Dialogue of Civilisations and the Future of the Middle East, St. Petersburg, 9-10 November 2007


delivered by

Mr. Yaşar YAKIŞ,

Chairman of the European Union Commission in the Turkish Parliament

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs

during the seminar

“Dialogue of Civilizations and the Future of the Middle East”

St. Petersburg, 9-10 November 2007.

Mr. Chairman,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and honor for me to address such a distinguished audience. At the outset, I would like to thank and congratulate the Saint-Petersburg State University and its partners for the initiative that they have taken to organize this timely seminar.

The title of our seminar is “Dialogue between the Civilizations”, but what we will actually talk about is religion. For the purpose of our seminar, the distinguishing character of the civilization is the religion.

I will share my comments under the following three headlines:

–         Why the broader Middle East is an important geographical region?

–         Why dialogue is important? and

–         The role of democracy and religion in the dialogue

Why the Broader Middle East and North Africa is an important geographical region? 

The heartland of the Middle East, that is to say the Holy Lands and their strategic approach roads, has been a bone of contention since the times of Crusaders. In other words this region constituted the fault line between Christianity and Islam since more than one thousand years.

In modern times, decades old injustices and inequalities on the one hand and entrenched fears and suspicions on the other nourish prejudice, hate, intolerance, anger and suspicion. Coupled with ignorance or misperceptions about other societies, this has led to the creation of an environment that breeds extremism.

Oil and other natural resources made the region more exposed to threats by external forces who wanted to secure and control their own energy supplies. Oil is the root cause of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the invasion of Iraq by the United States.

The entire Broader Middle East and North Africa is inhabited predominantly by a Muslim population. The lack of satisfactory progress in the Palestinian question that is close to the heart of the Muslim community continues to create a disappointment in the mind of peoples living in this region as well as Muslims living elswhere.

The chaos created by the withdrawal of the Ottoman State from the broader Middle East is not yet brought entirely to an end. Referring to the peace treaty that dismembered the Ottoman State, a British author by the name of David Promkin describes this chaos in his book “A Peace to End all Peace”. Iraq is the latest burning piece of this chaos.

Broader Middle East is an important geographical region, because almost all issues that confront the two civilizations is, one way or another, linked to this region.

Why dialogue is important?

The dominant cultures and belief systems of our times are repelling one another instead of creating a positive synergy. The Middle East is the region where this controversy surfaces more than in any other region of the world.

A genuine dialogue is possible only if there is mutual respect between the parties. If the international community is not capable of tolerating and accommodating cultural differences and plurality, the risks of confrontation will be more imminent in a globalised world.

The asymmetrical warfare that is spreading in modern times, demonstrates that it is difficult to cope with the youth that feel frustrated or humiliated by the party that they consider as “others”.  It becomes more difficult each passing day to guess how the extremists will strike.

Dialogue is the most appropriate means that is likely to pave the way to mutual understanding.

This chapter will not be complete without saying a few words regarding the existing initiatives in this field and the risks of proliferation of initiatives.

The G-8 launched the Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative at a time when it became absolutely necessary to take an action. One may even say that the action was already overdue. The quick action taken by the St. Petersburg State University is all the more welcome for this reason. There are similar initiatives launched elsewhere in the world. It is an indication that the awareness is growing in the world on this subject.

There is also an initiative launched by the Secretary General of the United Nations Organisation. This is an effort to curb the propensity for the deepening of the fault line that divides the Muslim and Christian worlds. Turkish and Spanish Prime Ministers are at present the co-chairmen of this initiative. It aims at facilitating harmony and dialogue by highlighting the common denominators of different cultures and religions.

The ultimate goal is to create a comprehensive coalition that can avert any further deterioration of relations between societies and nations.

As long as the initiatives launched by the others authorities are not a substitute but complementary to that of the UN Secretary General, positive results could be obtained more easily by all of them. 

            The role of democracy and religion in the dialogue 

More democracy is not a precondition for initiating a dialogue between the civilizations. However, dialogue is easier when the parties have more common denominators. For this reason, the introduction of more democracy into the broader Middle East is one of the agenda items.

 Any effort to bring democracy in a country should be preceded by an exercise of taking stock of its past and present. One has to take into account the unpleasant outcome that a premature democracy may cause to the country and to the region. For instance democracy may produce radical governments if the people of that country has radical aspirations. In certain countries of the broader Middle East such unpleasant outcomes were recorded in the past and its reoccurrence cannot be ruled out in the future. Despite this negative experience, democracy should still be the preferred regime, because it is more likely to correct its discrepancies than an undemocratic regime.

Rather than importing a ready made model, democratic trends and institutions that exist in the countries of the region should be supported and their quicker evolution should be facilitated.

            Turning now to the religion, one may say that the religion is the most salient feature of the dialogue of civilizations. Since religion is by definition a divine order, it is not easy to bring innovations into it. Christianity has undergone a reformation movement in the fifteenth century.

Is Islam ready to undergo a similar experience? There are voices raised in certain Islamic countries of the region on this subject. They say that the divine words can not be changed and they do not need to be changed; these words preserve their validity until eternity. However an effort may be made to interpret the same words to better explain the facts of the contemporary life. The technological development that has taken place since the time of the revelations of monotheistic religions made available to individuals so many new materials that divine messages could be made more understandable if these materials are used properly. We cannot guess what type of effects it may have on the dialogue.

            To conclude my remarks, I would like to underline that if a genuine dialogue cannot be initiated between the civilizations, the parties will further drift apart with all its consequences difficult to estimate.

            Thank you for your attention.

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