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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Diplomatic Licence [1]

Analysis by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Britain is trying to cash in on its cultural commodities, can Turkey do the same? Britain is trying to cash in on its cultural commodities, can Turkey do the same?

Tarkan and the Art of Diplomacy

In terms of culture, we in the West have always viewed the East as the "other". Even our first impressions of eastern music came during a time of war. Orientalism in western classical music first began to appear after Vienna was nearly captured by Ottoman troops centuries ago. From the walls of the beseiged city, the clashing of cymbals from arguably the world's first military band sparked more than just a call to arms from the West. Ironically it was also to develop a "Turkish craze".

When tensions lessened during relatively long periods of peace, anything Turkish was eagerly adopted by the Europeans, and in the 1700s Turquerien were all the rage. The Austrian empress Maria Therese commissioned several portraits of herself in Turkish clothing; in 1779, the Catholic Elector of Schwetzingen commissioned the architect Nicolas de Pigage to build a mosque for the palace gardens which can still be visited today. A band of Ottoman musicians became a must for every fashionable court; in music, literature and theatre, Turkish themes had become immensely popular.

This was to endure even longer in England to the late 1800s of the Victorian era, where Queen Victoria and her favoured Prime Minister Disraeli were "violently pro-Turk" as one British historian put it. The Victorian culture embraced orientalism and anything Turkish, from its steam baths and coffee houses, to its after dinner sweets. It was one of the first types of successful cultural diplomacy in modern history.

Culture Clash

Time has the habit of simultaneously moving fast, yet standing still. The peaceful coexistence of Muslim and Christian cultures is as much of an issue today as it was two centuries ago, which is itself cause for thought; even more so as it seems that time has made us worse, rather than better, at getting on together. With the obvious widening divides between the Muslim world and the West, do fundamental differences in values make a "clash of civilisations" inevitable?

Finding an answer is problematic. Whether the divisions can be blamed on cultural differences or political interests is hard to gauge, because the reality is that culture and politics are never completely separate. Misunderstandings and divisive claims about cultural and political values are the oxygen that extreme minorities use to fan the flames of conflict.

Larger groups have also used such arguments in the rejection of Turkey's European Union bid (such as the recently elected French president), too, while in Turkey a defunct 2007 presidental bid indicates that not all divisions are culture based, either.

But, culture is shared easier than politics, and there is a strong argument that the way to coming closer in closing global political divides is by cultural sharing. To coin a phrase Ali Yildirim used in a recent correspondence - which could easily become one of his quotes - "The more mash, the less clash". What is Tarkan's role in this mash? And how important is his successes for Turkey's cultural diplomacy, which arguably has lagged since the early nineteeth century?

Picture reprinted from BBC News online (Helen Mirren).

Further Reading:

Abbott, B. H. Gladstone and Disraeli, London, Collins, 1992, Reprint. ISBN: 0003272109

Main | End of part one | Part two | Part three | More Mayhey articles

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