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Turkey for High School Teachers

Speaker: Helena Kane Finn, author, Turkey for High School Teachers
May 3, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


Turkey for High School Teachers
by Helena Kane Finn

Princeton University

Turkey is a country of immense strategic importance to the United States. The Republic of Turkey was created 1923 out of the remnants of the great Ottoman Empire. At its peak, in the days of Suleyman the Magnificent (1494 -1566), the Ottoman Turks ruled the Balkans, much of North Africa and the Middle East including the Yemen and Aden, and parts of Persia. Suleyman was known as Kanuni, or the Lawgiver, because he transformed the judicial system. He was an accomplished poet and goldsmith who introduced dams, aqueducts, botanical gardens, bridges, public baths, and some of the world’s most beautiful architecture in the city of Istanbul.

Empires do not last forever, and by the nineteenth century, Turkey was known in the West as the “sick man of Europe.” Over the centuries, it had lost the territories conquered by Suleyman and gone into a slow decline. At the end of World War I, the great powers of Europe hoped to divide and colonize Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led the people of Turkey in a War of Independence and succeeded in securing a homeland for the Turkish people. Like any former Empire, the population of Turkey was ethnically diverse. People expelled from the Balkans and the Caucasus found refuge there. Ataturk himself was born in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. In an attempt to unify this new country, he emphasized the future rather than the past. Instead of locating the capital in Istanbul, seat of the Sultans, he chose Ankara, a small but ancient city in the middle of Anatolia.

Ataturk wanted to modernize Turkey and to make it truly part of Europe. He introduced reforms that were radical in the context of the times. He believed in the importance of education for all the children of Turkey. He changed the script from Arabic to Latin in an effort to make literacy more accessible to the Turkish masses and to enable Turks to easily learn the other languages of Europe. He introduced laws based on the Swiss and other European civil codes to insure that Turkish law and practice would be compatible with that of the countries of Europe. He separated mosque from state, introducing secularism. In many ways, Turkey is similar to France, with a strong central government and standardized education throughout the country. Perhaps the most important reform that Ataturk sponsored with the liberation of the women of Turkey. He gave women the right to vote and declared them absolutely equal under the law. In this respect, Turkey was far in advance of countries like France and Switzerland where women did not win this right until well after World War II. Ataturk understood that a society in transformation must utilize all its talent regardless of gender.

When we talk about the relationship between Turkey and the United States, we often hear about the Korean War. I would like to go farther back in history, however, and point out that in the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of American schools in Turkey, run by American Protestant missionaries. These missionaries were welcomed by the Ottoman officials. They provided health services as well as education to the children of the Empire. When my own son was a child he asked me once, “if Ataturk was the Father of Modern Turkey, who was the Mother?” Without missing a beat, I answered, “Halide Edip Adivar.”In 1865, Americans founded an institution in Istanbul called Robeli College. Halide Edip Adivar was the first Muslim girl to graduate from Robert College shortly after the turn of the last century. She was a prolific author and an advisor to Ataturk. At one point, they had a falling out and she moved to Paris. She was invited to return to Turkey before her death. Today Robert College exists as a lycee, or high school in Istanbul. Over the past century and a quarter it has educated some of the most influential leaders— diplomats, journalists, politicians—in Turkey.

The strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey goes back to the Korean War. Turkish soldiers fought side by side with Americans. Turkey joined NATO, the OECD, the OSCE and other European alliances. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey was a reliable and stalwart partner of the United States. During the Gulf War, Turkey provided strategic support to the United States and took in a flood of refugees from Northern Iraq. When the situation in Yugoslavia deteriorated, Turkey joined the United States in its efforts to rescue the people of Bosnia and Kosovo. Again, Turkey welcomed fleeing Kosovar refugees and provided not only housing, but education for them in camps that were a model for the world.

When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, Turkey was the first Muslim country to respond with condolences, and not just with condolences, Turkey offered full cooperation in the war on terrorism. From June 2002 until February 2003, Turkey took on the very enonnous and difficult responsibility for ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force). The Turkish soldiers were welcomed and deeply appreciated by the Afghan people.

Over the past few months, there has been much news coverage of Turkey’s reluctance to become involved in the Iraq War. We must remember that throughout the world, there was widespread opposition to this war. This can be attributed to the fact that most people were unaware of the terrible atrocities perpetrated by the regime of Saddam Hussein. As the stories of his horrible oppression emerge, I believe that people will come to see that it is a good thing that this reign of terror is over.

The Turkish public was 95 percent opposed to the Iraq War. They feared damage to their economy, already in difficult straits. They were worried about another influx of refugees. Perhaps most important, they were afraid that removal of Saddam would result in chaos and anarchy in the country next door. For Americans, Iraq is a far away place. Imagine how we would feel however, about a war in Canada or Mexico.

Turkey chose to forego a huge financial package amounting to $30 billion in grants and loan guarantees. On March 1, 2003, by a very narrow margin of only three votes, the Turkish Parliament rejected the u.S. request to transit some 62,000 ground troops through Turkey. Turkey did join the coalition against SaddaIll, pernlitting overflight rights, and providing humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq. However, this dispute has left a residue of discomfort on both sides.

Where do we go from here? The United States is too important to Turkey, and Turkey is simply much too important a country to the United States for either side to allow further deterioration in the friendship. Right now, there are efforts to find ways to reestablish the bonds of mutual trust and loyalty that have long characterized this relationship.

As the United States promotes democracy, secularism, and modernity in the countries of the Muslim world, Turkey remains the most viable model. What is so very important about Turkey is that Turks have done this for themselves. They have never been colonized. They chose on their own to emulate the standards in govemment and education of the countries of the West.

It is essential that Turkey play an important role in the reconstruction of Iraq. As a neighboring country, Turkey understands the region. Proximity permits it to readily become involved in rebuilding Iraq’s damaged infrastructure and economy. There are many Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin in Southeast Turkey. Increased trade and cooperation between this region and Northem Iraq can bring economic stability and development to the entire region.

As for Turkey’s European aspirations, one can only respect and admire the absolute detelmination of the Turks, despite many disappointments and setbacks, to be admitted to the European Union. If Turkey continues in the path of democracy, secularism and modernity set by Ataturk, there can be no doubt that Turkey will ultimately achieve this important goal.

Last summer, the Turkish Parliament passed major legislation granting Kurdish citizens of Turkey greater linguistic and cultural rights. This legislation should be implemented.

The Higher Education Council of Turkey has set high standards for Turkey’s universities. There must be an effort to meet these international requirements. Turks will be competitive in Europe when they have the necessary educational skills. Turks have a future in Europe. Demographics made it obvious that Europe’s aging populations will require an infusion of youth into the work force. Turkey can provide that to Europe, but only if it educates its people properly.

What can the United States do to enhance close ties with Turkey? We should amplify our military, educational and professional exchange programs. When soldiers train side by side, they develop close friendships and a level of understanding that is invaluable. When teachers, researchers and students spend time at one another’s institutions, they acquire a much deeper mutual understanding. This mutual understanding is the foundation of trust. Professional exchange programs would permit government officials, doctors, lawyers, journalists and others to develop networks and partnerships with counterpart institutions and individuals in the other country.

Finally, I think that it would be a tremendous thing if more young Americans were to travel to Turkey with school groups. Twelve civilizations have dwelt in what is now modern Turkey. There is so much to learn about the Hittites, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Selcuks, and the Ottomans, to name but a few. Archaeological sites like Ephesus and Pergamon bring the ancient world to life. In the mosaics of Hagia Sofia or the Kariye Camii, we see the beauty that was Byzantium. The great buildings of the architect Sinan, commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent, such as the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, are among the greatest architectural treasures in the world. I would encourage teachers to find ways for their students to travel to Turkey.

It would also be a wonderful thing if more Turkish high school students could come to the United States. There is a mistaken idea that because we have so many people from around the world amongst us, we do not have to reach out. Remember that the student from Turkey, or Japan, or India whose parents have moved here is now an American. The student who is a guest from Turkey will go back, but go back with an understanding of the American society and culture. When I was in high school, we had three exchange students from Northern Italy. I recall what a fantastic thing it was for us and for them.

Before I close, I would like to say something more general about the whole question of Islam and the Muslim World. There are some 1.2 Billion Muslims on this earth, spread across every continent. Because the attacks of September 11th were perpetrated by a small group of fanatics, there is a tendency now for Americans to be suspicious of anyone with a Muslim name or background. I think we must work very hard to understand better the history and culture of the Muslim world so that we rise above cheap negative stereotyping.

In Spain of the twelfth century there was a glorious Muslim civilization in which Muslim and Jewish scholars produced brilliant poetry and architecture in great harmony. Both groups were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. The Ottoman Sultan took in the fleeing Jews and that explains the extensive Sephardic communities that dot the former Ottoman Empire from Sarajevo to Salonika to Istanbul.

Babur, the Turkic mler who founded the Mughal Empire of India was father to one of the world’s great civilizations. The Mughals were responsible for the world’s greatest work of architecture, the Taj Mahal, built by the Emperor Shah Jehan (1592-1658) for his beloved wife Mumtaz who died in childbirth. During the reign of Akbar, Muslims and Hindus lived in peace and harmony.

The Safavids of Iran were patrons of science and the arts. They produced magnificent architecture and poetry.

I have already mentioned the accomplishments of the Ottoman Turks.

Given such a history, it is understandable that people in Muslim societies today long for the glories of the past. It should be our role to both recognize the enormous significance of their contribution to world civilization, and at the same time to encourage the development of contemporary values through education and dialogue. When we look at the modern Muslim world, we must see it in the context of its own magnificent history. Last summer, a group of Arab intellectuals and scholars put out a report of conditions in the Arab world. They discovered that low educational standards were among the factors that set back economic development and social progress. It is very heartening that these intellectuals and scholars did this on their own. Ultimately, reform, as was the case in Turkey, must come from within. That is not to say that we can’t support the process. We can. You, as teachers, can provide encouragement to people from this part of the world by demonstrating through the lessons you convey to your students that we do understand its rich history and value its extraordinary culture.