Religion and diplomacy in the 21st century: the Turkish model

Published by Today's Zaman, 17 October 2011

When newspapers briefly mentioned that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu joined in prayer at a mosque in Bosnia during a state visit, I was surprised that the story was not debated in the Turkish press.

This shows how far Turkey has come toward feeling at home in its own skin. There was a time when Muslim Turkish women wearing headscarves were not admitted to events at Turkish embassies. But more than domestic debates on religion and secularism, what we are seeing in Turkey now is a fast-emerging model for the practice of diplomacy in the 21st century.

A strong unwritten code, mostly the residue of 19th and early 20th century classical ideas of diplomatic service, still guides practices in foreign ministries around the world. One of the biggest taboos on the list is the topic of religion. The conventional wisdom not only forbids talking about religion with colleagues or peers in other countries, but also forces diplomats and politicians to hide their own religious beliefs. Religion is seen as a topic outside of the craft of diplomacy, save for the occasional handshake with an important but liberal religious figure. When Tony Blair’s personal faith became a public discussion in the UK, his spin doctor famously declared, “We don’t do God!”

Since the 1970s, however, this conventional diplomatic wisdom has been suffocating foreign policy practice and hindering countries from engaging with one of the most important factors in today’s world. Since international relations theorists and practitioners are some 20 years behind sociologists and political scientists in grasping the place of religion in the world today, the world’s high-flying diplomatic elite remain ignorant and detached from the topic. This was what Madeline Albright lamented in her book “The Mighty and the Almighty.” Ms. Albright pointed out that she had countless advisors on every possible issue, but none on religion. While 9/11 and the war on terror created an exploitative market of religion and terror experts, for most governments conversations on religion do not go beyond counterinsurgency policies.

Recently, the White House has initiated efforts to bring religion experts within the giant US foreign policy machinery together in various working groups, to understand how religion affects global affairs. The Norwegian and Dutch foreign ministries also increasingly sought to get their head around religion and are engaging with religious figures. Canada is considering creating an ambassador-at-large on religious freedom issues, just like the US. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has only one staff member in its human rights team whose portfolio includes religion as well as a few other “minor” concerns. That’s probably more than the French foreign ministry, as the domestic context in France and its obsession with “cults” results in an utter ignorance of religious issues.

In all of these cases, engagement with religion is only at the early stage of recognizing the truth of religion’s role in today’s world. But diplomats in the field continue to be deaf and mute, blinded and handicapped by the old conventional wisdom. There is a worrying belief among American diplomats that the US Constitution bans them from engaging with religion. On the other hand, for some other countries, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, officially sponsored missionary work and the manipulation of key religious figures are seen as important assets in their toolkit for advancing their national interests.

Silently, Turkey has taken the conversation to the next level; it neither shuns the topic nor promotes a particular brand of religion in pursuing its geopolitical ambitions. It plays diplomacy in extremely secular and pragmatic ways, yet, at the same time sees no problem in expressing religious belief, using religious language and appealing to religious values when it needs to.

The Turkish prime minister’s visit to a key Shiite shrine in Iraq to promote Sunni-Shiite relations might have been dismissed by Western diplomatic circles as a populist and non-diplomatic gesture. However, for those of us who have been raising the alarm about the increasing pressure at the Shiite and Sunni fault lines, this was in fact a diplomatic act for the future of the region. Unlike all other models of religious engagement in the 21st century, Turkey is managing to use its religious capital not only with fellow Muslims but also with non-Muslims and the wider world. While their European and American counterparts find it naive, many of us have welcomed Turkish and Spanish efforts to create an Alliance of Civilizations.

This silent paradigm shift is no coincidence. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy makers are schooled not only in classical Western concepts but also in Islamic thought and deeply appreciate the complexities and power of religious beliefs. It seems the “Turkish model” is useful not only for helping Muslim-majority states think about balancing conservatism and democracy. It can also help Western diplomats think about how they can update their diplomatic framework.