The Arabs and us - TAHA KILINÇ

The Arabs and us

Sultan Selim I had expanded the borders of the Ottoman Empire toward the Arab region with his famous expeditions in 1516-1517 after defeating the Safavid Persians in the Battle of Chaldiran. In a twist of fate, the regions Selim took over through war were also the first regions that broke away from the Ottoman Empire when it started to weaken. First areas of Persia, then – during the era of Muhammad Ali Pasha of Kavala, physically, even if not officially – Egypt, followed by the Arabian Peninsula.

The three countries with which the Republic of Turkey is in serious competition in the Muslim world being Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is, in this context, no coincidence. It is almost as if the historical friction continued subconsciously and accord with the main body could not be achieved.

After the founding of the Republic, we had no connection left with Arab regions other than the Republic of Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's personal contacts with Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi and Jordanian King Abdullah I. Turkey was not in the region during Israel's founding process and the battles and clashes that followed. In response to this, Arabs were not by our side in key matters like the Cyprus issue.

For decades, Turkey read the Arab region through the lobbies in Western capitals. As we followed the region through English and French publications, speaking Arabic or acquiring knowledge of Arabic culture was considered both unnecessary and something to be ashamed of. As a result, our diplomats who went to Arab capitals looked at the countries they were posted in not with the regional reflexes of a Muslim country, but through the perspective of Western countries.

Turkey defended its lack of initiative and standing along the sidelines in matters concerning Arabs during this long and rough period as with the understanding thatbig states do not act quickly in reaction when facing major incidents, they remain calm. Yet, this was nothing other than a confession of emotional and political distance from the region.

Finally, this approach started to change radically since the beginning of the 2000s, especially since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power. We rediscovered that Arabs live in our south, we realized that the problems they are struggling with are actually of close concern to us as well, and that turning a blind eye to these problems does not make us immune.

We reached out to every corner of the region in the rush of having realized we had fallen behind and began striving to regain the opportunities we missed. We have been continuing these efforts for the last 15 years as much as possible.

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In our approach toward the Arab regions, there are certain points we need to take into account as a nation and state. Even the sincerest steps we take without paying attention to these can go down the drain.

First, we need to push further back in our mind the fact that once upon a time we ruled the Arab peoples and their countries. If, in our approach toward them, we are influenced by this subconscious, we will not be able to establish a healthy dialogue. We can imagine what might come to the mind of an Arab who senses an emphasis from us that they broke away from us and have since not been able to make ends meet, so let us rule again so that they find peace. Even if we have something to teach them, we can do this in a language on based on equality and fairness. Also, we have as much to learn from them as we have to teach them.

Quick learning of any knowledge we lack in relation to the Arab world is our second task. We should have experts who speak Arabic and study the region in depth in every aspect. We need to overcome our obsession to identify Arab regions only in terms of their relation to the Ottoman Empire and instead start swimming in the vast ocean of knowledge that stands before us without forgetting that the “outside forces” we complain about dividing us, seriously surveyed this region with all its elements, established institutes and raised historians and diplomats. Note that Turkey is still greatly lacking in terms of having diplomats in the Arab region who are able to communicate with Arabs in their own language.

The third point is that we must stop insisting on reading our regional matters from a political perspective and in light of current breaking news. Regardless of the current state of affairs, we are living right at the center of a wealth – with its past and future – that contains all kinds of surprises. We do not need to wait for political conditions to mature or change to go out and explore and get to know it. There are tons of things that can be done at every stage. I try to point to this by frequently mentioning Jerusalem in this column. Our duty is to think about what can be done under the current circumstances rather than getting stuck on invasion.

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Sezai Karakoç, a Turkish writer, thinker, community leader, poet, gave advice, which I love. He recommends spending one month of every year in the Muslim world, no matter what country. And it does not need to be one whole, uninterrupted month, he says, as long as the Muslim world is tread, persistently and continuously, to learn and to meet people.

Traveling to the region is essential to gain knowledge of Arabs, to broaden existing knowledge and to rid oneself of prejudices. Arab countries must certainly be included on our route, not only for “religious tourism” but also to observe the parts and elements of a vast region, which we are a part of, on site.

The wise man who said, “Traveling will quash bigotry,” spoke the truth.


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