U.N. conference reveals Turkey’s global importance‚ complexities
Georgia (Feb 1, 2009) — Turkey is uniquely positioned to play a key role in achieving peace and stability in the Middle East and in America’s foreign policy in the region‚ even as it undergoes continuing internal transformation‚ scholars and diplomats concluded during a historic three−day conference Jan. 29−31 at Kennesaw State University.
The Alliance of Civilizations: Turkey at the Crossroads of Cultures international conference‚ cosponsored by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations‚ the Atlanta−based Istanbul Center and Kennesaw State‚ drew more than 200 participants from leading universities in the U.S.‚ Algeria and Turkey.
In conjunction with the conference‚ Kennesaw State signed an agreement to initiate faculty and student exchange programs with Fatih University in Istanbul‚ the first such partnership with a Turkish institution of higher education.
“This agreement and the partnerships demonstrated by this conference is exactly what the Alliance of Civilizations envisioned — to have people get together with other people for intercultural exchanges that lead to practical steps like this new partnership between KSU and Fatih University‚” said Thomas Uthup‚ research manager for the Office of the Secretariat at the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations.
During the three−day conference‚ more than 40 scholarly presentations and talks by Turkish and U.S. diplomats addressed Turkey’s evolution as a secular democracy with a largely Muslim population‚ and as a regional partner with Europe‚ the Caucasus and its Islamic neighbors.
“Turkey is a place where you will need to get over‚ or through‚ to help Georgia‚ support or withdraw forces from Iraq‚ develop alternative supply routes for Afghanistan‚ nudge Russia‚ or build coherent strategy toward Iran or Syria‚” former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Mark Parris said during the keynote address on U.S.−Turkish relations under the Obama administration. “It’s a very important country that belongs to some really good clubs — the U.N. Security Council‚ NATO‚ OECD‚ the IMF and the World Bank‚ and a candidate for the European Union.”
Parris‚ a visiting foreign policy fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington‚ D.C.‚ characterized U.S.−Turkish relations as “sub−prime” under the Bush administration‚ but he was hopeful at the prospects under the new administration‚ given Turkey’s strategic importance.
“Elections in democratic societies are refreshing; new leaders are an opportunity to look ahead‚” he said. “The crisis of the moment for the Obama administration is the economy‚ and they know that history will judge them on how they handle it. But life and geography will get it on their screen in due course. They will find‚ as have their predecessors‚ it’s always easier to work with Turkey rather than around Turkey.”
Turkish officials addressing the conference included Suat Kiniklioglu and Cuneyt Yuksel‚ members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly‚ who will meet in Washington this week with Obama administration officials.
The conference also surfaced some of the complexities that characterize Turkey today‚ such as tensions between conservative and liberal reformists‚ between secular and religious ideologies‚ as well as the country’s policy of cooperation with its Middle Eastern neighbors‚ which some say is at odds with its inclusion into the European Union.
A session on Turkey’s ban on women wearing headscarves in public — one of the conference’s most vigorous discussions — illustrated the dynamics of Turkey’s internal struggles with secular reforms and its cultural and religious identity‚ as did a session on religious education in Turkey.
The headscarf ban‚ imposed at Turkish universities in the 1990s by staunchly secularist forces‚ is viewed by many as an exaggeration of the reforms advocated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk‚ whose principles defined the Turkish nationalist movement in the 1920s and 30s and guided the formation of the Republic of Turkey.
“The very philosophies that created a modern state and improved the status of women‚ giving them the right to vote and participate freely in society‚ are now being used to deprive them of their right to express their religious identity by wearing the scarf‚” said Sandra Bird‚ a Kennesaw State University assistant professor who chaired the discussion on women and gender issues.
The same contradictions are seen in the status of public education‚ according to Ahmet T. Kuru‚ a Columbia University scholar and assistant director of its Center for the Study of Democracy‚ Tolerance and Religion.
“The state includes religious instruction in the schools but excludes religion in the ban on headscarves and the restrictions over Imam−Hatip graduates and Qu’an courses‚” he said. “These contradictions will continue unless there is a decline of societal religiosity and a replacement of assertive secularism by a more passive form of secularism.”
But scholars like Turkey’s Metin Heper‚ a professor at Bilkent University in Ankara‚ see the marriage between Islam and a liberal democratic state in Turkey as evidence of the tolerance that an Alliance of Civilizations requires.
“Most of Turkey’s Muslims are living and practicing religion at a personal level‚” he said. “But they prefer secular politics. That’s why Turkey maintains harmonious relations with all its neighbors‚ Muslim and non−Muslim alike.”
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its approximately 41,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status, and one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.