Interview in Advance of Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's Visit to the U.S.Daniel Fried,
Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs
Interview with Ali H. Aslan from the Turkish newspaper Zaman
July 3, 2006
QUESTION: So, Turkish Foreign Minister Gul is coming to town…
AMBASSADOR FRIED: We are looking forward to the visit of Foreign Minister Gul. And there is a tremendous amount of work we are doing with Turkey, in the world, in the region. And I think that a lot of the issues are tough. Cyprus is tough. All the issues are complicated. But we are able to work with Turkey as real partners, and we are certainly looking forward to this upcoming visit. And I must say that I've been impressed by how much Turkey has done, partly because of the EU accession process - but really because of its own internal dynamics - to realize a strategic vision of itself as a European country and yet stay true to its traditional Turkish values, which is easy to say and hard to do. But I certainly think that Turkey is closer to this than ever before.
My old friend Eric Edelman recently gave a speech, the Ozal lecture, you may have heard this. I thought it was fascinating. Only Eric could have done this, because of his knowledge of Turkey. That speech implicitly says Turkey is now at the stage to take this next great step, which has a strategic significance comparable to the steps taken by Mustafa Kamal Pasha. Or, Ozal himself. And I think that's essentially correct.
Turkey has moved forward not evenly, but through a series of advances in the 20th century since the end of the Ottoman period. Or, if you count the Young Turk revolution, including the Ottoman period. And if you count the reforms, including the 19th century in the Ottoman period, but that's a different story. That speech struck me as very important in terms of an analysis of where Turkey is moving, and it was basically extraordinarily knowledgeable about Turkish history and also made clear, I think - it articulated well what Turkey can do today.
QUESTION: Can you say Turkey is even more important than it was during Cold War era for the U.S.?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: I would put it this way, and I understand the question. Its importance in the Cold War was critical, but narrow. It was military and security. Now, its importance is civilizational and political. And the areas we work with Turkey are not only strategic, but they are also in energy, and it is an outward-looking relationship, not a relationship confined to dealing with the problem of the Soviet Union. So, the strength Turkey brought to the relationship in the Cold War is no longer as relevant, because it's not a military problem.
Then again, Turkey is a very different country than it was during the Cold War. And, of course, what is different is that Turkey is a much more democratic country than it was 25 years ago. And that democracy, in the short run, produces a press which is often - let us be polite - very skeptical of the U.S., sometimes anti-American. But in the long run, you have a strengthening Turkish democracy, and this is very good. And you have a democracy which has deep roots, rather than shallow roots, which is very important, because it's a democracy which is going to have buy-in from the society.
Another thing that's different is that the Turkish economy has grown, and grown in sophistication, not just larger. When I go to Ankara, 25 years ago Ankara was regarded in the folklore of Turks and Europeans and Americans as a place you had to go to, but you didn't much want to. Istanbul was always fabulous. It's been fabulous city for 1500 years. But Ankara now is a wonderful, wealthy, well-functioning, affluent modern city. And it's changed enormously even since I was first there in 1985. It was a nice city then, don't get me wrong. But it is the kind of modernity, the kind of sophistication -
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Yeah, yeah, roads. Not just a few fancy areas downtown. I mean, the suburbs are filled with well-built buildings. I am not sure I understand why this is so, but whenever I come in with Secretary Rice or the President in a motorcade we seem to travel the entire circumference of Ankara. Well, it's not a great advantage, but it does give me the opportunity to actually see all of Ankara, and all of the outskirts. And it's very impressive
to see what's happened. Of course, this is a mostly Muslim country, so there are mosques every other block.
What's interesting is to see an absolutely modern high-functioning city on a European level which is a mostly Muslim population. So much with the theory that advanced democracies have to be Christian. It's complete nonsense. That's another reason for Turkey's significance.
President Bush is very fond of saying that all people are capable of democratic self-government. And it is bigotry - those aren't his words, those are mine - to claim that democracy is simply the province of northwest European protestant civilizations and their heirs. That bigotry has a history which is not very respectable but certainly persistent, yet demonstrably false. There was a time when Catholics were not regarded as suitable for democracy. You think I am making that up. And I probably sound funny to you. But if you read the rather bigoted political literature of the late 1920s, that was genuinely believed. I know it sounds odd. And, of course, it's completely absurd. Southern and Eastern Europeans were not regarded as fully fit for democratic civilization.
Again, it sounds funny, as well as offensive. The bigotry did not begin with anti-Muslim bigotry. Hopefully it will not continue. My point is that these kinds of cultural and civilizational stereotypes look embarrassing and ridiculous in retrospect. And one of the things Turkey can bring to the 21st century is a demonstration that, in fact, modernity, democracy, economic progress can be built on a mostly Muslim foundation just as easily as any place else.
QUESTION: Speaking of democracy, Mr. Ambassador, some people in Turkey and the U.S. are calling for toppling of the AK Party administration, if necessary by antidemocratic moves, because they feel the secular nature of the Turkish regime is in danger -
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Turkey has a democracy. Turkey has elections. The AK Party won, okay? Turkey is not a one-party state. Some day the AK Party will not win. This is the nature of democracy. We are very happy to work with the government the democratic system in Turkey gives us. We are working with the AK Party. We do so in a very cooperative way. I have heard this, but I simply don't give it much credence.
QUESTION: The reason I am asking this question to you is that there are many conspiracy theorists who claim that even some in the U.S. administration might be encouraging anti-democratic efforts against the current government.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: No, ridiculous and very foolish. The democratic course in Turkey needs to be deepened. Democracy in Turkey has developed. This is ultimately a very stabilizing factor. The conspiracy theory is wrong-headed, harmful and happily utterly without foundation. I think that the frontiers of democracy in Turkey have been moving in the right direction. Let me give you a difficult example: Orhan Pamuk, the writer, very well known, was charged under an old Turkish law for the way he discussed the Armenian issue. You know the case. As I recall, the charges were dismissed. And I have a sense that Turkish society looked at that law and thought this law no longer fits where we are as a country, our democracy has deepened. The boundaries of political discourse in Turkey have broadened. This is altogether a healthy and good thing.
In any society this process will generate debate. This debate is good. The issue of secularism and Islam is debated in Turkey. It's also debated in France, okay. The huge fight in France is over whether schoolgirls could wear headscarves in public schools. That was a French debate. That debate has its counterpart in Turkey. This is a debate democratic societies go through.
I should say that from an American perspective we are more tolerant of overt religious displays than many European countries, because we are a very religious country and that is a function of the fact that we have the separation of church and state, ironically enough. The separation of church and state in U.S. - the fact that the state is very secular - has led to a strengthening of religion in United States because it's seen as independent of the state.
And, by the way, in the United States, Muslim schoolgirls wear headscarves all the time and nobody pays any attention. It's not that we are an Islamic society in the U.S., hardly. It's just that we don't get upset by these things. Jewish kids can wear yarmulkes or not wear yarmulkes; Christian kids wear crosses or not wear crosses. And it is totally in the realm of personal freedom. But don't believe any of the conspiracy theories.
QUESTION: Some U.S. critics are saying although the U.S. talks very often about the problems of religious minorities in Turkey, religious freedom problems of Turkish society, there is no high-profile effort or rhetoric on the problems of, say, religious Muslims, especially vis-à-vis the headscarf problem. What is your response to that?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: You mean in Western Europe?
QUESTION: In the U.S. Your government, your administration, is accused of not speaking powerfully enough about the problems of females who are trying to express themselves with their religious beliefs.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Oh, I see, females in Turkey for example. I see what you mean.
QUESTION: Do you consider a headscarf ban a human rights violation?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Oh, good Lord, that question is difficult for me to answer. I can answer it for the United States, okay, that in United States we would never consider a headscarf ban for Muslim women. It would not occur to us. But I cannot express and I should not express an opinion about the Turkish debate because this is a debate going on in Turkish society, which has a different tradition. Look, Turkey is a country debating itself. Turkish democratic society and the democratic political system is debating what it means to be a secular state with a mostly Muslim population and what that means in practice. I've given you an answer as to what it means in America. I can't give you an answer as to what it means in Turkey.
But with respect to religious minorities, yes, we do raise these. Turkey, dating back to the Ottoman period, has a tradition of tolerance. It's famous for it. The Jews were welcomed, or far more welcome in the Ottoman lands than they were in Spain after 1492, for God's sake. The Jews remembered al-Andalusia with great love and affection. And they have found a home in the Ottoman Empire. So it is hardly radical of us to say that we wish Turkey would be welcoming and help ease conditions for the functioning of the Greek Orthodox Church and Ecumenical Patriarch, which is, after all, an institution with venerable roots in the Ottoman period. But I certainly don't want to express an opinion about this debate in Turkey, except to say that this is - like in Turkey as in France - part of a normal debate of a normal democratic society.
QUESTION: Turkey has serious concerns about rising Islamophobia and prejudice against Muslims in the West, especially in Europe, where there are millions of Turks. Do you share those concerns? And are there any plans to increase the profile of U.S. efforts against Islamophobia to the level of, for example, of efforts on fighting anti-semitism?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: I think that's a very fair question. I think there is in Europe a strain of nativism which includes Islamophobia. It is not universal. I don't want to exaggerate it. But, unfortunately, it does exist. We support outreach to the Muslim communities in Europe. We are trying to do more with the Muslim communities in Europe. And I say communities, because there is not one. After all, the Moroccan and Algerian communities are different from the Turkish community, different from the Pakistani communities.
Let me put it this way. Western Europe is grappling with issues of national identity in a world in which the nation state has to accommodate the fact that most nations are multi-ethnic and multi-religious. And yet, at the same time, there are national cultures which should be respected and recognized. And how do you combine that? How do you take the Italianness of Italy and combine that with the fact that Italy is also a multi-religious multi-ethnic country, for example. How is that done in the Netherlands?
We Americans have to be very modest in offering solutions, because we have had our own history of learning to define America as more than just a country of white Protestants. Think of what our civil rights movement was like. It was very bloody; it was very hard; it was very painful. We emerged as a country much more comfortable with a multi-ethnic, multi-religious identity. And now in America, I should add, we are learning to embrace American Muslims as another American religion, as natural and native to America as Judaism and Catholicism and the various Protestant strains of Christianity.
That is why President Bush's initiative to begin Iftar dinners every year at the White House is such a good idea. And why this example of reaching out to Muslim communities is so important. It's an example of American, as we say, mainstreaming; what used to be for most Americans an exotic minority religion, is now making another American religion. Hopefully, in a generation Americans will simply regard Iftar and Eids and some of the fundamentals of Islam as natural as they know the holidays of religions of which they are not a member. The way Jews know about Christmas and Christians know about Passover, it becomes part of the general culture of our general American cultural baggage. It's a good thing. Europe needs to do this, too. Easy to say; hard to do. But it is a challenge.
QUESTION: One of the most important projects to reach out to Muslims is Turkey's EU accession. And it looks like Turkey and the European Union are on a collision course mainly because of Cyprus. On both sides there is increased talk of suspending the full membership negotiations. What is your reaction to that? Any plans or suggestions to prevent this from happening?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: We have supported Turkey's European vocation and its EU membership from the beginning. We continue to do so. We support a fair, just solution to the Cyprus problem acceptable to both communities, and, in the course of that solution, ending the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots. Your Foreign Minister has put forth a plan.
I should add that we support a united Cyprus. We don't support any separate states on Cyprus, and happily the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Mr. Talat, supports this also. And he has shown great courage and vision in supporting the notion of a united Cyprus as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. So this is a good thing, we support it.
It would be terrible if Turkey's accession process were derailed because of this problem. I think Turkey in European Union would be good for Turkey; it would be good for Europe. It would show, it would demonstrate that the fallacy of the so-called war of civilizations, clash of civilizations. It would show that bin Laden is not a Muslim leader, he is simply a fascist fanatic, like other fascist fanatics. We certainly support all efforts to make progress on Cyprus. And we will continue to. And I suspect that Foreign Minister Gul and Secretary Rice will discuss this issue.
QUESTION: Can you say Turkey and the U.S. are on the same page on Iran? And what do you think about the Turkish efforts on Iran?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: Well, the whole world is increasingly on the same page. That is the so called P-5+1, that is the EU-3 - Germany, France Britain - and China, Russia and the U.S. have offered Iran a very attractive, very credible package. We did so on or about June 1. And then Solana went to Tehran and he presented it to Larijani in detail. It is now time for Iran to respond positively. On July 5, Solana and Larijani are supposed to meet. And it is time for Iran to agree to begin negotiations on the basis of this package. Turkey certainly can send strong messages to Iran that the time has come for them to say "yes" to a good offer and help us all move forward. And I certainly think Turkey understands this.
QUESTION: Turkey has also started putting a high-profile effort on trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I understand President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan had a telephone conversation as well.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: They did, they did. It is a very difficult situation. I don't think many Europeans or Turks understands this, but do you know the number of Palestinians who have been killed in the current Israeli operation as of this morning? [Pause] Zero. None. When I was watching CNN or BBC, I had the impression the casualties must have been enormous. Maybe you had that impression, too. Happily, none have been killed.
Hamas must decide whether it is a government of a people on its way to becoming a recognized state, or whether it is a terrorist movement. It can't be both. And Hamas' actions of simultaneously pretending to be a government and allowing rockets to be shot at Israel and then Hamas' military wing engaging in this operation, the kidnap of an Israeli soldier, demonstrates the problem we have. And Turkey, I hope, will be sending very strong signals to Hamas - both in Palestine, but also to Hamas leaders in Damascus - that the world won't let them get away with this.
The tragedy is that Israel is prepared to accept a Palestinian state, we support a Palestinian state, the world is ready for a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians won't build their state. They seem to be unable to get out of the cycle of blood and terror, which is a great tragedy because now the principal obstacle standing between the Palestinians and their state is the quality of the Palestinian leadership. And I don't mean President Abbas, who is in a difficult position and he is doing the best he can.
QUESTION: On Iraq, how optimistic are you that Iraq is going to stay a unified country? And how does it relate to Turkish-American relations?
AMBASSADOR FRIED: From the very beginning, Turkey and the U.S. have agreed that Iraq must remain one country. Federal, to be sure. But one country. Democratic, federal, multi-ethnic, multi-religious. I believe the Iraqi Kurds are prepared to be Iraqis, Iraqi citizens of Iraq. They have the region. In their region there are important issues to work out, like Kirkuk's status, understandably of concern to Turkey. But we and Turkey agree that Iraq must remain one country. And, as Prime Minister Maliki strengthens his government, Turkey will have a stronger, reliable partner with whom it can work with our support on issues such as ending the threat of PKK to Turkey, strengthening the Iraqi state, resolving the Kirkuk issue in a way that will satisfy the needs of Iraqis, Kurds, Arabs, Shia, Sunni and leave Turkey more confident. That's something we work on with Turkey very closely.
QUESTION: Thank you for your time.
AMBASSADOR FRIED: It was a pleasure.
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Released on July 5, 2006