It was in these impressive surroundings that Asharq Al-Awsat met with President Gül this week for a wide-ranging interview. Seated beneath a portrait of Atatürk in his small but neatly-ordered office, the president spoke via an interpreter about his view of the crisis in Syria, relations between Turkey and Iraq, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a number of other pressing regional matters, as well as his fond memories of his time in Jeddah and at the UK’s University of Exeter.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Turkey is hosting the “Friends of Syria” summit, and it has shouldered many burdens and witnessed first-hand the suffering of the Syrian people. In your view, what should be done? What is the international community’s responsibility in this regard?
Abdullah Gül: Before anything else, let me say that we are suffering regarding what is happening in Syria. The country is destroying itself with its own hands in front of our very eyes. We, as friends of Syria, have warned of this since the beginning. We warned that the situation could deteriorate and that things would move from bad to worse unless we see a move towards radical reform. We shared these concerns with the Syrian administration, but it refused to listen, and instead it resorted to violence and arms.
At this point, it became incumbent on us to stand with the oppressed, and that is why we took the decision to stand with the Syrian people and opposition. Of course, all those who consider themselves friends of Syria and who are currently meeting in Istanbul are not content to simply watch what is happening there, namely the terrible bloodshed that is taking place across the country.
Therefore, there must be huge international pressure to reach a solution which allows Syria to recover.
Q: Do you think the situation in Syria could allow for the survival of Bashar Al-Assad or the ruling Ba’athist party? Do you think international military intervention is now necessary to put an end to the conflict?
Our major desire is for Bashar Al-Assad to act realistically, and not to remain detached from reality. His persistence in his current approach means bringing greater and greater ruin to Syria. At the same time, I do not support foreign military intervention because we do not know how this, or other such proposals, will end. I am of the view that the Syrian people will do what they must do to draw up their own roadmap.
Q: During an Asharq Al-Awsat interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki two months ago, I asked him about relations with Turkey, and he said that Istanbul is interfering in Iraqi affairs. Are you satisfied with Turkish-Iraqi bilateral relations?
The territorial unity, sovereignty, and independence of Iraq is all that Turkey wants, and this is something that I announced at the beginning of the war. Since the beginning of the current crisis in Syria, Turkey has not interfered in Iraqi affairs. On the other hand, there are some parties that did interfere in Iraqi affairs from the drafting of the constitution to arranging certain situations in the country; but not Turkey. Turkey has always remained an equal distance from all Iraqi factions and it has never distinguished between any ethnicity or sect. We only want stability and unity for Iraq, as well as safety and security, nothing else.
We do not support foreign interference in any country. We believe that every country enjoys the right to choose its own path. Despite some shortcomings in the Iraqi democratic process, this process is moving. There are elections and a political will emanating from the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people must decide their own affairs themselves, without any interference.
Q: As you know, two years ago, the Arab region was embroiled in uprisings and revolutions which ultimately served to bring Islamist parties to power. In the midst of all of this, everybody pointed to the success of the Turkish model and the success of the party [Justice and Development] that you were previously a member of before taking office. However some of these parties have rejected Turkish advice to adopt a secular political system like Turkey’s. So, in light of all this, what is your advice to the leaderships of these parties?
Each country has its own unique characteristics, and facts related to it, that cannot be ignored. The fact is that one cannot reproduce the experience of any country and adopt it as a model for another country. It is true that what happened in Turkey over the past ten years can serve as a source of inspiration for some countries, particularly a country with a majority Muslim population that is in harmony with the democratic process and democratic principles.
However in the end, each country has its own unique features and sensitivities, and it is up to the country itself to find the correct path to institutionalize the principles of democracy in a manner that satisfies its people.
Q: You stated on more than one occasion that there is no contradiction between secularism and Islam, and that the secret of Turkey’s success over the past decade lies in this alignment between secularism and Islam. Do you still hold to this view?
I would first like to say that there is no contradiction or conflict between Islam and democracy. Fundamental rights—for individuals and peoples—must be guaranteed. This is not just an important issue, it is vital. The election of the leaders that govern the country must rise from the will of the people. This is something that has the highest priority. Yes, Turkey—according to its constitution—is a secular country, but we do not suffer, as individuals or a people, from our commitment to our Islamic principles.
Q: A few weeks ago you expressed your annoyance with the delay in drafting a new constitution which reports claim will transform Turkey into a presidential system. What progress has been made towards this?
Drafting a new constitution from scratch, which is in line with the aspirations of the Turkish people, requires serious work. There is a committee that has been tasked with drafting it, but I had doubts that this committee would succeed in drafting a new constitution.
There are also discussions currently taking place about moving from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. Discussions are on-going on this issue but regardless of whether we move to a presidential system or remain as a parliamentary one, this will be decided democratically. Establishing and upholding democracy and expressing the will of the people are the most important criteria.
Q: What is your personal preference, Mr President? A parliamentary system or a presidential one?
Each one has its advantages and disadvantages. The most important thing for me is for the concept of democracy to take root, and to have a constitution that satisfies the people, for in the end this constitution will be presented to the people in a referendum.
Q: If we turn to the issue of Iran, how will Turkey respond if Iran chooses the path of nuclear armament?
We do not want our neighbors to possess nuclear weapons, and the general principle that we hold to is for the Middle East as a whole to be free of nuclear arms. For our part, we are working to find diplomatic solutions, and we prefer crises to be resolved by dialogue.
Q: There are deep differences between the Turkish and Iranian positions on the situation in Syria, and we have heard a lot of criticism from Iran of Turkey’s position towards the crisis. What’s your view of this?
The difference of opinion with Iran regarding policies on Syria is no secret. Turkey stood with the Syrian people, while Iran’s position in this regard is also clear to see, and this is also no secret. Iran is an important neighboring country for us, and our bilateral relations are good, although we want to eliminate the political tensions that are present in the region in general.
I want to warn the leaders in our region about sectarian division and playing on this in public. This is painful and we must completely avoid this. I do not think that sectarian discourse has anything to do with religion and its principles, but rather this is based purely in politics. This is very dangerous, and the pressures that we are currently witnessing may have serious consequences.
This is a huge test for our region which must not fall into the trap of sectarian discrimination. In the past we talked about a “clash of civilizations” and warned against this, but what we are witnessing today could incite a conflict within Islam itself, particularly if we begin to move towards sectarian discrimination. The huge potential of the Muslim community will be wasted in peripheral conflicts that will go nowhere.
Q: Some Iranian leaders have accused Turkey, on more than one occasion, of leading a pro-Sunni campaign. Does Turkey see itself as representative of the Sunnis?
These allegations, that we support this sect or group or that, are completely unrealistic. We want to see stability and social and economic development in the Islamic world, and for all Muslims to live in an atmosphere of freedom and democracy. Whether the Shi’ites or the Sunnis are the majority in a country, an atmosphere of understanding and support should prevail between them, not to mention an atmosphere of democracy and transparency. If we are solely defending the Sunni madhab [Islamic doctrine] or the Sunni leaders, we would not have opposed Saddam Hussein, and we would not have told Colonel Gaddafi that he was making a mistake.
What we truly want is for Muslims—regardless of where they come from—to enjoy safety and security within the borders of their countries, as well as for these countries to enjoy territorial integrity and serve their citizens through democratic means. So why should the Christian world and its people enjoy safety, security, and democratic standards while we, as Muslims, not enjoy this in our region? When I say this, I am not talking about exporting certain models of governance, for there are differences between systems, and monarchies and republics, not to mention the fact that the happiness of the people and the rule of law are the most important criteria in this issue. These are among the advantages of the Muslims and the religion of Islam. The people and nations choose their own systems and there is no conflict over this issue so long as they serve their people in a manner that satisfies them.
Q: Saudi-Turkish relations have enjoyed a great deal of expansion under your presidency? What further developments would you like to see?
His majesty King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz has played a huge role in developing Saudi-Turkish relations. He was keen to visit me in Ankara after I was elected president, despite the fact that he had visited Turkey less than one year earlier. For my part, I visited him in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Of course, I have good and brotherly relations with a large number of Saudi officials, most prominently Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz.
The growing relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey are very important, and these are good at all levels; economically, politically, and more. There have been a number of reciprocal visits, and so relations in all fields are being strengthened, even in terms of security and military matters, as well as defense manufacturing and so forth. The Saudi Chief of the General Staff [General Hussein Bin Abdullah Al-Qabil] has recently visited me, while the Turkish Chief of Staff [Genernal Necdet Özel] previously visited the Kingdom. All areas of cooperation between us are open and are developing according to the interests of our two countries.
Q: Can you reveal some of your personal memories of Saudi Arabia, particularly Jeddah where you lived for a number of years?
I have many beautiful memories, and it is enough that my daughter was born there. I know—as does my wife—all of Jeddah’s neighborhoods and alleyways, while my wife, of course, knows Jeddah’s markets! Today, we are well aware of the spread of the newly built commercial complexes, and whenever we visit Jeddah we see these, and feel a sense of pride. I also cannot forget the souq and the Jeddah corniche. Regardless of how many luxurious mall complexes there are, you cannot overlook the corniche and the Old City in central Jeddah; they have a special character that I can still recall.
Q: What are you reading these days, Mr. President?
I am focusing on reading history. There are many books that deal with political and intellectual issues that I am keen to read, but as president I am currently focusing on reading history-related issues.
Q: Are there any authors or intellectuals who have influenced you?
In Turkey, my generation benefitted from a large number of intellectuals, most prominently Necip Fazil Kisakürek. My generation benefited greatly from the influence of his work on our thinking.
Q: Leaders prefer different types of movies, for example US President Barack Obama recently revealed that he prefers to watch comedies, while Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabbah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, prefers historical movies. What kind of movies do you prefer? Do you have the opportunity to watch movies with your family?
There is no possibility for me to watch films with my children because they live abroad, but I do like to watch movies with my wife. The last film that we watched was Lincoln, which was excellent.
Q: Daniel Day-Lewis gave a strong performance, did he not?
No doubt about it.
Q: We could go on forever, but it seems that we are out of time, Mr. President.
You are welcome. You have taken me on a trip back to Jeddah, and I couldn’t have been happier about that.