East and West

Article: The Grand Myth of 'Muslim Community' in the UK

Published by Christian Today, 26 January 2014 

It is a common language. Many people in the UK, including some Muslims, use it. It saves time and energy in media conversations and most importantly helps to fit a thought into 140 characters of Twitter wisdom. Yet it is horribly misleading and potentially harmful.

It is misleading because there is no such thing as "the Muslim community" in the UK. There are Muslims for sure. Yes, Islam as a shared religion with its religious holidays and activities link Muslims, but they are not a single community. There are countless diaspora networks, some small neighbourhoods where people of similar ethnic origins live in close proximity, and a lot of different mosques and myriad Muslim organisations.

Migration patterns might give more numerical precedent or visibility to some groups, but substantial numbers of British Muslims are just like substantial numbers of British Christians. They dwell in multiple networks at work, school, personal life and religious involvement. They might or not be attending a local church (read mosque). They might be praying on their own, listening to sermons on line, and may be dropping in at a church for special days like Christmas and Easter (read Eid).

Some might be Anglicans (read Muslims that are in organised denominations with formal clerical structures), or like free Evangelicals (read mosques centred on a single minister). Some are like the Emergent Christians, (read Muslims who are on a spiritual journey and find it difficult to fit into a formal mosque). Some might cherish their ethnic heritage, go to family reunions, or it might be that they are a nuclear family and really have no enchanting large weddings but a civil registry and no 'exotic' migrant background.

 This poses some serious questions on people we see on our televisions as 'community leaders' and 'spokespersons' for Muslims, or our perceptions of an organised and organic block called 'the Muslim community'. In fact, we mostly see British Muslims with Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins put in such roles, but never British Muslims with Cypriot, Nigerian, Turkish, Somalian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, or Syrian origins. There are rather a lot of them too. Not many of us know why someone calls themselves a sheikh, or why they are called a 'leader' and whom it is they are leading or who is following them.

We would not dare to think that a single Anglican vicar could speak for Anglicanism, let alone British Christianity. And rightfully, we would laugh if someone referred to a 'British Christian Community'. We Christians believe in the 'holy catholic church' with a small c, and being members of the Body of Christ. But we do know that the theological belief and aspiration in no way captures the reality. Christians come in all shapes and sizes, in all political and theological views, with many cultural backgrounds. Christianity becomes the umbrella for all of us to remain under, made possible by certain theological basics we share.

That is the same for Islam and Muslims. Yes, Islam speaks of an umma, and unity of Muslims. But while Muslims might see a global affinity with other Muslims, in reality, umma is only an elusive longing at best. In reality even though there is an umbrella of basic tenets of faith in common, Muslims are as fragmented and as disconnected from their co-religionists as anyone else in the world. Differences of language, politics, culture, theology and personal differences are very real.

When we apply to Muslims what we would never apply to ourselves, the issue goes beyond being simply an intellectual failure. We are effacing and dehumanising up to 3 million Brits who are Muslims, lumping them into a tiny box that is not there, burdening them with a responsibility for all other Muslims which we'd never place on ourselves for all other Christians out there.

We want the world to be simple. We want to be able to have clear lines. We want to be able to have a structure where we can go to engage. Thus, we burden British Muslims with our own shortcomings, demanding apologies from them for things they have nothing to do and asking them to "sort their community out" when the community they are part of is actually the British Community, which includes you and me, thus, ironically, burdening us with a lot of sorting out too.

What the UK can do to advance religious freedom worldwide

Published by

29 October 2014

The developments in the Middle East over the last three years have brought home the points which many experts and practitioners have been making: persecution on the basis of religious belief and affiliation is increasing in the world. It is affecting every faith community and those with no faith,  fuelling a wide range of interrelated problems from radicalisation to violent conflict, with direct impact on UK domestic concerns such as increasing numbers of asylum applications and faith community relations.

Now, articles calling for an immediate UK response to religious freedom can be seen emerging from all corners of the political and social spectrum. Whilst these articles stem from good intentions, they suffer similar shortcomings.

Often they start from domestic political and religious positions with a wide range of unspoken anxieties about particular religions or the overall place of religion in today’s world. Most of the time they lack a grounded understanding of local contexts in which religious persecution happens, and lapse into reductionism, seeing a particular religion as the root cause of all that we see unfolding before us.

They also lack awareness of global trends and mirror-image developments in Africa, Asia, and even Europe, that make such reductions of the issue down to a single religion rather shallow. Most worryingly, such articles often ascribe no agency whatsoever to persecuted communities themselves and what they can do and how they can respond in the short and long term to address factors leading to persecution.

One can easily list the causes behind these failures; very few academics actually study religious freedom and religious persecution in the UK, let alone teach it as a course. Hardly any British think-tank has ever conducted a proper study and developed a thought-through policy proposal for the Government besides the myopia of countering violent extremism.

Religious freedom advocacy groups also play their part in this failure: the vast majority are mono-faith organisations, primarily working to advance the rights of their own co-religionists, which is ultimately counter-productive and fraught with ethical shortcomings.

Most importantly, their work is primarily reactionary. They document, lobby and raise the profile of cases of persecution with little reflection provided on the very modus operandi of religious freedom advocacy and its future. One can forgive this shortcoming due to the simple fact of limited resources, and, most importantly, chronic ignorance over these issues for decades by mainstream human rights groups, with notable exceptions such as the Minority Rights Group.

The truth is, long before ISIS brought the conversation onto centre stage, increased attention was already being given to the topic within the FCO and British Parliament. The FCO’s human rights team has increased its reporting on these issues and provided training opportunities to British diplomats on religious freedom. At the parliamentary level, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom has silently achieved what has never before happened in the UK: it brought a wide range of political figures from different faith and belief backgrounds to raise the issue within the UK political establishment.

Yet this is not enough. While there is merit in the calls for the appointment of an Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, inspired by the US model, experience from that same model shows how ineffectual this can be. Similarly, given that the US diplomatic machinery produces two sets of excellent reports every year on the situation of religious freedom in most countries in the world, there is no reason for the UK to re-invent the wheel and increase its own reporting.

What the UK government can do, and must do, is to carry the religious freedom conversation forward at home, in the EU and the wider international community. The unique contribution the UK government can make to this end is to focus its attention on the proactive aspects of religious freedom advocacy.

First of all, the religious freedom issue must be taken together with all of its interrelated aspects, from conflict to stabilization, good governance, human rights and humanitarian crises and public diplomacy. This would mean that religious freedom would not continue to be simply a conversation between the FCO and concerned Members of Parliament, but it would directly involve DFID, the Home Office and the Prime Minister’s office.

Secondly, this is a truly complicated issue that demands a wide range of expertise, ranging from specific country and issue experts, to human rights advocates, programming and foreign policy specialists. This is not simply an issue of gathering faith-based NGOs and clergymen to express goodwill. The UK must have its own mechanism in which ongoing issues are analysed and pro-active policy proposals are developed and synchronised across UK government structures.

Thirdly, the UK government must genuinely put its weight behind such a mechanism by directly allocating funds that can be deployed for strategic programmes across the world, and to enable direct access to high-level policy makers across UK state structures. Otherwise, sadly, all these well-intentioned calls for a response, and the clearly-expressed desire of the Government to increase its attention to this issue will be included in the increasingly long list of superficial conversations, when the stakes have never been higher.

Turkey beyond Islamism and Authoritarianism

Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 04 September 2013

As protests spread and grew first in Istanbul, then in other parts of the country, we all struggled to conceptualize what we were witnessing. Many in Turkey opted for clear and neat narratives, which often left out other aspects of the protests and burdened events with legendary meanings ascribed onto them.

A significant portion of commentary on Turkey in international media was by and large repetition of old positions with new 'proofs' found in protests themselves and Turkish government's handling of them. Many saw the fulfillment of long prophesied Turkish lapses on spectrums of Islamism-secularism or democracy-authoritarianism.

The resulting cacophony demonstrated that we were witnessing a new era in Turkey, and our intellectual tool kits were simply insufficient in making sense of it. Intense language of debates in Turkey and angry outbursts of emotions only helped to cloud our vision.

We had faced a similar situation in 2002, when the lenses we used to analyze Turkey hindered us from realizing that emergence of Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey was far from victory of Islamism as we know it, but its end. The AKP was representative of a new paradigm for Islam inspired politics that blended historical romanticism, cultural identity with open markets and global integration. It had emerged from the rubble of collapsed Islamist movements and managed to move beyond their legacy.
Gradually, mainstream analysis caught up with what Turkey was going through. Many came to see a dynamic reconfiguration of power relations, socio-economic classes, place of religion in political and public space and balancing of military's involvement in politics. Finally, a 'model' Muslim-majority country was emerging with its unique way of attempting to adjust to the twenty-first century.

However, the AKP's performance took an interesting turn after the 2011 elections. The party's reform and the drive toward European Union accession began to be questioned. Worrying political steps and emotive public statements on issues that came to symbolize Turkish culture wars, such as alcohol and abortion, began unsettling the trajectory we foresaw for Turkey after 2002.

With increasing concern over freedom of expression and media and bold statements by government officials, many feared that Turkey was losing all that it has achieved since 2002. Yet, the tectonic build up that reached a breaking point during the summer of 2013 was no return to old Turkey. That is why reading through most commentary felt like going through the blurry test lenses one tries on at an optician before finding the right one.

The story of where we are now had began by the start of early 2000s, even before the AKP was on the scene. The Turkish public was discontent and in search of a new politics and social vision. The AKP’s genius, and hence the source of its wide appeal, was not religion or ideology but the instinctive realization of a vision that hit all the right notes. The party sought EU membership yet remained faithful to conservative culture, focused on economic growth yet enhanced social services.

The AKP quickly garnered unexpected levels of votes. The old regime and other political actors—now squarely in the opposition—attempted to stop Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rise. But their old tricks backfired. With each passing year, the clear-cut power and social structures of 'old' Turkey crumbled, as did the narratives that anchored such institutions.

Nothing was left untouched, from Ataturk to the events of 1915. Tenuous issues like Kurds, headscarves, and the nature of Turkishness became intensely debated publicly, openly challenged, and officially altered.

The old elite and the new government clashed, shifting Turkey's rigid top to bottom political and cultural hierarchy to a polarized battle of equals. Now, those segments of Turkish society that were previously 'looked down' upon—average folk who live outside of Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara—were claiming equal ownership of every previously protected arena: culture, consumption, economy, employment, academy and media.

Within that, two cultural waves swept the country. On one hand, a positive outlook was expressed through new soap operas, restaurants, boutique hotels, house decorations, and clothing; romanticism over a long lost Ottoman heritage was blended with contemporary aspirations and tastes. On the other hand, there was a deep panic, anxiety and fear, full of conspiracy theories, weekly doomsday prophesies and a genuine mourning over an imagined fall of the once grand Turkish Republic.

Turkey was now truly showing signs of late-modernity: the modern nation-state was reconfiguring itself with all the stressful alterations this causes to individuals and society at large. For the first time since the creation of Republic of Turkey, solid and fixed horizons and clear and neat boundaries—and most importantly the powers that maintained it coercively—were melting away.

Increasing consumption and prosperity demands were being generously met. Social services were being successfully advanced to meet a demanding consumer public. However, each attempt by the AKP to undo decades long issues caused by the strong nation-state legacy, such as the grievances of Kurds, Alevis and women with headscarves, caused wide stress and anxiety in parts of Turkey where these issues were hardly seen as a ‘problem.’ Similarly, each AKP foreign policy adventure, which took Turkey to places the country had never been before, was met by excitement by some and grave worries by others.

The AKP unsuccessfully attempted to offer a new uniting narrative, an anchorage for a fast changing Turkey with appeals to heritage and traditional values. Yet, none of the efforts to develop a unified Turkey 2.0 vision eased the building tensions. For the AKP, however, the future looked bright with the record breaking results of the 2011 elections, utter absence of opposition parties and weakened pressure of the EU accession talks. But, it was a deceptive brave new world.

The AKP quickly found that even though it indeed enjoyed high vote rates and no competitor, it could not simply enjoy the same level of power that the system it fought against once had. Thanks to its own reforms, neither the public nor the realities of where Turkey was could go along with it. Thus, what we saw in the party’s 2012 and 2013 performance was not the ‘mastery phase’ that the prime minister had launched.

On the contrary, we saw increasingly weak attempts to exercise sovereignty. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s public tone and stand often gave the aura of harsh words of a strong man; in actual terms, they were anxious attempts to hold on to a power which is no longer possible in Turkey. Within that feeble position, politics of culture and public morality provided a sense of legitimate power base.

Autonomous state power has slowly disappeared, and power could only be provided by unshaken commitment of a substantial constituency and complex web of relations with the business world and interest groups. Now that Turkey was a country of consumers and suffered from the well-known postmodern curse of fragmented and absent ideologies, the emotive politics of culture was the only rallying point left both for the AKP and its mimesis die-hard ‘secular’ opposition.  Thus alcohol or building of a mosque became hyped symbolic battlegrounds over the soul of Turkey.

This difficulty of managing the new Turkey with ease, as well as socio-psychological turbulence of living in a country of constant change, became all the more apparent as the historic process of talks and agreements with outlawed Kurdish militant group PKK began. Beyond the smoke screen of ‘laicete versus Islam’ tension, the PKK peace process was an actual challenge and caused wide worries among Turks. Many Turks saw the AKP's gestures towards PKK and plans to end a decades long low-scale armed conflict as ‘selling out.’

Therefore, even though what we saw in Turkey during June and July 2013 looked to be truly chaotic outbursts of so many different grievances, aspirations, worries and reactions, on some level it made perfect sense. The social and political hierarchies that held these relations intact and dealt with them in far away places from the eyes of ‘modern’ Turks were no longer there. And each AKP attempt to utilize old-state tricks with heavy-handed social control only made things worse. Deep polarization and often unnamed or unfocused anger now dominated the public space.

It might be counterintuitive, but these developments are ultimately promising signs that, for the first time, Turkey is facing the challenge of democracy after decades of keeping all of the unprocessed issues under the carpet. Turkish state's strong micro-management had only postponed this inevitable stressful reckoning with all of the unresolved tensions.

The events of June and July also revealed the Achilles heel of Turkish success story: a weak democratic culture. All sides unleashed intense accusations and derogatory slurs in the utter absence of thoughtful public engagement. Any view beyond ‘either/or’ or any person who is not with ‘us/them’ became intolerable even for individuals who have often followed a liberal course. Thus, wholesale support or condemnation of AKP and Erdogan were the only options in Turkey this summer. Erdoğan was either the savior of Turkey or the new Hitler.

What has been demystified this summer is not simply Erdoğan or the AKP, but the state of Turkey and the Turkish public at large. It became clear that the modern nation state that had promised to be our ‘father’ and manage the state’s affairs on our behalf has left us ill equipped to be democratic ‘adults.’ It seemed that all of our glittering advancements or perceptions of our place in the global arena were beyond our actual capacity as a society to cope with plurality.

It is no surprise that many domestic and foreign readings of Turkey seemed only right to a certain extent, but not quite right. Turkey is confusing to capture, because she is confused herself. The country is going through a liminal phase, which heightens emotions and reactions. Even the most common policy issues or unconnected incidents across the country quickly turn into a Manichean battle between light and darkness.

How Turkey will come out of this new uncharted territory is not clear. As the country is gearing towards local and presidential elections in 2014, it is highly likely that we will see more protests, angry outbursts and intense public discussions. When they do happen, we'd do well by seeing them as signs of a healthy but painful process Turkey is going through and take the hyperbolic descriptions and analysis of events with a grain of salt.

Time to worry: Turkey is becoming USA!

Published on Huffington Post, 6 June

Over the last ten years, we have seen countless articles and discussions, ranging from academic all the way to ridiculous, comparing Turkey to a wide range of countries.

On the top of the list comes Iran. Turkey has been continually likened to Iran, in the sense that soon the conservative Muslim party would take over and declare a theocracy. Some saw, more of a slow approach and a sinister Islamization project.

Then came the post-religious perspectives and argued that Turkey is now becoming a Russia with her own Putin, business and media relations and harsh clamp down on free speech. We are still waiting for hunting and bear-fighting pictures of PM Erdogan.

There is one country Turkey has never been likened to, and yet, the more closely I follow the developments in Turkey, the more I see how valid it is to point out: Turkey is becoming like the USA after 10 years of AK Party rule.

What makes me to come up with such a ridiculous observation?

In Turkey, just like in the US, we now have two opposing cultural and political poles. A person is either forever a Republican or a Democrat. You have no option but to remain so even tough secretly you might agree with some policies of the other.
In Turkey, just like in the US, these two political allegiances are not simply matters of policy but reflect a complex web of cultural preferences, views, beliefs and geographical location. Categorical loathing between the two are a given.

In Turkey, just like in the US, cultural and religious sensitivities of the two poles show themselves in symbolic causes that reflect their preferences. What is gun control debate in US, is what alcohol debate in Turkey is.

In both countries, religion is dominant, but not desires for a theocracy, but public morality and certain 'red-lines' that needs to be there. Yet what exactly they are is a contention between the two poles. In both countries, underlying socio-psychological patterns make even the most mundane discussions on healthcare, city planning and fiscal policy a cosmic battle for the soul of the nation, when it really is not.

In both countries, wearing a flag-pin, or adoring your house or Facebook with the flags is the measurement of how much you love your country and lack of it is a clear sign of lack of patriotism. In both countries, only one of the two worlds see themselves as reflecting the true American spirit or Turkishness. In actual terms, for the outsiders they both look American and Turkish enough.

Both countries believe that every nation on earth looks up to them with envy and love and yet at the same time everybody is working to undermine it. Both countries suffer from a cognitive dissonance between their national 'myths' of founding fathers and values and facts of their history and current status.

Most importantly, in both countries their governments evoke strong feelings. While Obama is the best thing since sliced bread for some, finally bringing true American values, for others he is a closet Muslim and socialist destroying American spirit. That is identical to how Turks are divided over Prime Minister Erdogan.

If you have been troubled by my straw man representation of both countries and shallow comparisons, you are right. USA is not Turkey, Turkey is not USA. But you should have felt the same way for thousands of articles that told you Turkey is an Iran, Russia, Egypt if not Gaza. The bottom line is this; let Turkey be Turkey and start using its actual name, Turkiye.

Shariah in Times of Political Change

Published by Today's Zaman, 24 April 2012

As calls for the adoption of Shariah grow louder across the Middle East and North Africa, many people are frightened. Yet what is frightening is not the prospect of Shariah itself, but the political immaturity of the new actors calling for it and the possibility that they might repeat certain mistakes characteristic of previous hasty reintroductions of Islamic jurisprudence.

There has been enough scholarly work, by both Muslims and non-Muslims, to show that there is no inherent reason to think that the principles of Shariahh set out in the Quran and the life of the Prophet contradict today’s legal and political ideals. The dynamic evolution of laws and regulations across Muslim-majority countries over the last 30 years attest that Shariah is highly adaptable and capable of meeting modern legal, social and economic needs. New interpretations and applications of Shariah are enabling Muslims to live freely according to their consciences within the realities of this century.

What we need to worry about, therefore, is not Shariah but its political utilization. We saw the detrimental outcomes of emotional Shariah politics in the 20th century that harmed Muslims and non-Muslims alike and created serious conflicts and suffering.

For the vast majority of Muslims living in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, cries for Shariah are cries for equality, justice, fairness and moral values in the face of corrupt politicians and regimes. But whenever such genuine calls were used by political elites to maintain their power by purporting to uphold Islam, or used by opposition movements to achieve power with claims of being Islam’s standard-bearers, the result was often disastrous. Few if any of the problems leading to calls for Shariah were solved and, in some cases, things became much worse.

The politicization of Shariah is especially dangerous in transitional contexts where state structures are not strong or are nonexistent. As there is not a single codified and agreed upon written reference as to what the Shariah laws are, when combined with ill-educated, self-declared sheikhs and chaotic political processes, what often follows is the exact opposite of the noble principles of Shariah.

Warning signs in Nigeria
The country that serves as the most important warning sign in this regard for today’s Middle East is Nigeria, where clashes between Christians and Muslims have caused the deaths of more than 15,000 people in the last decade alone and where corruption, inequality and injustice are pandemic problems.
Just as in the Middle East, calls to expand the application of Shariah in Nigeria first emerged in the 1970s. The issue was hotly debated in the Nigerian national assembly in 1978 to no conclusion. It emerged again in 1988, when a group of assembly members from Northern Nigeria demanded Shariah be applied across the entire country. Christians, who comprise half of the population, as well as tribes who hold traditional animist beliefs, refused the imposition of Shariah outside of Muslim-majority regions.

When military rule ended in 1999 with multiparty elections, the sociopolitical and religious tensions that had been brewing surfaced once again. In 2000, the governor of the state of Zamfara, following his electoral promises to do so, unilaterally expanded the application of Shariah beyond personal status matters to all aspects of the legal system, including the criminal code. Eleven other northern states quickly followed Zamfara’s example.

The result was serious human rights abuses and inhumane, hasty punishment -- including stoning, executions and amputations. More insidiously, the change led to the creation of semi-official religious enforcers called the hisba in Shariah states, who sought to regulate minute aspects of personal morality and lifestyle with minimum accountability. These developments triggered riots in Kaduna and Jos, causing serious damage, and set the stage for the widespread ethno-religious violence and political instability that have beset the country ever since.

What is clear in the Middle East is that the years of authoritarian pressure, low levels of education, isolation from global developments and denial of political and diplomatic experiences beyond grassroots opposition have frozen the political and religious horizons of the region. Dwelling on abstract religious discourse with no clear proposals as to how collapsing economies and corrupt political, judicial and security structures will be reformed, the new groups are developing angry politics that alienate and exclude everyone who does not support them. Unless the new political groups in the Middle East catch up with the substantial economic, theological, social and legal advancements achieved by Muslims in other parts of the world, their zealotry will only result in further instability, social tensions and chaos.

Religion and diplomacy in the 21st century: the Turkish model

Published by Today's Zaman, 17 October 2011

When newspapers briefly mentioned that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu joined in prayer at a mosque in Bosnia during a state visit, I was surprised that the story was not debated in the Turkish press.

This shows how far Turkey has come toward feeling at home in its own skin. There was a time when Muslim Turkish women wearing headscarves were not admitted to events at Turkish embassies. But more than domestic debates on religion and secularism, what we are seeing in Turkey now is a fast-emerging model for the practice of diplomacy in the 21st century.

A strong unwritten code, mostly the residue of 19th and early 20th century classical ideas of diplomatic service, still guides practices in foreign ministries around the world. One of the biggest taboos on the list is the topic of religion. The conventional wisdom not only forbids talking about religion with colleagues or peers in other countries, but also forces diplomats and politicians to hide their own religious beliefs. Religion is seen as a topic outside of the craft of diplomacy, save for the occasional handshake with an important but liberal religious figure. When Tony Blair’s personal faith became a public discussion in the UK, his spin doctor famously declared, “We don’t do God!”

Since the 1970s, however, this conventional diplomatic wisdom has been suffocating foreign policy practice and hindering countries from engaging with one of the most important factors in today’s world. Since international relations theorists and practitioners are some 20 years behind sociologists and political scientists in grasping the place of religion in the world today, the world’s high-flying diplomatic elite remain ignorant and detached from the topic. This was what Madeline Albright lamented in her book “The Mighty and the Almighty.” Ms. Albright pointed out that she had countless advisors on every possible issue, but none on religion. While 9/11 and the war on terror created an exploitative market of religion and terror experts, for most governments conversations on religion do not go beyond counterinsurgency policies.

Recently, the White House has initiated efforts to bring religion experts within the giant US foreign policy machinery together in various working groups, to understand how religion affects global affairs. The Norwegian and Dutch foreign ministries also increasingly sought to get their head around religion and are engaging with religious figures. Canada is considering creating an ambassador-at-large on religious freedom issues, just like the US. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has only one staff member in its human rights team whose portfolio includes religion as well as a few other “minor” concerns. That’s probably more than the French foreign ministry, as the domestic context in France and its obsession with “cults” results in an utter ignorance of religious issues.

In all of these cases, engagement with religion is only at the early stage of recognizing the truth of religion’s role in today’s world. But diplomats in the field continue to be deaf and mute, blinded and handicapped by the old conventional wisdom. There is a worrying belief among American diplomats that the US Constitution bans them from engaging with religion. On the other hand, for some other countries, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, officially sponsored missionary work and the manipulation of key religious figures are seen as important assets in their toolkit for advancing their national interests.

Silently, Turkey has taken the conversation to the next level; it neither shuns the topic nor promotes a particular brand of religion in pursuing its geopolitical ambitions. It plays diplomacy in extremely secular and pragmatic ways, yet, at the same time sees no problem in expressing religious belief, using religious language and appealing to religious values when it needs to.

The Turkish prime minister’s visit to a key Shiite shrine in Iraq to promote Sunni-Shiite relations might have been dismissed by Western diplomatic circles as a populist and non-diplomatic gesture. However, for those of us who have been raising the alarm about the increasing pressure at the Shiite and Sunni fault lines, this was in fact a diplomatic act for the future of the region. Unlike all other models of religious engagement in the 21st century, Turkey is managing to use its religious capital not only with fellow Muslims but also with non-Muslims and the wider world. While their European and American counterparts find it naive, many of us have welcomed Turkish and Spanish efforts to create an Alliance of Civilizations.

This silent paradigm shift is no coincidence. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy makers are schooled not only in classical Western concepts but also in Islamic thought and deeply appreciate the complexities and power of religious beliefs. It seems the “Turkish model” is useful not only for helping Muslim-majority states think about balancing conservatism and democracy. It can also help Western diplomats think about how they can update their diplomatic framework.

Making sense of false media reports on Turkey

Published by Today's Zaman, 6 October 2011

I have never been interested in conspiracy theories or respected those who promote them.

So perhaps this article is the beginning of my own decline, but increasingly I am observing an interesting pattern of implausible news reports about Turkey emerging in the world media at critical junctures.

The first odd report that caught my attention was in a British newspaper, the Telegraph, which claimed that Iran had given $25 million to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for its election campaign. While the Telegraph did not cite any sources, other than a “Western diplomat,” rumors among UK foreign policy circles pointed to Israeli sources. The amount that was said to have been given by Iran was peanuts compared to the riches of the business constituency backing the AKP, which was set to win the elections with or without Iran’s financial support. The claim was also made at a time when the Kemalist state elite were looking under every rock for pretexts to shut down the AKP, but none of these groups took this golden opportunity to bash the AKP. Eventually, the Telegraph issued an apology for the false report.

The second dubious case involves reports citing Pakistani intelligence sources as saying that a Turkish F16 pilot had joined al-Qaeda. Pakistan denied that it had ever discovered such a thing. The symbolism of the news was powerful, as it seemed to indicate that the army -- once the stronghold of secularism in Turkey -- and its most elite units were now becoming Islamists. Ironically, the same staunch secularism ensured that no Islamist or even a devout Muslim could ever have made it that far in the Turkish military. To this day, the number of Turks known to be involved in international terrorism is minuscule compared to the number of British, American, Pakistani, Somali and Saudi citizens known to be.

The third one was just last week. According to reports, the Turkish state tried to make a secret pact with Syria and pledged Turkish support to end the rebellion in the country if President Assad ensured that a quarter of ministerial posts would be given to members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Supposedly, Bashar al Assad’s refusal of the deal led to the recent “dramatic worsening” in relations between the two countries.

The same week, there was also news in the Cypriot press that Israeli jets threatened a Turkish vessel searching for natural gas sources in the Mediterranean. Both Israel and Turkey denied that such a skirmish happened. Given the precarious nature of relations between the two countries lately, if such a thing were to happen, Turkey would be sending its entire navy.

In all of these news reports, we see a subtext which attempts to show Turkey as an Islamist country that supports terrorism and has close links with rogue regimes, with a dangerous and sinister agenda to attack Israel and undermine the West. Leaving aside the epistemological problems in justifying the validity of such claims, the main question is who would want to promote such an image, and why? These reports almost always pop up at moments when Turkey is making unusual foreign policy decisions, or finds itself at odds with the interests of particular countries. Sometimes they are the products of sloppy journalism and commentators who see the world through their own ideological lenses.

The other possibility, equally plausible, is that an official spin doctor or a think tank pundit is trying to frame a particular image of Turkey for Western policy makers and public opinion. Misinformation, propaganda and setting the tone and language of the news are common tools used by governments and intelligence services. Some of these reports originate from various anti-AKP circles in Turkey, while some come from anti-Turkish circles in the US and EU and the Middle East. Even Syria tried to disseminate news that Syrians seeking asylum in Turkey had been raped and tortured. The desired outcome, no matter who is pursuing it, is to limit Turkey’s growing influence, undermine its foreign policy initiatives and imprison Turkey in the camp of “evil” countries, which need to be punished, isolated and not granted what they seek.

The bad news is that the average reader, who is exposed only to a small portion of unfolding events in the world, remains vulnerable to being easily manipulated by such news. The good news, however, is that the complexity of the international media, with its multiplicity of sources and technologies, makes such attempts fragile and weak. Ultimately, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.

The Giant Blind Spot of Human Rights NGOs

Published on Huffington Post UK Blog, 2 October 2011

Last week, a frantic panic dominated a handful of small advocacy groups about an Iranian Christian Pastor who has been facing death penalty for simply converting from Islam to Christianity. Their efforts started bearing fruit when the White House, US State Department, British Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary, France and EU issued public statements condemning his treatment.

Then, a host of media outlets including the Fox News, Guardian and Telegraph picked up on the statements by officials and highlighted the fact that more than 250 Christians were arrested in Iran since 2011, just for simply practicing their faith and exercising the fundamental freedom of conscience, thought, religion and belief as enshrined by the Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It was only after his case dominated international media, became a frequent topic in twitter and thousands signed up to groups on Facebook, did the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issue basic statements on their websites condemning his treatment. You know something is really wrong when a major human rights group pick up on a human rights concern after governments, mainstream and social media do with simple statements.

Sadly, lack of interest shown to Pastor Youssef's case by the big actors of human rights world is not a one off failure. It highlights a major blind spot that is raising serious questions about the work of mainstream human rights organisations. As a researcher focusing on the human rights issues in the Middle East and an advocate who has worked with various non-governmental and governmental bodies focusing on such issues, I have faced two bitter realities over the years.

First, persecution and exclusion of people on the basis of their religious affiliations and practices is one of the most common forms of human rights abuses in the world today and it is only getting worse as the notions of clash of civilizations and religious politics dominate the global arena. Second, issues surrounding freedom of religion and belief are rarely covered by mainstream human rights organizations, rarely reported by the international media, often ignored by local and international bodies and remain to be the least studied and developed aspect of human rights.

This has puzzled me for many years. According to the Pew Research Centre's August 2011 report, "Rising Restrictions on Religion", restrictions on religious practices and beliefs rose significantly between 2006 and 2009 in 23 countries, decreased in 12 countries and remained unchanged in the remaining 263 countries. Since the countries that restrict religions, the report states that " more than 2.2 billion people - nearly a third (32%) of the world's total population of 6.9 billion - live in countries where either government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially over the three-year period." While we, the activists, are over zealous in picking up every unknown and even the smallest of issues under the sky, we seem to be completely blind and mute to the sufferings of 2.2 billion people.

I believe that there are multiple reasons for this. The first one is that human rights groups face limitations from their mandates and resources, thus they can't be involved with every issue in every country they monitor. While this is understandable to a certain degree, the disproportional coverage of issues they pick and the no-cost of including religious freedom issues in their country reports lead us to ask further questions.

The second major reason is the blatant ignorance on part of individuals based in the West, who see religion as a matter of private belief, which are held by uneducated and often radical masses. While none of these are empirically based truths even in the West (please don't tell it to Richard Dawkins), religion remains to be one of the most important social factors and sources of identity in the world. Since British universities rarely even teach sociology and politics of religion, human rights departments rarely have experts studying or courses teaching these issues, a generation of jet setting activists and diplomats roam the world in utter blindness.

The third reason is the fear factor. Organizations and diplomats who notice the fast growing problem feel completely out of their depth and worry about being branded as campaigners against particular religions if they pick on religious persecution in a country. But if someone points to the persecution faced by individuals in India or Saudi Arabia, one does not attack Hinduism or Islam, but the failure of those states in upholding human rights and protecting their citizens. The lack of academic and policy research on religious freedom law and advocacy is paralysing even the most willing activists.

The fourth and the deepest reason is human psychology and tribalism that only sees the importance of human rights for people like themselves. People with certain political, cultural, religious and sexual orientations tend to only advocate for human rights for people like themselves, ignoring the suffering of other people who don't share these.

Sadly, through out the years, I have been in countless meetings and read countless human rights documents where human rights abuses were picked up or ignored according to the personal likes and dislikes of those advocating for them. I saw leftist and liberal Westerners dismissing suffering of conservative and religious individuals, Christian groups only caring for suffering of fellow Christians at the expense of turning a complete blind eye to the suffering of those of other faiths. And in return, I saw Muslims, Baha'is and Jews doing the same only for their own co-religionists and atheists just picking up cases like that of Salman Rushdie.

It is high time for human rights academics, researchers and advocates to put their biases, blind spots and arrogance that goes with them on the table and stop ignoring suffering of millions of people, just because they hold religions and beliefs other than themselves.  In the age of polarization and exclusion, religious freedom has become the litmus test measuring the extent of our commitment to human rights for all. Sadly, most of us are failing this test dramatically.

Tell me what you ask About Turkey, I'll tell you who you are

Published on Huffington Post UK Blog, 29 September 2011

Ever since Turkey's AK Party emerged, foreign observers have been asking one primary question; is Turkey becoming an Islamist nation and turning against the West? Each election result and each bold foreign policy decision have been analyzed through this worry.

The assumptions of this common question signal the new Orientalism that projects onto the world its own narrative and interprets and responds to events through it's own logocentrism. Political and social changes in the Muslim-majority states are read and analyzed through the prism of Western interests and anxieties over security. Just like in the story of the fisherman who had to let go of the bigger fish he caught because the frying pan he had at home was too small, in the same way the reality that does not fit into the shape of this lens is left out and seen as irrelevant.

For this very reason, Western observers simply could not grasp that what we were witnessing with the AKP was a new phase in the dynamic history of the relationship between politics and Islam. With a sharp break from its roots in modern political Islam that dominated the 20th century, the AKP formulated a pro liberal market, pro Europe, pro globalization and pro democracy framework that also seeks to uphold personal piety and morality with no desire to base the country on religious creeds. The AKP's mindset and constituency can be likened to Calvinists and Reform Christianity that modernized Northern Europe and played a major role in the making of the USA. They share similar political theologies and religious mobilization.

While commentators have not given up on their urge to see sinister Islamist agendas under every rock, the die-hard Islamists within Turkey and the wider Muslim world continue to see the AKP as a diluted form of Islamic activism. After all these years, the initial worries that Turkey was turning Islamist still look as distant as they were when the AKP won its first election, yet such commentary is still alive and kicking in the mainstream international media.

When the Turkish government finally realized that Turkey did not have any tangible foreign policy, except being a NATO and US ally, and that the aggressive nature of globalization required Turkey to adopt to a multi-polar world and diversify its interests, it had to act dramatically. Turkey simply had no other choice but to shift gears and become proactive in maximizing its scope of influence and business partners.

This triggered a new wave of worried commentary. Turkish rapprochement with Syria and Iran as well as with Hamas were amplified on global screens, as the fish that fits the intellectual frying pans, but the bigger ones such as attempts to normalize and enhance ties with Greece, Armenia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, Egypt as well as Russia, Balkans, Latin America and Africa were left back into the river of partial perception.

The developments were read as just another "evidence" of Turkey turning its face away from the West, without any mention of what or whom Turkey was turning its face to. Not so surprisingly, there was also hardly any mention of the fact that the AKP has been the most committed party to pursue EU membership in Turkish history.

In actuality, Turkey has just been attempting to be an independent actor with multiple ties, using the complexity of its identity and affiliations to advance its national interests. Observers were merely finding evidences for their own preconceived ideas, thus concluding what they set out to conclude.

The ironic truth is that the questions asked about Turkey tell us more about those who ask them rather than the realities of Turkey and its foreign policy choices. If commentators want to make sense of on going moves by Turkey in the international arena and substantial social and political changes in the country, they must let go of old school perspectives and allow Turkey itself to show them its own mindset, questions and ambitions. Only then they can find genuine clues in assessing where Turkey is heading.

Promising Future for British-Turkish Relations

Published by Today's Zaman,07 September 2011

As Turkish-EU relations are strained, Turkey will seek closer links with EU countries with which it has an already good rapport. This gives the UK a superb chance to advance its ties with Turkey.

Both the current and previous British governments are aware of the importance of Turkish-British relations: The UK has consistently and wholeheartedly supported Turkish membership to the EU, a policy that continues today. Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Turkey in 2008, the first time Her Majesty visited the country since 1971, was a successful relationship-building exercise. President Abdullah Gül and his wife are scheduled to visit the UK as guests of the Queen in the near future.

When David Cameron visited Turkey in his first foreign visit in July 2010, it sent positive signals to the Turkish state. The visit resulted in the signing of a new Strategic Partnership Agreement and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke of the “golden age” of Turkish-British relations. Mr. Cameron’s trip has been followed by less public visits by Defense Secretary Liam Fox, Lord Mayor of London Michael Bear, Trade Minister Lord Stephen Green, Lord James Sassoon from Her Majesty’s Treasury and Martin Donnelly from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

At the economic level, there is room for a major expansion of trade between the two countries. The UK government made the same point in a White Paper titled “Trade and Investment for Growth” in February 2011, noting that the UK is aiming to double its current trade with Turkey from a base of 9 billion pounds by 2015.

The trade between the two countries has been on a steady increase since 2001. The Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) recorded a total volume of $4 billion in 2001, which has seen a major increase since 2003, quickly reaching $10 billion in 2005 and $14 billion in 2007. While 2008 and 2009 saw a drop in trade in line with the global recession, it rose again to an estimated $11 billion in 2010. The British High Commission in Ankara noted a steady increase of British direct investment into Turkey, from $141 million in 2003 to $1.3 billion in 2008, in its Country Updates for Business briefing released in July 2011.

Turkey not only produces goods consumed in the British market but as its economy and consumer confidence grows, so does demand for high-end consumer goods, in which Britain excels. Investments in Turkey by British companies and individuals have been by and large positive as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government undertook significant reforms to ease foreign direct investment to the country. There is also a trend of high level investments by Turkish companies in the UK.

Turkey is also keen to expand the markets from which it buys military supplies as its relations with Israel remain strained and there is a danger of unhealthy dependence on the US. This provides a great opening for UK companies to pursue defense contracts in Turkey, a fact which was highlighted when Fox visited Turkey. A positive sign of this was the 12.1 million euro contract won by British Ultra Electronics to provide a torpedo defense system for Turkish submarines.

Turkey’s policy of being a neutral energy route between multiple suppliers for consumption in Europe has important positive outcomes for British energy needs. A diversity of suppliers will counter European vulnerability to volatile Russian energy provisions.

At the political level, enhanced British-Turkish relations also have domestic and diplomatic benefits for the UK. Currently, the scope of British engagement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains limited and problematic. With closer ties with Turkey, the UK would be able to assert influence and expand and secure its interests in the region. With closer relations on intelligence-sharing and combined security initiatives, a partnership would bring major benefits to ongoing concerns over human and narcotics trafficking, as well as organized crime and terrorism. This was a major point raised by the UK’s Home Affairs Committee in its report “Implications for the Justice and Home Affairs area of the accession of Turkey to the European Union,” released on Aug. 1, 2011.

It is clear that the British government is on the right path regarding its Turkey policy. However, there are major areas that need to be addressed. More social and educational initiatives have to be launched in order to bolster societal ties. The speedy tightening of UK visa regulations is damaging the process. Britain not only has to accelerate its efforts to recruit a growing number of Turkish students to study in the UK, it also has to ensure that the current changes to student visas and temporary work permits that enable recent graduates to get job experience in the UK do not hinder the appeal of Britain, thus causing a loss of market share in education.

While special treaties such as the Ankara agreement between Britain and Turkey have sought to bolster economic links by allowing Turkish workers to set up business ventures, such accords are not enough and have often led to irregular migration. A more robust policy to attract highly skilled Turkish workers to Britain would be key to enabling British companies to deal with the fast-growing Turkish market.