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Interview with Turkey's Abdullah Gul: Egypt should embrace secularism

In an interview, Turkey's President Abdullah Gul says that Egypt should embrace secularism based on a 'respect for all faiths;' that Russia's role in ending violence in Syria is key and Moscow needs to be engaged to act constructively; and that economic power in the world is shifting.

By Nathan Gardels / May 29, 2012

This combination of two photos shows Egyptian presidential candidates, from left, Ahmed Shafiq (Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister) and Mohammed Morsi (of the Muslim Brotherhood). The two will contest next month's runoff vote. Turkish President Abdullah Gul says: 'If you use the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of secularism, as practiced in the United States or the United Kingdom, it is something that people should feel comfortable with. All it means is a separation of the state and religion.'

Khalil Hamra; Nasser Nasser/AP/file

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Chicago

Abdullah Gul is the president of Turkey. He was interviewed by Global Viewpoint Network editor Nathan Gardels during his visit to the United States for the NATO summit in Chicago earlier this month.

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Nathan Gardels: Due to the rapid rise of the emerging powers, American-led Globalization 1.0 is yielding to a new era – Globalization 2.0 – characterized by “non-Western modernity” and the interdependence of plural identities. The two fastest-growing economies in the world are China, which is reviving some of its old Confucian ways as it prospers, and Turkey, a secular state ruled by an Islamic-oriented party.

How do you see this evolving world looking out from the old Ottoman Empire?

Abdullah Gul: What we are seeing today is a circle completing itself. A couple of centuries ago, China was the most important economy in the world. Then the industrial revolution came and England moved forward, followed by the United States. Now, once again, the center of economic gravity in the world is going back to where it was. More wealth is being spread around to others. We live in a plural world with many power centers. Identities can no longer be prioritized as “Western” or “Islamic” or “Chinese.”

You are right that so-called modernity, as you put it, no longer belongs just to the West. We have managed to fashion it to fit the values of an Islamic society just as the Chinese have been able to style economic prosperity, science, technology to their ancient civilizational ways.

From a more philosophical point of view, though, I would say that the concept of modernity is itself debatable. More properly, we should talk about fundamental values – social justice, equality, respect for the faiths, languages and ways of others; a governing system and economy that delivers the goods to its people.

When you approach the issue in this way, and explain to the people that their values are not in contradiction with new ways and means to improve their lives, they take ownership of the process of development. Greater prosperity flows from their confidence and willingness to open up and engage the world on their own terms. Because of this sense of ownership, the idea of democracy becomes more strongly rooted. It can’t be easily dislodged because the people and their government are aligned in their aspirations.

This is the reform path we are taking in Turkey today. I think you will see China and, despite its present challenges and difficulties, also Russia move toward democracy as we understand it: good governance that abides by the rule of law and accountability.

If the idea of “being modern” is imposed from the top by authoritarian means, it doesn’t work. That amounts to social engineering. There is resistance to it because it is seen as importing Western values. We have seen this reaction clearly in the Arab Spring uprisings which overthrew authoritarian “modernizers” across the region. The Arabs are now seeking their own path commensurate with their values.

Gardels: In a speech earlier this year in Cairo, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the Muslim Brotherhood and others contending for power in their new democracy that they “should not fear secularism,” which has been the foundation of Turkey’s rapid economic development.

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