(The East Conference Initiative as a Turkish Experience)
Plurality is neither a new idea (concept) nor a merely Western one as is generally believed Contrary to this common perception, the roots of the idea of plurality can be found easily in many living Asian civilizations beside Western civilization. Islamic civilization is one of these living civilizations in which one can trace the roots of the cultural and creedal plurality in its past and present. The most evident proof of this claim can be found easily in the Qur’an itself and also in the life of the Prophet Muhammad as the first historical experience of Islam. It is well-known that the Islamic city state created by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina (al-Yathrib) was a mixed Muslim-Jewish society, and not solely a Muslim one as it is usually thought It was a constitutional pluralistic state and society in this sense which guaranteed political, administrative, social and legal rights of both sides.
In the first centuries of Islamic history, Muslims and Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabeans, Atheists and many other religious, cultural and ethnic groups were living side by side and working in cooperation in order to build a new civilization. A perfect example in this respect is the foundation of the city of Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur and the cultural, intellectual and scientific florescence that followed it.
It goes without saying that conflicts, hostilities and even clashes between these groups took place from time to time, but this is also true about contemporary pluralistic experiences. Nevertheless the very existence of many non-Muslim groups or communities all over the Islamic world today (Orthodox Copts in Egypt, other Christian groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Jews in Yemen and Morocco, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians in Iran, and Christian and Jewish minorities in Turkey etc.), is a very convincing proof of this long term co-existence and of the pluralistic understanding of the Muslims in the past and present. In contrast, if we look at the situation in Spain (al-Andalus), we see a quite different picture; because today it is very difficult to talk about any Muslim or Jewish community there because of the Reconquista.
As one of the last pluralistic experiences in Islamic civilization in real sense, one could mention the Ottoman experience, often referred to as the Pax Ottomana. According to the Ottoman administration, which put into practice a pluralistic administrative system called “millah (millet) system”, every religious community was considered a free and independent unity in many aspects of their daily life. It was this pluralistic administrative approach that made possible to keep the Pax Ottomana alive for six centuries.
After the fall of the Ottoman state, the new Turkish Republic was founded in Anatolia, but unfortunately not on the above mentioned pluralistic model, on the contrary, on a nation state model following certain Western ideologies and models. One nation, one religion, one language and one ideology. There was no place for ethnic, religious, lingual and ideological differences.
In addition to these developments that weakened traditional pluralistic tendencies in the society, the Western pressures on Turkey to use her against Soviet bloc caused a severe ideological division/partition in the country; i.e. leftists and rightists, as it was the situation in many states controlled by the West (USA-Western Europe) in the sixties and seventies. As a continuation of this division, the deeper conflicts developed between, for example, Islamic religious and secular circles, the Sunnite and Alevite circles, Turkish and Kurdish nationalists. The rifts between factions grew so strongly that even with the fall of Soviet bloc, the enmity between groups did not wholly disappear but changed form and gained new dimensions. The current struggle is between the supporters of the state and its ideology (Secularist, Turkish Nationalist, Kemalist, and Leftist in some degree) and those who oppose them and demand change. The situation turned so awful that it became impossible for the supporters of these two sides to meet and discuss common issues and problems of Turkey in particular, and regional and global matters in general.
In the eighties, the need to cooperate on a common ground among different opposition groups, such as Islamists, leftists in general and socialists particularly, Kurdish nationalists and some liberals, initiated a slow and gradual change. This common ground was the common sense about the necessity of struggle for human rights and liberties, social justice and freedom of opinion and faith, and against every kind of oppression at the national and international level.
In the nineties, all the opposition circles started to feel more comfortable to come together and discuss common problems and strategies. After a series of highly effective meetings and organizations, different groups started taking actions together regarding political and social developments at national and international levels.
When the invasion of Iraq by USA and GB became a sign of very close and dangerous development in the region, some intellectuals from the opposition came together in order to discuss the necessary steps to take in the face of that development without any expectation from government or state to do something in this regard. A new political-intellectual platform was founded as a result to stand with the Iraqi people against the USA invasion, and to support Iran and Syria against the threats of Western imperialistic politics and strategies.
In fact, this was an intellectual, political and cultural “elite movement”, and not a popular and social one but its effects have been seen also at public level. The Platform included Muslim/Islamist, Christian, Socialist, Nationalist, and Liberal intellectuals with various ethnic backgrounds Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian etc. Many of these intellectuals were academicians, journalists, columnists, artists, civil activists, program makers at mass media, writers, novelists etc.
In spite of the bigdifferences as to the political, religious and ethnic identities of the participants, it became obvious that the common ground was in fact greater than those differences and well beyond the initial expectations. It turned out that everybody just needed to get to know each other’s culture better before discussing common problems. The participants unanimously agreed that the Platform would be:
Humanistic in its view and treatment of nations, races, societies, minorities, cultures and languages;
Anti-imperialistic and anti-war in global affairs;
Anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist in national, regional and global relations (Capitalism is necessarily imperialistic by nature);
Anti-consumerist in production mentality and economic politics;
Pluralist as to living together with differences at national, regional and global levels;
And should give priority to cultural contacts over political and social ones in order to create a better environment to share and exchange ideas and discuss common problems.
As a next step, members of the Platfform turned to the neighboring countries such as Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt to meet intellectuals, syndicates, publishers and NGO’s in order to discuss the possibilities of cooperation on the ground of the above mentioned principles and goalss and to respond together to future developments and potential threats.
The meetings in the visited countries attracted people from very – diverse groups : There were Christians beside Muslims, Socialists as well as Liberalists and Nationalists, Sunnites along with Shiites, etc., who mostly came from opposition groups and who primarily constitute public opinion makers in their respective countries.
The representatives of this movement from these countries were also a reflection of the diversity and plurality it supports. For example, one of the representatives from Lebanon, was a Christian while the other a Shiite Muslim. In Turkey the participants included an Armenian journalist, Hırant Dink, who was one of the most active members of the initiative until his murder, in addition to some Nusayris (Arab Alawites) from the cities near the Syrian border. A Sunnite journalist from Falluja was the representative of Iraq.
At the end of 2005, an international symposium was held in Istanbul (The First Istanbul Meeting) with the participation of more than one hundred representatives from different countries such as Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Tunis, Morocco, and India. As a result of the priorities of this initiative, occasional mutual visits took place, and participations in intellectual, social and political occasions and organizations, such as seminars, workshops and congresses were realized in the past seven years. During these contacts, it became clear that Beirut and Cairo – two of the most important cultural and political centers of the Islamic world – were not unfamiliar with such pluralistic approaches and initiatives. For example, The Permanent Conference of Resistance (al-Mu’tamar al-Dâ’im li’l-Muqâwama) at Beirut and Cairo Conference at Cairo, had organized huge conferences with participation of thousands of delegates from every continent.As a participant at one of these sessions, it was incredible for me to witness such a large scale agreement and mutual understanding nearly in every matter of the agenda despite the vast diversity of national, ethnic, political, and religious identities of the participants.
It is interesting to observe the reflections of such developments in political arena as well. As a continuation of such a pluralist approach, some important political developments occurred in Turkey and in the region. The foundation of a new political party (The Voice of the Nation) is a recent example of the continuation of these pluralistic approaches in Turkey. For, this new-born political party is not an Islamist, socialist, liberal or nationalist one, in spite of the fact that its founders come from these very different political and socio-cultural backgrounds and circles. It is also very meaningful that some members of The East Conference Initiative are also among the founders of this new party.
Another important recent development relating to the pluralistic political approaches in this region is the revolution or uprising of the people of Tunis and Egypt because they were a result of pluralistic understanding in of decision making and taking action. If one looks at the structure of the protestors, one will find that they are coming from different political and socio-cultural backgrounds such as Islamic, socialist, liberal, nationalist ideologies and beliefs; also from such diverse social groups as students, syndicates, workers, politicians, NGO’s, man or woman, old or young. The common ground between these very different groups is very obvious: Resistance to social and political degeneration and injustice, supporting social justice, liberty, equality, freedom of opinion and speech, religious freedom and clean, transparent society, etc.
Emotional aspects of these developments are not negligible either. The most important result is the removal of prejudices. As to the majority of the members of the East Conference Initiative, the change was rather drastic. Since most Turkish intellectuals are westernized in life and thought in general, their perception of Arab-Muslim or Persian-Muslim world has been much distorted. First of all, the Arabs are considered our enemies; are they not the ones who stabbed the Ottomans in the back during the First World War? In addition, they are lazy, dirty and uneducated people with dark skins. The Persians are not better than them. Briefly, they are no more than the people of the third world, that is, members of undeveloped/uncivilized or underdeveloped/undercivilized societies.
But this distorted image of Arab or Iranian peoples has gone through a drastic change after the direct contacts during frequent visits. It has been observed over and over again that most of them are white-skinned like most of the Turkish people; and they have very important international institutions, associations and personalities. They know many foreign languages and follow the intellectual, political, economic and socio-cultural developments all over the world. They have direct and close contacts with the West and the rest of the world.
To give a personal note, my own experience during the last twenty years has been very exciting as well as fruitful. Especially as a member of The East Conference Initiative since 2003, I have learned many lessons during various national and international activities in which I have takan part. More than anything else, I have learned that goodness, righteousness and morality are not restricted to Muslims only because I met many Christians, socialists, or even atheists, whose moral qualities were not in any way less than those of many Muslims.
It seems that the future impacts of this kind of pluralistic approaches will be greater and much deeper than expectations. Of course the impacts of such approaches and understandings at the global level are much more important than national ones. As these pluralistic approaches and endavours will hopefully help create a multipolar (or ideally polarless) world on the basis of the equality of nations with no country trying to obtain political, military and economic hegemony over others.. Close relations between many Asian, African and Latin American nations in general, and between Iran and Venezuela in particular, are very promising attempts in this direction.
The crisis of the Western civilization is not a secret. In fact its impacts are not restricted to the West; on the contrary, the harmful effects of these crises indicate a worldwide phenomenon: The nuclear threat (some times more than a threat, a real disaster as in the cases of Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombing), waste of natural resources, wars and military occupations, armament and defense industry, environmental and ecological crises due to the Western style industry, etc. So the “Western-style growth model” may cause the end of the humanity and planet earth, as Roger Garaudy has called attention to it in his many books, not only because of nuclear weapons, but at the same time because of exploitation of the natural sources without limits, and of the pollution of the environment and ecological problems. So it is obvious that we all humanity, all societies and all governments are in urgent need to abandon, or at least to revise, the dominant Western models and to question and discuss its intellectual foundations in order to develop new pluralistic approaches to socio-economic, environmental and international problems.
Plurality and “diversity in unity” may help to prevent or reduce some conflicts and tensions between individuals, institutions or nations, by creating a common universal ground of values and acting in accordance with them.
Is it possible to find such a common universal ground by making use of the principle of plurality? It seems so, at least, according to Semitic religious civilizations and cultures; such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For example the “Ten Commandments” of Judaism and Christianity also exist in Islam (al-Qur’an, 6, al-An’âm, 151-153). Similarities between the Jewish, Christian and Islamic “Ten Commandments” and Egyptian Book of the Dead are remarkable. It is perfectly possible to find similar doctrines in other cultural traditions, and itwould be a great contribution to our knowledge if we find parallel thoughts and trends in the Japanese Culture and Civilization. I believe that the idea of Asian community cherished by the Asian Philosophical Association will be a grand contribution to this cause and the international conferences organized by it constitute vital steps towards actualizing this ideal.