Turkey sets model for democracy despite cultural divides

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Journalist Abdülhamit Bilici discusses the role of Turkey shaping the Middle East during a lecture in the Texas Union Building on Tuesday.

Photo Credit: Kiersten Holms | Daily Texan Staff

The Turkish nation’s rich history plays a huge part in its future as a leader of the Middle East, said Abdülhamit Bilici, Turkish journalist and general manager of Cihan News Agency in a discussion hosted by the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and the Raindrop Turkish House on Tuesday.

The talk emphasized the importance of Turkey’s historical experiences over the past millennium of dealing with neighboring countries, minorities, secularism and nationalism.

“I hope you will not limit your questions and concerns to the latest breaking news in the Middle East,” said Jeannette Okur, a lecturer in the Middle Eastern Studies department.

The talk was meant to delve deeper into Turkey’s importance to the region than what is usually heard in an everyday context dominated by recent headlines, Okur said.

The audience obliged Okur’s request and an interesting discussion about Turkey’s emergence as a bridge between the Middle East and the West followed.

“There is no other country in our region on good terms with the Islamic world, the Middle East and also on good terms with the European Union,” Bilici said.

Bilici acknowledged Turkey’s civil tensions between opposing political groups that plagued the country and believes this is what has made the country a model for potential problems that may occur in other nations in the Middle East. He said since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the nation has been subject to a struggle between nationalists and secularists on one side and the religious and minority groups on another. Despite restricting regulations, the people managed to maintain their individual identities, he said.

“With the hard-line interpretation of secularism, they banned teaching the Quran,” Bilici said. “They banned Hajj, but people did not forget to make it a part of their lives. There is a difference between the people’s approach and the official approach.”

According to Bilici, the people’s voice played a role in Turkey’s development, as the nation transformed from a country run by a nationalistic government into a place where importance on the individual began emerging. Bilici said the nation’s television network is an example of the move away from nationalism. He said Turkish television in 1990 consisted of one state-run channel, but more than 200 channels are broadcast in the country today.

“This was unimaginable,” Bilici said. “Small people could be very strong voices.”

The passing of the Arab Spring, the recent uprisings throughout the Middle East, has many nations that could emerge as democracies looking to Turkey as an example of a government able to function despite cultural divides, said Bilici. Eighty-five percent of people surveyed in the Middle East looked to it as a model of government in 2010. People within the nation also expect Turkey to be a negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.

“Seventy-five percent of Turkish people are expecting Turkey to have a major role in bringing a settlement between Israel and Palestine,” Bilici said.

Turkey’s role as a proponent of Western-style democracy that merges with traditions of the Middle East excites Middle Eastern Studies senior Amelia Pittman, who is interested to see how Turkey will emerge following the Arab Spring.

“It’s always been a midway point between the West and Middle East,” Pittman said. “It’s not completely European and not completely Middle Eastern. Turkey has a strong voice. It’s a very significant country, and I’m interested in where it goes from here.”