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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Diplomatic Licence [3]

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?

The Tarkan Factor

For cultural diplomacy to work, as with all things, there has to be a measure of tolerance. Political right-wing groups in Europe argue that Turkey can't or won't change; they mistrust the "old rival" - the "other" - that once tried to conquer the continent to the march of music. However, as recent events have shown, Turkey has the potential to change.

Over a million people rallied in Ankara and Istanbul in support of secularism, amid a row over a vote for the country's next president that led Turkey's parliament to propose a major constitutional amendment allowing the president to be elected by the people rather than politicians.

Take look at its music sector, too, with celebrated artists that span all minorities and sexual preferences - even those transgendered - and although it might not be indicative of the treatment of minorities under the country's law or politics, it's arguably an indication of the common Turkish man and woman's view of such issues. The public's attitude towards Tarkan, himself synonymous with change, is important here as well; during the period where the singer's private photographs were stolen, they had rallied around the star, applauding him for his directness. It relays a far different image then those in Europe that would think the general Turkish citizen is a radical fundamentalist or Islamic hardliner that cares more about the headscarf than freedom of thought.

The struggle for democracy and tolerance in Turkey is a miniaturisation of the greater struggle against radicalism across the globe. It is not too difficult to forsee a time when future historians might reflect on whether by founding the Turkish secular state from the ashes of an Islamic empire, and sowing the seeds of secularism in that region, Ataturk secured the continuance of the Western world.

Helping to See Both Sides

As with any country, Turkey has its problems unique to its region to solve; and the West in its dealings with Turkey needs to understand how Turks regard themselves. Cultural diplomacy is an important aid in seeing this "other's side" to the story, too.

In the West, not only are we are used to reading both sides of the story, we also enjoy a well written one. Turkish author and 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's works are windows into Turkish society and filled with Turkish humanity. Arguably before Pamuk, the West had a difficult time putting these two words together.

In "The Black Book", which made Pamuk's reputation as one of the world's leading novelists working today, he concerned himself with the question of Turkish identity. He asked what it meant to be "Turkish" in a country where Westernization is a form of imitation, and where the Western original turns out to have pillaged ideas from the East. The issue of a national Turkish identity is an important one to grasp.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's turbulent history and struggle for national identity in the 19th and 20th Century - with a fervered insistence in trying to stay neutral in World War II - meant that the country effectively reverted into a "shell" and removed itself from international politics.

This absence of a Turkish voice on the global stage allowed Kurdish, Armenian and Greek sentiment to paint a one-sided view of Turkey to the West. On the back of this interpretation, all too often world leaders have chosen to translate the fundamental elements of any nation - patriotism, honour, emotion - as nationalism, pride and anger in their dealings with Turkey. And Turks have too often allowed their actions to devolve into something less admirable against the nature of the political beast - vested self-interest.

Culture Independent of Politics

Cultural misunderstanding and ignorance are a breeding ground for extremists. Paying into the vested interests of any anti-Turkish lobby that hijacks this ignorance to further its cause is arguably aiding global terrorism. And though critics may charge that trying to fight global terrorism with culture is like spitting on a forest fire to put it out, the best way to put out a fire is to take away its fuel.

Understanding is everything, even when it changes nothing. Perhaps it is all we at times, can do.

Tarkan is an all too real factor in helping end cultural misunderstanding and ignorance. However, the paradox is that the more valuable culture is to political relationships, the more independent of politics it must be.

Tarkan is most effective when he is seen as an independent force for creating cultural bridges. This is why, as Tarkan did so correctly in a recent airport report, such cultural diplomats steer away from politics. Risk being perceived as an undercover embassy and any good work will lose its value.

In the same report, Tarkan also mentioned his disillusionment with America. Even though the artist may not see himself as a cultural ambassador, and he has a tough task for acceptance, he needs to persist in his musical vision.

And what his critics back in Turkey must begin to grasp is this: Tarkan is not blatantly flying the flag for Turkey in a stalwart show of nationalism. He is promoting Turkish culture in the way it should be done, in an atmosphere of respect and understanding, and through the path that leads from one road to the other.

"Gönülden gönüle yol vardır" as the Turks say: there is always a path from one heart to another. That is at the heart of cultural diplomacy.

Picture reprinted from BBC News online (Helen Mirren).

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

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