Written by Thomas Seibert
Addressing Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, his Spanish counterpart, and about 2,500 other guests in Istanbul at a celebratory iftar meal on Monday, Mr Erdogan said: “No culture, no civilisation should belittle the other, despise the other or see the other as an enemy.”
Mr Erdogan and Mr Zapatero, leaders of a Muslim nation and a Catholic country, respectively, that both suffered from serious attacks by extremists – Istanbul in 2003 and Madrid in 2004 – are partners in and co-sponsors of a UN project called Alliance of Civilisations, which was formed in 2005. The alliance “aims to improve understanding and co-operative relations among nations and peoples across cultures and religions and, in the process, to help counter the forces that fuel polarisation and extremism”, according to the mission statement on the initiative’s website.
Under Mr Erdogan’s government, Turkey has started to play a more active role on the international stage in recent years, pushing for membership in the European Union and cementing its alliance with the United States while at the same time deepening its ties with the Islamic world without giving up its close relationship with Israel. Ankara won praise recently for facilitating indirect talks between Israel and Syria. After clashes between Georgia and Russia in August, Mr Erdogan suggested the formation of a new Caucasus alliance as an instrument of conflict prevention and resolutions.
In the Alliance of Civilisations, Mr Erdogan has emerged as a leading representative of the Islamic countries, said Semih Idiz, a foreign policy columnist with the daily Milliyet. As a politician with roots in political Islam and leader of a party that has many pious Muslims among its voters, Mr Erdogan is very sensitive to what he sees as western prejudices towards Muslims, Mr Idiz said.
“Islamic countries are watching closely what he does,” Mr Idiz said about Mr Erdogan’s role in the Alliance of Civilisations. “He is a sort of spokesman, representing the Islamic world in the platform.”
But at the same time Mr Erdogan had to take into account that he himself had to take “brave steps”, Mr Idiz said. After the murders of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and of three Christians in the central Anatolian town of Malatya last year, the Erdogan government was criticised for not being outspoken enough in its condemnation of the killings.
In his speech at the iftar on Monday, Mr Erdogan stressed the need for a dialogue without prejudices.
“The principle mission of the Alliance of Civilisations is an effort to understand each other correctly,” he said. The fear of Islam that has spread in the West, a development he called a “paranoia”, makes it harder to reach that aim, he said.
“The fear called Islamophobia is a pathological state of mind, as the name says,” Mr Erdogan said in his speech, according to reports in Turkish newspapers and television stations. “We expect members of other civilisations to declare Islamophobia a crime against humanity, especially while we say that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity.”
Mr Erdogan has criticised the West for harbouring “Islamophobia” before, saying that Muslims felt “under siege”. But this time, the prime minister went further, accusing the West of trying to define values of a global civilisation all by itself.
“We think that civilisation is global, and that civilisation cannot be interpreted like an ideology that belongs to the West,” he said. After a first international forum held in Madrid in January this year, the Alliance of Civilisations will hold its second forum in Istanbul in April. Mr Idiz said the platform had become a vehicle to defuse tensions between the West and the Islamic world.
“We saw that after the cartoon crisis,” he said, referring to the anger in the Islamic world after the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed by a Danish newspaper in 2005. At a meeting in Doha in Feb 2006, members of the alliance discussed ways to calm the waters after the crisis.
In his speech at iftar, Mr Zapatero promised his country’s continuing support for Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European Union, the only such application by a predominantly Muslim nation.
“With the membership of Turkey, we will have a much stronger European Union,” Mr Zapatero said. Spain is one of the few EU states that support Turkey’s applications, while the governments of such other big EU nations as France and Germany have voiced reservations about giving membership to Turkey. Membership talks started in 2005 and are expected to last at least another six years.