Turkey: Secularism, International Terrorism and Security, Chatham House, London, 30 January 2004


Chatham House, 30 January 2004

       The title of the lecture that I am going to deliver today is: “Turkey: secularism, international terrorism and security”. Each of these three concepts contained in the title, are wide enough to constitute each the subject of a separate comprehensive conference.

I would like to dwell briefly on each of these three sub-titles and leave more time to the comments that Lord Wallace of Saltaire would like to share with us and also leave more time to your questions.

            Since we are talking about Turkey, my comments on secularism will be secularism as applied in Turkey.

Secularism in Turkey

There is no formal definition of secularism in the Turkish legislation. However, for practical purposes we define it as the separation of State affairs from the religion. Secular character of the Republic of Turkey is a principle enshrined in its Constitution. But secularism in Turkey is more than that. It has become part and parcel of the daily life in Turkey. Members of Parliament take oath by stating that they will remain faithful to the secular principles of the Republic. President of the Republic, political parties or directly affected individuals are entitled to file a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court to nullify any piece of legislation that they believe is in contradiction with the secular principles of the Constitution and the Constitutional Court will do so if it agrees with the claimant. This procedure is utilised in Turkey more frequently than in many other countries.

Furthermore, secularism is a deep-rooted concept in Turkey. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, secularism was formally incorporated in the Turkish legislation as early as three quarters of a century ego. Therefore Turkish people had sufficient time to grasp and digest it. Secondly, even during the Ottoman era, both the rulers and the people of Turkey, were more secular minded than the rulers and peoples of many secular countries of our time. This is the reason why Christians and Jews were able to preserve their religious identity for several centuries in the Ottoman State which was regarded as a theocratic State.

The Turkish Constitution of the republican era provides that “No law in Turkey can be in contradiction with the secular principles of the Constitution”. This provision is exactly the opposite of what is provided in the Constitution of many other secular countries with predominantly Muslim population. You come across in their Constitution, provisions which stipulate, for instance, that “No law in that country could be in contradiction with the principles enshrined in the (Holy books). 

Both “Secularism in Turkey” and “International terrorism”, appear in the title of this conference. But is there a connection between these two concepts? In the context of Turkey, there is a connection between these two concepts. Firstly, because Turkey is sometimes chosen as a target country by the international terrorism for being a country with a predominantly Muslim population, but with a secular regime. Secondly, because Turkey may play a positive role in eliminating the alienation between Muslim and Christian worlds.

Secularism has always been a very important concept for the contemporary world, because it may contribute to reduce the tension stemming from the religious differences between nations. Secular countries are expected to put aside more easily their religious differences and solve their problems without religious bias.

Misperception regarding Islam and its Connections with Terror

I now turn to growing misperception in the Western countries regarding Islam and its connection with terrorism. After the terrorists attacks carried out against the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001, a tendency emerged in the Western media to qualify as Islamic terror any criminal act perpetrated by a Muslim. Western media did not use a careful language to describe these terrorist attacks. Sufficient attention was not paid to distinguish between mainstream Islam and extremists. In my view, it is wrong to characterize as Islamic terror, all terrorist acts perpetrated by a Muslim individual or group, as we do not characterize as Christian terror all acts perpetrated by a Christian individual or group. Such an attitude will alienate and antagonize Muslims who oppose such terrorist acts. In other words, western media creates unnecessarily new enemies, while it should be doing the opposite.

 Furthermore, the US led coalition’s military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq sharpened the mutual misperceptions between Muslim and Christian worlds. Huntington’s theory of “Clash of the Civilisations”, contributed to the spreading of these misperceptions, because these important developments in the field of terrorism took place only a few years after the publication of the famous book of Huntington.

These misperceptions need to be eliminated, because, while we should be trying to narrow the gap between the Christian and Muslim worlds, they will widen even further the fault line dividing these two worlds.

International Cooperation to combat terrorism

I now turn to the need for international cooperation to combat terrorism. International cooperation is a prerequisite for an effective fight against terrorism. There are several impediments to put up such cooperation. The most important impediment is the absence of common definition of international terrorism. The reason for this is that some countries do not perceive terrorism the way the others do.

            Scores –if not hundreds- of definitions were, so far, proposed by scholars to describe terrorism. Various types of terrorisms are identified. They could be actor-based, victim-based, cause-based, means-based or based on a variety of other elements. One may develop a definition based on the element which he believes is the most important.

            Some define it in a very superficial but pragmatic way by saying that “terror is the violence that we do not approve”. There are other experts who say for terrorism “I know it, when I see it” and, to combat it, they utilize a criterion which is known by themselves only. Others believe that, too much theory in identifying terror prevents the flexibility that is necessary in the fight against terror. There is logic behind all three approaches, but it does not lead us to a common ground for international cooperation.

            The distinction between freedom fighters and terrorists constitutes the biggest obstacle that prevents the international cooperation.

Another reason which is never publicly admitted is the national interest. Countries that may have agreed on a common definition may still be reluctant for cooperation, in case they believe that such cooperation may harm their national interests. It is difficult to force a country to cooperate with another country when there is such a legitimate excuse.

Sometimes, terrorist organisations negotiate with host countries by threatening them that they will harm the national interest of the host country in case they cooperate against them with another country. You may easily figure out how the terrorists will feel strengthened when they see that the host country gives in upon such blackmail.

            The attacks to twin towers, the military intervention carried out by the US led coalition in Afghanistan and later in Iraq and local reaction to these interventions brought new elements to our perception of terrorism. Combating terrorism by waging a full-fledged war is a new phenomenon. These   developments may require a new definition of terrorism, but it may be premature to do it, at this stage, before we see how things will be settled ultimately.

            Perhaps, at the end, we will arrive at the conclusion that a comprehensive definition that will cover all types of terrorist acts is neither possible nor advisable. Terrorism or -for the purpose of our conference today- international terrorism may be the generic name of a group of acts that we cannot name otherwise. Therefore, countries will most probably cooperate in combating terror whether they agree or not on a definition, and, in case their national interests require so, they will avoid cooperation even if they agree on a common definition.

             International cooperation is important for two reasons: Firstly, if the nestling of terrorists is tolerated in one country, it is difficult to eradicate it. Secondly, the cooperation is at the same time a demonstration of solidarity between countries and this will be an additional element of dissuasion for the terrorist.

            Turkey is cooperating closely with the United Kingdom in combating terrorism. But I wish I could say same thing for many other member countries of EU. The degree of reluctance shown by some European countries in cooperating with Turkey is at a surprising level.

            Terrorist attacks in Istanbul

I would like to say a few words on the terrorist attacks carried out in November 2003 in Istanbul against a synagogue and later against the office of the British General Consulate and the headquarters of the local branch of the London based HSBC bank.

One of the persons who masterminded the attacks was caught and brought to justice. There is little information that transpired from the investigations, because the legal procedures are still under way.

 When we consider these three targets together, one may draw the following conclusions:

–          The synagogue could be regarded as a symbol of the enemies of Arabs and of Islam in general;

–          British Consulate and HSBC may have been chosen as a target because of anti-Western feeling in general and the British involvement in Iraq in particular;

–          Turkey may have been chosen as a location for these attacks, because of its secular regime and its Westwards oriented policy.

We will know more when the court hearings will be completed.

The attitude taken by many countries, including the United Kingdom, was criticized by the Turkish authorities. Because, after the terrorist attacks in Istanbul, they issued a travel advice, calling their citizens not to visit Turkey. Such an attitude is tantamount to contribute to the fulfilment of the goals of the terrorists. Because, one of the goals of the terrorist gang is to make an impact whatsoever. Depriving Turkey from the influx of tourists is an impact. Fortunately the UK withdrew this travel advice after a short while. Furthermore, UK showed more solidarity with Turkey after these terrorist attacks. For instance, while some member countries of EU used these attacks a an excuse not to admit Turkey to the EU, UK took the opposite attitude and pointed out why this must be regarded as an additional reason to admit Turkey to the EU.

Terrorism and Security

Now, I turn to the sub-title “Security”. In the context of this conference, I am going to talk of what is called “soft security”. In other words, we are not dealing here with hard security or defence.

Can terrorist attacks upset public order or internal security in Turkey? I believe that, in a country of the size of Turkey, terrorist attacks cannot disturb easily the security in a significant manner. The effects of such attacks will not be much different from the effects of an IRA bombing in London or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have a proverb in Turkey which says that “the fly is a small insect, but when it fall into your soup it will give you nausea”. In other words, we do not want to see any terrorist act being perpetrated in Turkey, but if it happens, the country will not be affected to a sizeable extent. In fact, the effect of the Istanbul bombing on stock exchange has been negligible in Turkey.

I would like to summarize my remarks by pointing out that Turkey, as a secular country with a functioning democracy, could constitute a bridge between East and West, between Muslim and Christian worlds. Without international cooperation it is practically impossible to combat terrorism. Whether we agree on a common definition of terrorism or not countries should do their best in order to cooperate, rather than trying to invent excuses in order to avoid cooperation.

                        I thank you for your kind attention.

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