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KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY HIS EXCELLENCY RAFET AKGÜNAY  

Ambassador for the Republic of Turkey

Delivered at Queen's Park on Friday, September 9, 2011 

It is indeed a great pleasure and honour for me to be here tonight and to be awarded by the Association of Progressive Muslims of Ontario. I have been following the activities of your Association closely and appreciating your efforts in building bridges of understanding between Muslims and other faith groups and would like to acknowledge the President Mr. Mobeen Khaja, in particular, for working tirelessly to promote peace and cross cultural dialogue.  

Taking this opportunity, I would also like to extend to all of you my best wishes for Eid-ul-Fitr which we celebrated last week.

Ladies and Gentleman,

Despite some complaints, thanks to the democratic, multicultural and tolerant structure of the Canadian society, Muslims in Canada are generally able to maintain their cultural practices and exercise their religious freedoms. Democracy, tolerance and respect, however, are not new to Muslims. As opposed to the widespread belief, the basic ideas of ‘democracy’ were very much in use in early Islamic states in the form of ‘city democracy’.

Our Prophet (Peace be upon Him) never acted on himself. He had his wise men representing different sections of city society. The period of Four Caliphs was the seal of democratic governance in the Islamic tradition. The Abbasid period revived many of the institutions of democratic governance. The district courts, suburban mayors, mechanisms of “checks and balances” were in practice. There were no elections as we know today, but there were councils and advisory bodies. The experience of Andalucía, on the other hand, was much broader and deeper in its experience of what we may call ‘democracy’, as it was more multicultural and multi-religious.

In all those Islamic traditions the utmost emphasized and respected notion was “justice”; not only for the Muslims, but also for the followers of other faiths. As one of the meanings of the word, Islam, is “Peace”, major Islamic states in history, such as the Ottoman Empire, always prioritized ‘the peaceful existence’ of different religious communities within their rulings. Before the notions of democracy, human rights or multiculturalism, as we understand today, was even developed; Turks embraced the eternal Islamic values of humanity, peace, progress, justice and empathy. For that reason, after six centuries long Ottoman rule, over 50 countries ranging from the Balkans to the Middle East, from West Asia to North Africa with their own religion, culture and language. During the 600 years of the reign, thanks to the harmonious and tolerant structures, communities from different faiths were able to thrive within the wider society.   

However, the centuries long wars under the pretext of religious objectives as well as territorial and military interests such as the Crusades led to the estrangement of the Eastern and the Western countries. The deep rooted historical conflict reached its peak with the colonization of Muslim societies by the Christian West. The estrangement continuing to this day as well as the problem of democracy in Muslim societies can be explained by three major issues: the negative legacy of colonialism, structural problems in the international political economic order and the more recent trend of “othering” Islamic communities.

Firstly, with the socio-economic downfall of the Islamic states alongside the negative implications of colonialism, democracy, a legitimate heritage of Mediterranean tradition, was transformed in Muslim eyes as the apparatus of the Colonial occupier: It became earthly, infidel, colonial, and hence illegitimate. And more than anything else, the notion of democracy has lost its centuries-old organic tie with Muslim peoples. The Colonial past has relieved the Muslim peoples from the ability to write their own histories and fates. The only option presented to them was the ready-to-consume democracy and development recipes of the West which led to the deep-rooted alienation for these concepts in the Islamic world. So, we have to bring this alienation to an end. We have to engage in a pedagogic campaign to teach the true credentials of Islamic tradition.

Secondly, the structural problems in the world order creating inequality and injustice underlie the major problems of the Islamic world.  The level of economic and social development in most of the Islamic countries is clearly below their potential. 

Islamic countries, home to vast natural resources, are not getting the share they deserve from global welfare. According to the World Bank indicators, Islamic countries which make up 22% of the world population, have unfortunately only received around 7% of the global economic output in 2009. The average per capita income in the Islamic countries is below the average of developing countries. So, we have to make sure that political economic conditions of the Islamic world within which democracy and human development can flourish are supported by the larger international order.

Thirdly, the more recent trend of ‘othering’ communities perpetuates the estrangement between the contemporary Eastern and the Western societies. Trying to divide the global community by creating an ‘other’ and highlighting its weaknesses and backwardness can only aim domination and exploitation of that ‘other’. Some political circles together with some media organs in the West have fervently been othering the Muslim world. Based on the horrible atrocities committed in the name of religion and fundamentalist conducts of some political actors, they promote the idea that Islam is inherently problematic and so the Muslim world cannot achieve modernity. Instead of trying to understand the real causes of the problems and support the intellectual, economic and political potentialities, they choose to undermine the Muslim world by rendering the Islamic culture worthless.      

Although terrorism has no religion, no nationality or ethnicity, unfortunately, today Islam is easily associated with terror to the point of rising Islamophobia in the world. Islam, in particular, and its followers have become targets. The expressions used in the media such as "Islamic terrorism", “Islamic radicals”, "Islamic bombs" and "violent Islam" have resulted in a negative perception of our religion. The Western media is often propagating negative stereotypes of Muslims and fueling anti-Muslim prejudice. The  "scapegoating" of Muslims by the media and politicians in the 21st century is comparable to the rise of anti-semitism in the early 20th century.

The latest shooting that took place in Norway is a striking point in this case. Right after the attack, many in the West rushed in to speculate that it was perpetrated by “Islamic terrorists”. When it was revealed that a Norwegian committed the massacre, the western media ceased referring to the attacks as a case of terrorism. The descriptions quickly shifted into “a militant with xenophobic worldview”, “deranged person”, “right wing extremist”, “Islamophobic militant” and so on. How deplorable that the word “terrorism” seems to be exclusively reserved for Islam.

There are more subtle attempts to marginalize Islam. By highlighting certain isolated events or interpreting the Islamic teachings in a deliberate way, some circles promote further division and hate in their societies. For instance, a few weeks ago, I was watching a Canadian TV show which broadcasts nationally, in which a so-called “religious expert” was the guest. To my surprise, this “expert” claimed that the Holy Quran in general, and Sura 119 in particular talks pejoratively about Jesus Christ and therefore insults all Christians. You don’t need to be a student of theology to know that the Holy Quran would never degenerate one of God’s messengers as all of them are recognized equal, which is, by the way, one of the most important pillars of the faith. On the other hand, as opposed to what this “expert” claims, there are not 119 but only 114 Suras in our Holy Book. What a cheap way to create antagonism between the followers of different faiths!       

Unfortunately, the many examples of really humane and tolerant teachings and episodes in Islam and its history are often overlooked. The attribution of Islamic religious motives for every bloodshed ignores the fact that Muslims can do evil, not because Islam directs it, but because, like in other terror attacks, terrorists themselves individually choose to do so. Knowledgeable people around the world have the responsibility to resist politicization of religion and reject violence in any form.   

The task, however, is two fold - one for Muslim societies and the other for the West. Instead of blaming the West for all the failures, I believe, it would be fair and just for the Muslim societies to reflect on their own mistakes and shortcomings. Arguing that present ills arise from the historical role of the outsiders is not baseless. But, bluntly put, Muslim polities must accept the primary responsibility to advance their societies politically, socially and economically and use the intellectual capacity of their own people.

We certainly can start by looking at the role of women and the civil society in Muslim nations. To give just a couple of examples, for the most part of the Muslim world, the status of women remained virtually unchanged in the last century. In fact, 20 of the 25 lowest-ranking countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Gender Gap Index, which ranks women’s participation in society, are Muslim-majority countries. We cannot become modern societies until this is changed.

Despite the worldwide trend toward democratization, authoritarianism in the Muslim world has long been persisting. Several dictatorships continue to rule to this day at the expense of their own people. Majority of the Islamic states failed to conduct a smooth transition to an electoral democracy which is known to be the most effective way to enable the participation of civil society. Therefore, we should no longer allow that the image of Islam be tarnished because of issues such as gender inequality and authoritarianism.

Islam lends itself to a rational and humanistic understanding of the world. This quality produced remarkable social and political achievements in the past, contributing to the transmission of classical thought to the modern era’s collective wisdom. Philosophers and scientists of the Islamic world contributed enormously to technology, both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding their own inventions and innovations. Muslim scholars such as Ibn-i Sina (medicine), El-Farabi (Philosophy and Logic), Ibn-i Khaldun (historiography and economics), Ibn-i Rushd (Philisophy) and Ali Qushji (astronomy and mathematics) are all known to lay the foundations of the Western Enlightenment. However, with the decline of the socio-economic conditions in the region and the oppression on independent reasoning (ijtihad), the contributions of Islamic civilization in science and technology gradually came to an end and the Golden Age of the early Islamic civilization couldn’t be sustained. Such past achievements demonstrate that Islam is not the problem. Rather, issues of governance need to be considered in the debate about Islam and democracy.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The human potential of any country prospers when freedom, tolerance and mutual respect come together in a democratic environment, and makes regimes stronger in the long run. That is what the experience of Turkey tells us. My intention here is not to impose my country as a model but to share our experience with you very briefly. One should not forget that historical conditions and political factors do differ for all the countries. At the outset, Turkey recognized its shortcomings and worked to overcome them, thanks to the founder of our Republic, Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In this respect, a key factor in the Turkish case, I believe, has been the principle of secularism which has become the cornerstone of the political structure in Turkey. Although, today Turkey has 125000 mosques, the most per capita mosques in the Islamic world, the state remains equidistant from all, within the religious diversity of society. 

Similarly, Turkey’s progress in terms of women’s rights is quite remarkable among the Muslim societies. With an understanding of their essential role to advance the Turkish society, women’s social, political and economic rights were recognized in 1930’s, which were ahead of the international standards of the time. As a result today, women contribute greatly to the Turkish political and socio-economic life by holding positions within academia, judiciary, diplomacy, healthcare, education and other branches of bureaucracy. However, as elsewhere, what the Turkish women have achieved is not enough and we have to work more to cope with the difficulties they confront such as sexist prejudices. Keeping in mind the words of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) that ‘Heaven lies under the feet of our Mothers’, we have to support women’s struggle to achieve what they really deserve.

Above all, since the self-imposed democratization and introduction of multiparty system, Turkish people have been voting governments in and out of office. While faith continued to play an important role in people’s lives, parliamentary democracy was consolidated and performed a socializing function on all. Therefore, humbleness aside, Turkey has managed to achieve the coexistence of Islam together with the values of democracy, human rights and secularism. The economic progress recorded especially in the last decade as well as the reforms to improve democracy have further strengthened Turkey’s position as a Muslim society.  Being able to talk to the East within the West; and to the West within the East, Turkey assumes a role to improve and promote inter-religious and intercultural dialogue. As the co-chair of the Alliance of Civilizations, together with Spain, Turkey aims at bridging the gap between conflicting perceptions and overcoming the destructive stereotypes between Western countries and the Muslim world.

The West, for its part, must avoid neo-Orientalist generalizations in dealing with Islam and Muslim societies. Unhelpful and ill-informed comments by prejudiced individuals and groups still find ways to our e-mails and media outlets. Informed empathy, on all sides is the best way to avoid Islamophobia as well as Westophobia.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In this context, I believe that not only the governments but also the individual Muslims and Muslim organizations should take on some special responsibilities. As “Ambassadors of Islam” in Canada, every conscious and responsible Muslim should try to find opportunities to convey the true message of Islam. Ascribing to the authentic Islamic values such as wisdom, justice, solidarity and respect, Muslims should aim to be the role-models within their societies. They shouldn’t let the political events of the day to raise doubts or misgivings about Islam.

Similarly, the Association of Progressive Muslims of Onatrio should continue its hard work to promote the true credentials of Islam, fight with intolerance in the societies where we live and help Muslim immigrants to better and faster integrate in their new environment. With an active community engagement, you can challenge the misperceptions around the idea of ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and prove that Muslims are tolerant, progressive and as adoptable as any other community to the Canadian society.    

I would like to thank each and every one of you again for taking time to listen to me and honouring me with this award. It means a lot to me.

Thank you very much.