For reasons of history, culture and geography, there is a surprising opportunity for Turkey to assume a position of central global leadership in the 21st century and thereby further all of its legitimate national interests.
This is shocking considering the fact that the West and the Arab world often associate the Ottoman Empire with a case study in long-term decay. But it turns out that Ottoman history is replete with extraordinary cultural wealth that is perfect for this moment of history, especially when it comes to the nonviolent diplomatic engagement of multiple civilizations and religions.
This is exactly what the world needs right now. Turkey is where the West and the East must meet, this is where Islam must engage and be engaged, this is where Jews must reconcile with Muslims, and this is where Arabs, Muslims, Jews and Christians must find a new basis for an international social contract between them.
The current divisions are clear, regarding Israel, Palestine and Hamas, for example. It is also clear that Turkey is shifting its traditional role as a non-Arab military power in the region. The prime minister has clearly shifted gears in terms of standing up to Israel's conduct of its war in Gaza, as well as demonstrating a clear willingness to engage Syria, Hamas and Iran, essentially those who the powerful neoconservatives in Washington labeled "the axis of evil." This is a bold and difficult move, but if it is framed in the right way it may place Turkey at the cutting edge of diplomatic practice in the 21st century.
In order for Turkey to resume its historic role as a successful weaver of civilizations and religions it will need to perfect its skills of international diplomacy. The nexus at which Turkey is situated is fraught with difficulty, but also with immense opportunity. The West, Israel and the Arab world are in a place of extreme tension with Iran. The West and at least significant portions of the Arab world are in tension and division with Hamas. The West, Israel and Europe are in a significant -- though more muted -- place of tension with Islamic civilization. Most importantly, much of the world is in great tension with Israeli policies. Turkey has the potential to positively impact all these fronts.
The key to all Turkish engagement must be what I would refer to as ‘positive diplomacy.' Positive diplomacy focuses on opportunities rather than problems, on relationships rather than controversies and on encouragement rather than criticism. Turkey is to be applauded for roundly criticizing Israel's use of excessive force in Gaza because the humanitarian circumstances of the war were extreme. But now it is time to turn the message in a positive direction.
Most importantly, in order to not be blackmailed in Washington by reactionary lobbies that do not want to see peaceful progress in the Middle East, Turkey must jettison old forms of diplomacy that focused narrowly on defense of Turkish pride, especially regarding Armenia and the tragic violence at the beginning of the 20th century.
An integrated set of aggressive strategies is called for. These include: First, a very public engagement and reconciliation with Armenia that is accompanied by significant gestures to Armenian citizens, including possibly official welcoming ceremonies to visit Turkey, commemoration of past life in Turkey and also shared mourning of loss of life; second, an embrace of human needs in Azerbaijan, and a commitment to help Azerbaijan develop a more successful negotiation with Armenia in the future; third, an embrace of Jews, Judaism and Israelis that is very public and builds on past relations but that is combined with a strong embrace of Palestinians and very public efforts to negotiate with Hamas on the foundations of a long-term treaty with Israel; and fourth, an ongoing engagement with Syria and Iran as to the conditions of their engagement with Israel and with the Arab world.
The most important point is that Turkey needs to escape the straitjacket of old defensive diplomacy in Washington that held them hostage to the Armenian issue, and instead reclaim their historical, geopolitical and cultural nobility as a bridge of civilizations, continents and religions. This is where the very progressive Islam that is guiding many Turkish citizens today can be a paradigm of enlightenment and democracy that will put the lie to the reactionary Western -- and extreme Arab -- perceptions of Islamic civilization as violent. Secondly, freed from pressure in Washington by aggressively pursuing a new relationship with Armenians, Turkish leadership will be able to positively engage Jews on their own terms, as they did for centuries, while at the same time calling upon them to engage all Palestinians with dignity, respect and generosity. Turkey is a country that can officially and openly invite hundreds of Israeli professionals and spiritual and cultural leaders to engage in a new relationship with Palestinians on Turkish soil as equals, to engage Muslims, to engage Gazans, to engage Hamas. This could be revolutionary for conflict resolution in Israel and Palestine.
A clever politics can also be a visionary politics. U.S. President Barack Obama has pioneered a politics that combines vision and pragmatism, realism and hope. Turkey can do the same through the venue of its new/old model of enlightened Islamic civilization. Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, for example, is one of the most popular poets in the world today, and Sufis are the pioneers everywhere I go in the Arab Middle East where there are bold young peacemakers. This is the age of Rumi, this is the age of the Sufi visionaries and peacemakers.
If this path is pursued with humility and without arrogance, I am convinced that even the most conservative elements in the Arab world will be challenged and even enticed. No one in the Gulf wants the shadow of Osama Bin Laden to haunt the Arab and Muslim worlds forever. The poison has spread broadly to Central Asia, and everyone fears that this is threatening the fabric of the Muslim social order, while it simultaneously emboldens intolerance of Islamic civilization in the West. We need bold leadership in the Muslim world, we need bold partners to prod with great confidence Israel and its enemies to earnestly pursue a final settlement. No one is situated better than Turkey, and no one will be more grateful than President Obama, the most powerful leader in the world today. Turkey needs to bury its ghosts of the 20th century so that the 21st century will see its return to international glory. The time has come for an Ottoman-inspired enlightenment.
*Published by TODAY'S ZAMAN on Mar. 18.