right. If you are under occupation, you have this right to resist. But, how do you resist? You resist domination power, occupation, army you blow up their military installations, etc. I mean that is war, but you don't kill civilians.

I respect the right of the Palestinian people to reject the occupation of their territories, but how can I define a boy who blows himself up in a bus, as a freedom fighter? That is criminal, pure terrorism, no question about it.

Resistance movement is a noble act, against foreign occupation and pressures, with legitimate means.

If a noble resistance movement starts developing terrorist tactics, it is a terror organization. That's the end of it. We have to be clear. That is why we have so much difference of opinion with the West. They are hypocrites. When it comes to their sufferance, they see, when others are suffering, they sympathize. But they do not act, they start talking with "ifs" and "buts," and that is something we cannot afford when we fight terrorism. We are either for or against it.

And, finally my last question, what do you think about the U.S. relationship with Turkey?

Credibility is the problem, for both countries, for both sides. Turkey has lost credibility in U.S., and U.S. lost credibility here. They say something, do something else. They have severe credibility problems. We have to start developing skills of action, not of rhetoric. This has happened largely because the interests of U.S. and Turkey are no longer the same. The cold war is over. In the past we had common enemies, interests, strategies, policies, etc. Now, we need to develop separate strategies, polices, interests. Of course, we can still cooperate. Now we are in the process of learning that.


Ms. Paraipan's trip to Turkey was sponsored by the European Cultural Foundation.

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