Noting that there has been an explosion in the number of demands from various parts of the world for religious education and religious services, Religious Affairs Directorate Deputy Chairman for Foreign Relations Professor Mehmet Görmez has said: “Turkey’s religious education and religious services in the country and abroad are attracting attention from all over the world. There is significant demand from everywhere -- from Equatorial Guinea to Europe and from the autonomous republics of Russia to Bangladesh and Indonesia -- and we are having difficulty meeting it.”
Professor Görmez explained that they are particularly keen on not becoming part of international politics when providing services abroad, which is why they make sure that the request for educational support comes directly from the country that wants or needs it.
Noting that religious diplomacy will continue to play an effective role in the way international relations take shape, Professor Görmez said: “Religion has always been a factor that affects international relations. We see that throughout history religion was a factor both in the founding of states and in their dissolution process. Today the impact of religion in international relations is becoming increasingly more valuable, and we will see it peak in the future.”
What kind of role does religion play in the way international relations are shaped?
We could structure the answer to this question more easily if we bear in mind that individuals, societies, cultures and international relations rest on four factors -- political, social, economic and cultural -- because all of these four factors each have a relationship with religion, a relationship in the sense that they either side with it or stand against it.
With the Enlightenment-Renaissance period, modernity proposed a religiously refined network of relationships from the individual to the nation. In the beginning of the last century, many thinkers and philosophers declared that religion would completely disappear by the end of the century. But history has proven them wrong.
It seems relations between the East and West were also defined over religion?
Exactly. As the West built its identity through alienation, it focused on its relations with Islam. A concept known as “West-Islam relations” was created, but this was wrong. If the West was a geographic description, then its counterpart was the East. But a dilemma like “Islam and the West” was brought out. Making a religion the counterpart to a region was the beginning of a dangerous process. It was something that should not have even been uttered.
Framework needs to be guaranteed for Bardakoğlu to visit the Vatican
Did events that took place during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Ankara leave an impression on religious diplomacy?
This is a timely and important question. The pope’s meeting with Religious Affairs Directorate Chairman Ali Bardakoğlu during his visit to Turkey has the potential to create discourse on religious diplomacy. The hundreds of articles and thousands of news that were written confirm the importance of this meeting.
Former Chairman Mehmet Nuri Yılmaz’s visit to the Vatican did not turn out that way.
The previous chairman’s visit to the Vatican did not have any historical significance and was, unfortunately, overshadowed.
During the pope’s visit to the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the effects of Sept. 11 were still being felt, the cartoon crisis had just happened and the pope had just made an unfortunate speech at Regensburg. It was a period in which Islamophobia was cropping up in every part of the world. In other words, the fervent nature of the time period was a factor that increased the importance of the visit.
Secondly, the Directorate of Religious Affairs had reached a very important position. The world was starting to see it as a very respectable institution that knew what it was saying and had a continuously improving reputation.
Thirdly, as you pointed out as well, there was diplomacy going on behind the scenes. The Vatican had initially wanted this meeting to take place at the Vatican Embassy in Ankara. But then the presidential Camlı mansion and Dolmabahçe Palace in İstanbul were offered as venues to hold the meeting. The Directorate of Religious Affairs wanted the principles of hospitality and visitation of religion, and not that of diplomacy, to prevail. In this respect, what the directorate did was also an example for others. In other words, separate principles of diplomacy were established for religion.
What is your explanation for the insistence on the venue?
Our chairman wanted the meeting to take place under a religious identity. As a result, protocols of religions needed to be valid. In the protocol of religions, if you come here, then you should reciprocate a visit. It would be incorrect for this to be turned into an issue of diplomacy that would be perceived like a matter of pride.
The fact that this meeting took place after the negotiations, that the directorate showed impeccable hospitality and that it did not mince its words certainly drew attention.
It seems a return visit by Bardakoğlu is a bit overdue. Do you want it to take place in this kind of framework?
The day on which this kind of framework is guaranteed is the day when he will make a return visit.
Muslims did not invent this. In the beginning of the process of alienation, there was talk of an eastern bloc and communism. But then later Islam and the West came to confront each other directly, and this continues to be the case. All relations are focused on continually rejuvenating this dilemma and emphasizing it. This is one of the greatest mistakes ever in the history of mankind.
Are debates on [Turkey’s alleged shifting of its political alignment away from the West] part of this?
That’s correct, the axis shift debates today are a continuation of this grave mistake. Articulating international relations by putting the West against Islam and Islam against the West has always been risky. This is a process that is not in favor of Islam or Muslims. Muslims did not start this process. Unfortunately this process was created by political actors in the West and the actors of global politics.
Didn’t the Muslim world unknowingly continue this?
That’s very true. Some people served this process by developing an ideological opposition to the West. Actually describing a region as the “Muslim world” is incorrect as well because the entire world is God’s, and this kind of term conflicts with the universality of Islam. It is part of a project to confine Islam to the Middle East. When considering the role of religion in international relations, we should not forget the collapse of ideologies. The Vatican, the works of Pope John Paul II and the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Church played a very big role in the fall of communism, even though the world has ignored it.
Are we passing through a period in which religious diplomacy is standing out even more?
Religion and diplomacy are two words that are very different from each other. Diplomacy has its own rules. It’s based on imposing its own reality onto others even if it is wrong. The most basic component of religions is sincerity. These two concepts don’t go well with one another.
Unfortunately, however, the intermixing of religion and diplomacy has become a fact of this century. I am not happy about this as a religious person. But, due to my job, I find myself being a part of it as well. While in public diplomacy propaganda is particularly important, in divine religions conveyance is fundamental. Conveyance and propaganda are not the same thing. The way religions shift from conveyance to propaganda is degenerative. I don’t agree with it. I don’t think the term religious diplomacy is correct for Islam at all. However, in public diplomacy there is perception management. A certain set of perceptions are created and, by managing those perceptions, diplomacy obtains results that serve its own interests. Perceptions regarding Islam that have been created in the globalizing world were so dangerous that a certain set of Muslim institutions and organizations were compelled to turn to diplomacy for perception management. But it is obvious the issue will not be resolved solely through diplomatic means, which includes all kinds of factors.
I think the Vatican, Israel and Iran are typical examples of public and religious diplomacy.
Since the Vatican is both a state and a religious institution, it is seen as the center at which religion converges with diplomacy. The Vatican does not turn to religious methods in all its relations. After all, it has diplomatic representatives everywhere. It can start off the day by wearing religious attire and performing rituals and then continue the rest of the day serving as an embassy. The Vatican initiated it. But these three countries made diplomacy and religion more intertwined.
Turkey also has religious advisors and attachés.
Our advisors and attachés carry out all their tasks directly through the Directorate of Religious Affairs. They were really never at the center of diplomacy. The ambassadors treated this issue sensitively as well.
We know that the Directorate of Religious Affairs has come a long way in foreign relations.
Upon the demand of 6 million Turks in Europe, the Directorate of Religious Affairs started focusing more on foreign relations. Currently, the directorate provides religious services in 2,000 of the total 5,000 mosques. When you look at it from our perspective, there are three models that form in Europe. In France there is the Algerian model, in England there is the Pakistani model and in Germany and the Netherlands there is the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs model.
What do you think is the reason why Turkey has received the most approval among Muslim countries?
First of all, it has to do with the way Turkey understands religion and its outlook on religion. It has to do with the way it makes assessments. We don’t ignore history and traditions. The acceptance of a style that fights with history and tradition is certainly difficult. There is good dialogue with local dynamics. Take, for example, its approach to mysticism. It is through mysticism that Islam entered Asia. If you go and begin your duty by explaining that mysticism is polytheism (shirk), then you won’t be successful. There are tombs of very respectable people that brought Islam to those countries. We begin our job by visiting those tombs within the boundaries of Islam. If you start your job by destroying them, then you will not be accepted.
As the Directorate of Religious Affairs, there is one thing that we have attached great importance to. While providing services abroad, we were determined to never conduct business as part of any project of international politics.
But there are some areas that correspond to that. Diplomat and current US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza visited me. He said he wanted help from the Directorate of Religious Affairs to train imams in the US, Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. We told him that those countries had to make the request themselves and that we wanted to interact with them directly. As the directorate, none of our works will ever be part of international politics. We will not be in those places, we said.
We’ll help out Afghanistan only if they want us to because there are oppressed and victimized Muslim brethren there. We will not be part of security policies. We will not be part of integration and immigration policies. We only want to provide services within the framework of human rights, respect, peace, justice and wisdom as foreseen by Islam.
Religion is going to be the most discussed topic in international relations for the next 10 years owing to minorities. Does the minority issue increase the importance of religious diplomacy?
Actually, minorities are at the top of the most critical factors that makes religious dialogue effective in international relations. We live in a world where every country and every religion has members and citizens in every country.
What is the prevalence of Muslim minorities?
Fifty years ago there probably wasn’t a Muslim minority in three-fourths of the world. Today, there isn’t a single country where there isn’t a Muslim minority. Globalization, migration and cultural intermixing have engendered this. Trade and politics were effective in this. Wars in various parts of the world, including Palestine and Bosnia, were effective in this. But people who were displaced from their home countries formed minorities around the world. After resettling in new places, minorities became more attached to religion, thinking it would help them preserve their identities in their new countries. Accordingly, religion became a factor that started standing out in international relations.
Do minorities in Europe live a more comfortable life than minorities in other places?
There are 30 million Muslims in Europe. Unfortunately, Europe has yet to give a status to the religion of these 30 million people. It has yet to solve its religious education problems and its religious services problems.
Austria is the only country that officially recognized Islam in 1912. Belgium had a relatively similar acceptance. In Denmark and France there are Islamic councils but still no proper status.
What does the lack of being able to officially recognize the religion of millions of people mean?
It is a serious problem. And this has a major impact on international relations. And it will continue to have an impact. The next 10 years are going to be the years in which religion is the most discussed topic in international relations.
Will it be a positive discussion?
If countries can think outside of concepts such as relationships based on interests, propaganda and psychological movements and understand that the issue cannot be solved through security, integration and immigration policies, then yes. If they can approach it with principles such as pure human rights, freedom of religion, coexistence, peace and brotherhood and do not consider criticism an internal intervention, then yes. Handing the issue with high self-confidence will lead to a solution. Otherwise, I am concerned that an atmosphere of chaos will continue to threaten the domestic peace of these countries.