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The Greater Middle East Project, Democracy in the Middle East and Iran

by Mehmet Gündem on . Posted in Mehmet Gündem's Interview in Milliyet Daily

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What should the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) do during the current process in the Middle East?

The Secretary General is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a sincere man. And this should be turned to an advantage by organizing a large conference. In order to prevent disintegration in the region, they could make themselves heard in the UN, send a diplomatic note to the US asking them to turn back from mistaken (policies), inviting them to peace.

Can Turkey not be effective with her military power?

Our military power has always been remarkable, but Turkey is expected to do more than that. This problem cannot be solved by force. If Turkey intervenes with her armed forces, it will agitate various factions and will turn the people of the region against her. This may harm the "subconscious heritage and credit" of Turkey in the region, which I consider to be a great asset. This asset should not be harmed and Turkey should utilize it in the future recovery of the Middle East.

What would you say about the US plan for a "Greater Middle East"?

They might have thought that there were certain positive things behind this plan. But Turkey, like many other countries, has interests in and her future is very much related with the Middle East, like many other countries. If this plan were to be put into action, then Turkey's views should be asked, as a strategic ally; they should inquire what projects Turkey has? If there is such a plan, and we are not involved in it from the very beginning, then its rules have been determined and planned by others. The design of the plan belongs to others.

Where should Turkey be positioned in this plan?

Is this plan necessary? Do we believe in it? If we do, then Turkey should make clear its invaluable position in the world balance to Russia, the EU, and China, as well. It should be announced that a greater Middle East is only possible with the involvement of Turkey. If this is a real plan, made with good will in order to bring about democracy, then Turkey must look forward to being a part of it, though cautiously, taking care of her interests, and learning about the intentions, the rules of the game, and any further details. Other countries of the region must also be included. Closing the doors completely on this project will cause the game to end not in our favor, and therefore we will not be able to protect our interests.

Do you think the peoples of the Middle East, who have long lived under a dictatorship, can make the transition to democracy upon demand from within? Do you foresee such a thing?

It seems as if it would be so. There are demands for freedom in matters like the expression of thoughts, one's conscience, and employment... They consider themselves to have attained democracy half-way by equal suffrage and elections. They will reach a better level over time. If a democracy as developed as that in some countries of Europe is demanded, then this will not occur quickly.

They can achieve transition to democracy as Turkey once did. I cannot comment on how it was realized in Turkey, what the psychology of the people was like then, or how the public opinion made the decision . . . but it would be a mistake to use compulsion.

No matter how favorable a philosophy is, it should still come from within the nation. Paving the way for it by closing all other doors is construed as an extension of a different kind of dictatorship, and this will cause reactions. In fact, there is a demand to benefit from democratic rights, but people aren't aware of how to obtain this. Some use radical ways, while others are candidates for the administration. There are only a few who seek solutions for the problem through dealing with "humans."

Can Turkey be a model?

Our transition to democracy took place half a century ago, but we are still fixing the cracks and chips. This is a reality of human nature which cannot be ignored. And it will not be easy to establish a motivation for it in the Middle East. My belief is that the blessings that come along with democracy are much more important than the system itself. Perhaps the dictators will have to compromise in order to protect themselves, to avoid confrontation with superpowers and with their own people; thus there will be opportunities for certain rights and freedoms.

Freedom of thought, conscience, expression, employment, and to a certain extent liberalism which is respectful of the individual... these all will develop. A day will come when the people will elect their own administration. Although there does not appear to be full determination for democracy at the present time, the process has started.

Iran signifies a significant period, model or an inspiration for many Islamic movements. What does the Revolution in Iran signify for you? Do you predict a possibility for Turkey to be another Iran?

Like all other revolutions, the one in Iran was also intended to be exported. As this revolution had a religious dimension, some devout people in Turkey-despite being Sunni-sympathized with it, and contacted foreign diplomats of Iran, going there to study in their schools. It was kind of a model, which was in part due to its originality. In the past it was Wahhabis who made use of this originality. No one can argue that they were not influential; on the contrary, the range of their influence extended from Egypt to Canada. But this influence incorporated harsh contents. Sponsored by state funds, they opened mosques, schools, and Islamic centers in the farthest corners of the Far East. On the other hand, schools and cultural centers established by Turkish entrepreneurs could have served as an alternative; but this was not wanted by some people in Turkey. I wish the Turkish state could have realized this. Why shouldn't there be an alternative in those places, why cannot it be you? I have difficulties in understanding this. What it means is that some people never think, rather they have adjusted their mindset only for hostility, fury, and hatred.

Has Iran been successful in exporting the regime?

Iran sought support by exporting the regime. Perhaps the Taliban had dreamed similar visions. When they closed the Turkish schools, they argued, "This is not the right path. The problems must be solved in our way." These are narrow-minded people who think everything will be solved just by coming to office; they speak off the top of their heads without understanding the real problem of humanity. In one way, Iran expressed certain new things and wanted to export them. It cannot be said that their efforts have not brought anything about. I went to Australia in 1992 and I heard that Iran had sent 100 PhD students there just in that year. They sent so many people to other places with their own funding; this is something worth thinking over. Turkey could have done the same thing by sending people educated under Turkey's philosophy and culture to various parts of the world. Lobbies are carried out by sending your own people who believe in the interests of the country to other places. Others lobby not only with ambassadors, consuls, or diplomats.

What are the cons and pros of the Islamic movement in Iran for Muslims?

I had expressed my thoughts about this in some of my sermons: Ayatollahs, who are regarded as mujtahids (a jurist of Islamic law), could have accomplished proximity with the Sunni world by eliminating artificial gaps on matters, matters which are little more than details and which are open to interpretation. Thus, certain incongruous mutual aversions could have been removed and better relationships could have been made possible. After the Revolution, Khomeini established an incredible reputation. Maybe it was exaggerated. I remember reading an article in al-Mujtama, an Arab journal, which was published to commemorate his birthday; Khomeini was very highly regarded there for his accomplishments in the movement he started. This exemplifies the reputation he won then, and someone with this much credit could have solved many problems that arose from mere details. But this has not been done.

Do you think Khomeini pushed away an opportunity for peace with the Sunni world?

I wish he would have stood for peace with the Sunni world. It is their own country where they had the Revolution, so we cannot say anything about that. (But) the fact that they acted for the sake of Islam was not good. Things happened in such a displeasing way that hatred was aroused for Muslims throughout the entire world. The space of activity for those serving the religion with good intentions has been narrowed as an outcome. Today, in every part of the world, people face problems when they speak on behalf of the religion, or when they ask for their right to live Islam individually or with their family. Islam has many aspects which address social life, and they are very beautiful. They don't harm the state or its rules. But those who are after certain opportunities (in their own interests) and who really care for the structure of the state-not only in Turkey-regarded the slightest Islamic movement as being a second Iran. People involved in such movements were called mullahs, perhaps some others were even called Khomeinis.

I don't know whether the Revolution helped the people in Iran, but they caused other Muslims to always be under suspicion. Today all Muslims are under surveillance to see if they have similar aspirations. This suspicion has developed since 9/11 and has become paranoia. The Revolution in Iran has been harmful to Islam.