Joint Interview With Turkish President Abdullah Gul

JOINT INTERVIEW” WITH TURKISH PRESIDENT ABDULLAH GUL

Die Zeit
Sept 15 2011
Hamburg, Germany

[translated from German]

by Michael Thumann and Ozlem Topcu of the German publication Die Zeit
and by Suleyman Bag and Mahmut Cebi of the Turkish publication Zaman,
in Istanbul;

“Integration Means Serving”

President Abdullah Gul has his residence in Ankara, but he travels to
Istanbul to unwind whenever he can. The view here is nicer, he says
during our interview at the presidential residence in the leafy Tarabya
district, pointing to the Bosporus. It is simply too beautiful here,
he says, especially when there is a full moon. Sometimes he moves
official talks or meetings with counterparts to an outdoor spot,
where they sit directly on the water under an awning. Unfortunately,
that will not work today, Gul apologizes, because his wife already
has a meeting scheduled there, and of course she takes precedence. Gul
receives Die Zeit and the Turkish newspaper Zaman (which means “Time”)
during the 50th year of the Turkish migration to Germany. On this
occasion, we are attempting a small experiment for the first time:
a joint interview by Die Zeit and Zaman.

[Die Zeit] Mr President, it was 50 years ago that Turks began
emigrating to Germany. You yourself were 11 years old at the time. As
a young boy, did you think, “Hopefully we will go to Germany too”?

[Gul] To be honest, no. None of my relatives went to Germany as guest
workers either. But I experienced that period up close and in person.

I come from Kayseri, and many people from there did emigrate to
Germany. The number of people who did so was especially obvious during
the summer vacation, when they arrived with their nice cars.

Volkswagen, Opel, Ford, Taunus. They were also conspicuous because
they wore chic hats and clothing. The guest workers were the talk
of the town! Kayseri is a commercial town, and whenever the workers
came from Germany everyone was happy to get their business. That was
always very exciting.

[Zaman] Germany is the land of poets and thinkers. Is there one of
them that you like in particular?

[Gul] There is not just one. Germany has produced many thinkers, Kant,
Hegel. We Turks revere Goethe anyway because of his West-Eastern
Divan. Fortunately, many of the German classics are available
in Turkish. In that way, they were also able to influence Turkish
thought. That influence also came through science, especially through
German Jews who came to Turkey in the 1930s and 1940s.

[Die Zeit] Have Turkish guest workers in Germany received enough
recognition?

[Gul] Back then, the Turks were responding to an invitation. Germany
needed manpower, and so the Turks hit the road. Of course, even then
we knew here how industrious and disciplined German society was. And
the thing with Turks is that if the environment is right, they can
work very hard. And they did. They helped Germany get back on its
feet. The Turkish guest workers contributed with the sweat of their
brow to Germany becoming one of the world’s strongest economic powers.

And I am certain that that fact was also adequately appreciated.

Particularly at that time. These days, that Turkish contribution seems
to have been forgotten. The emphasis now is on the problems. Yes,
they do exist – ultimately, the Turks at that time came to Germany
from a completely different culture. Many of them came directly from
rural areas in Anatolia to big cities like Munich or Frankfurt without
having ever been to Istanbul, Ankara, or Izmir. There was culture
shock. Neither Turkey nor Germany gave those people any orientation.

[Zaman] Germany has pursued an active integration policy since 2005.

At around the same time, Turkey began to exhibit more concern for
“foreign Turks.” Is there competition over the German Turks?

[Gul] I do not think so. Many of our compatriots live abroad. We simply
want to be attuned to their needs in a more professional manner. That
is why we have established a separate agency for that, which is part
of the Ministry of Labour. After all, Turkey and Germany do have a
common objective: the integration of those people. During the first
decades, the important thing was to get the economy going, everyone
was busy working, and no thought was given to that. Now people are
thinking about it.

[Die Zeit] How important is language?

[Gul] Everything hinges on language. These days, the situation should
be that a German citizen of Turkish origin speaks accent-free German.

And how is the best way to learn that? In kindergarten. And if Turks
in Germany do not send their children to kindergarten, then we need
to find out why. Indeed, that is what integration means: following
the rules of the country in which you live. Serving that country. And
that in turn requires motivation. What makes me sad is that sometimes
that motivation is lacking.

[Die Zeit] Why is that?

[Gul] Take German visa policy as an example. I receive e-mails from
prominent businessmen and scientists who report to me on the German
authorities’ restrictive practices on issuing visas. The citizens of
other countries that are not – as we are – candidates for EU accession
do not face such hurdles from Germany. An individual person’s fate
can depend on such a visa. It is as if the close ties between our
two countries do not exist. That also demotivates the Turks who live
in Germany.

[Die Zeit] Who is the president of the Turks in Germany, Mr Wulff
or you?

[Gul] Of course Mr Wulff is the president of German citizens of Turkish
origin. But there are also German Turks who still regard Turkey as
their motherland, whose families live here. Many of them might regard
me as their emotional president. They are German citizens. But they
cannot be simply required to loosen their close ties to their land
of origin.

[Zaman] There are tens of thousands of Germans living in Turkey. Do
you see yourself as their president too?

[Gul] Without a doubt! I have German compatriots, just as I have
Christian, Jewish, or Armenian compatriots. I am their president,
I celebrate with them when they have holidays, and I visit their
places of worship. Of course, they are in the minority, for which
reason they are sometimes forgotten. But I do not forget them.

[Zaman] Many people in Germany and Europe are hoping for a
“Euro-Islam,” and an Islamic conference was held in Berlin. What do
you think of that?

[Gul] Islam is certainly one of Germany’s religions, professed
by German citizens as well. Thus, concern must be shown for the
followers of that religion, and it must be ensured that they are able
to practice it.

[Zaman] Have you heard of Thilo Sarrazin?

[Gul] Who?

[Zaman] Thilo Sarrazin, the former member of the Executive Board of
the Bundesbank.

[Gul] Oh yes, of course. I followed the debate and am familiar with
his theories. Well, every society engenders such extreme, marginal
views. They should not be dwelt on for too long.

[Zaman] Do you perceive a danger of Islamophobia in Europe?

[Gul] Yes, I do. But the question is this: What is a modern state? For
me, it is a multicultural state. It was Europe that gave the world
that modern state, with its democracy and its rule of law. The
theories and their implementation are thoroughly European. The fact
that that same Europe is engendering Islamophobia strikes me as a
complete contradiction. The point is to encourage everyone towards
integration and to tolerate everyone’s culture. After all, it is
not possible to reverse Muslim immigration to Europe. Islamophobia,
anti-Semitism, xenophobia: These are diseases that, once they break
out, are difficult to treat.

[Die Zeit] What role is Islam playing in the Arab Spring?

[Gul] Not a significant one. The most important part is Arab youth.

The regimes have lost face. We live in a world in which all means of
communication are open. Everyone follows everything and compares it to
their own situation. The young Arabs feel that they are living lives
devoid of dignity. They know the difference between right and wrong.

Communication technology is the substructure of the revolution. With
that technology, the West has made the strongest contribution to
that revolution.

[Zaman] Does technology promote democracy?

[Gul] Yes, that is the case in Egypt and Syria.

[Die Zeit] How did you feel when Hosni Mubarak fell in February?

[Gul] When the people revolted, the regime collapsed like a cardboard
box. For me, that happened far too late. There was a pressing need
for the regimes to reform their countries. And when they did not,
the pressure came from below. The people can no longer live with such
old regimes.

[Die Zeit] But you have long had close relations with Syrian ruler
Bashar al-Asad. Following the break with al-Asad, how do things stand
between Turkey and Syria?

[Gul] We are neighbours, and we have drawn the ties between our peoples
tighter. We also had close relations with the Syrian Government. We
urged that reforms be carried out rapidly. I myself repeatedly
brought this up with Mr al-Asad, even before the Arab Spring
broke out. But the government did nothing, and then the situation
escalated. Authoritarian, closed regimes can no longer continue in
this form.

[Die Zeit] Many Syrian opposition figures are in Turkey. Are you now
switching allies: from the Arab rulers to the Arab revolutionaries?

[Gul] We in Turkey have attained certain standards of law and
democracy. We want the peoples in the region to attain that as well.

We sympathize with them when they demand their rights. Just as people
assemble freely in London, Berlin, and Paris, they can do the same
in Turkey too. That is entirely within their rights, and we cannot
interfere with that.

[Die Zeit] What does Turkey have to offer the Arab world?

[Gul] There are historical commonalties, and we have the same
religion. But Turkey is also seen as a source of inspiration. The
Arabs see that, in a country with a Muslim population, democracy
prevails, together with a multiparty system and equality between men
and women. Why, they ask, should that not also be the case with them?

[Die Zeit] The situation in the Middle East is quite explosive. Why
is Turkey intensifying its dispute with Israel right now?

[Gul] That is because of Israel more than Turkey. Last year, a
Turkish aid ship carrying people from 37 countries was attacked in
international waters. Afterward, no weapons were found that could have
been used for a counterattack. One might have expected an apology from
Israel following that attack. They did not apologize and maintained
that they were right, even though they had violated international law.

[Die Zeit] Would the crisis be resolved if Israel were to apologize?

[Gul] Yes, that is our unequivocal demand.

[Die Zeit] So Israel’s embargo against the Gaza Strip would no longer
be an issue for you?

[Gul] The most important point for us is that people were killed in
the action against the aid ship. But the embargo too is not covered
by international law. That is why the EU, Russia, and the American
government have similarly demanded that it be lifted.

[Die Zeit] Could Germany mediate between Israel and Turkey?

[Gul] Berlin certainly could not bring that off.

[Die Zeit] That’s a shame. Does that mean that Germans play no role
in this region from the Turkish perspective?

[Gul] Germans and Turks share a great deal, and the labour recruitment
agreement 50 years ago was not the first time that they got to know
each other. We were comrades in arms in World War I. My residence here
is located on the site of historic meetings between Germans and Turks
during World War I. (He points to the picture window.) Down there
in the Bosporus is where German warships sailed under the Turkish
flag and fired on the Russians in the Black Sea. There were German
generals in the Turkish armed forces, German doctors and nurses. There
are also graves of German nurses who cared for Turkish soldiers. Our
close relations date back to much earlier than 1960.

[Zaman] That was all a long time ago. What can the governments do
today to deepen relations?

[Gul] I would like to see a relationship between Germany and Turkey
that is similar to the one between Germany and France . We should have
government consultations with Germany. That is important to us. When
President Wulff was here last year, he was surprised by how many of my
office staff speak German. My chief adviser attended school in Austria,
and the future ambassador to Berlin attended school in Germany. It is
important to me that the Turkish ambassador in Germany speak German
as well as a German. That has been a shortcoming in the past. Thus,
we are very well prepared for German-Turkish friendship.

[Zaman] What can Turks and Germans do to help ease the relationship
between Europe and the Islamic world?

[Gul] Politicians or businessmen of Turkish origin in Germany, artists,
and athletes can serve as good examples of integration. The German
national soccer team includes young and talented players of Turkish
origin. Everyone is proud of their success. There is a long-standing
tradition of smart people emigrating to the United States. Big
countries have always opened their doors and let people in. That
should not be a fearful prospect, and Germans should not be afraid
of it either.

[translated from German]

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