Turkey, the only predominantly Muslim country that is a member of NATO, has now become involved in a major conflict region along with the other NATO member countries. Turkey was involved militarily in Libya and is now accommodating a huge number of Syrian refugees who have fled the massacres of the Syrian army. Turkey is involved in the reconstruction process in Afghanistan, along with other NATO member countries. Therefore, Turkey has been playing a dominant role in Asia, as can be seen from its active participation in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This is the first time Turkey has played the role of secretary general of the OIC.
Bangladesh could benefit from associating with Turkey -- whose geopolitical significance in the 21st century is becoming increasingly apparent, not only in the OIC, but also within other international organizations -- if it extends support to Turkey in international forums. Bilaterally, Bangladesh could exploit Turkey’s vast markets by exporting garments, pharmaceutical products, ceramics and shoes. Thorough research of the market would have to be undertaken by the Bangladeshi Embassy in Ankara and a salesmanship drive -- not only by diplomats but also by the business community -- would be imperative. The business community in Bangladesh should further develop its relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to export their products. They should not depend on the American and European markets only. At the same time, the business community should diversify exportable products in line with modern technologies. Presently, the volume of trade between the two countries stands at $1 billion, and efforts could be made by the business community to reach the target of $3 billion by 2015, as set by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan while visiting Bangladesh in 2010.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1976 following the changeover of the administration in Bangladesh, relations between the two Muslim, brotherly countries are growing, but not in the way expected given the potential that exists between the two countries. No serious effort has been made to cultivate relations since the visit to Turkey of President Ziaur Rahman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, despite the exchange of high-level visits between the two countries. While in Dhaka during a 2011 visit to Bangladesh, President Abdullah Gül rightly said the present level of economic and commercial relations does not reflect the potential of the relationship between the two countries. I will also take the liberty of adding that political relations have not strengthened between the two countries as they should have. Historically, they were bound by the bond of Muslim brotherhood following World War I.
The Pan-Islamic movement against the British known as the Khilafat Movement, which was spearheaded by Moulana Shaukat Ali and Moulana Mohammad Ali of Bengal, was joined by Mohon Das Karam Chand Gandhi, Moulana Abul Kalam Azad, Moulana Akram Khan and A. K. Fazlul Haq, amongst others, but the extra-territorial loyalty of Indian leaders was defeated when Mustafa Kemal Pasha of Turkey crushed the invading Greek forces, culminating in the abolition of the sultanate in November 1922 and the transformation of Turkey into a secular republic in 1923. National poet Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poem on Kemal Pasha was well known in Bengal, now Bangladesh. The Kemal Atatürk Model High School in Daganbhuiyan, Feni, which was set up in 1927, is a reflection of the reverence shown by the people of Bengal towards the leader of Turkey. During a visit to Bangladesh in December 1982, Turkish President Kenan Evren paid a visit to the Kemal Ataturk High School at Daganbhuiyan, where he donated equipment. Former Foreign Minister ARS Doha and I accompanied the visiting Turkish team to Daganbhuiyan.
It may be noted that many Turkish words have enriched the Bengali language and literature as well. Topkhana, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located, and Pilkhana, home of the headquarters of Bangladesh Rifle, are both names derived from Turkish.
Bangladesh and Turkey have maintained bilateral relations in the defense sector since 1978, when the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement. An agreement for the training of military officers from Bangladesh was signed in 2004. According to the Bangladesh Embassy in Ankara, 3,000 military officers from Bangladesh were trained in Turkey, while a large number of Turkish soldiers were trained in Bangladesh. The two sides signed an agreement on cooperation in the health sector, and an air service agreement was also signed during Erdoğan’s visit to Bangladesh in 2010, which allowed Turkish Airlines (THY) to schedule flights to the airport in Dhaka. This agreement is a continuation of a 1997 civil aviation agreement. A number of agreements are in place which could be utilized in the further expansion of economic relations between the two countries. The economic and technical cooperation agreements of 1979 and the avoidance of double taxation agreement of 1999 need to be revived.
Turkish foreign policy appears to be pragmatic and constructive, which was reflected in the Turkish-Brazilian deal to swap nuclear material with Iran in May of last year, orchestrated in order to avoid conflict; its “no” vote in the Security Council during the fourth round of economic sanctions against Iran; and Turkish criticism of Israel’s policy towards the Gaza Strip. The present leading role in organizing the friends of oppressed Syrian people against the oppressive, dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad is really praiseworthy, as well as its effort to look after huge numbers of Syrian refugees on the border. İstanbul also hosted Western and Arab League meetings on Syria. Visits by heads of government or state offer an opportunity to understand each other’s mindsets and, through processes on current affairs and an exchange of notes, become useful if followed up and implemented. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was in Turkey last week to reciprocate the visit of the Turkish prime minister in 2010. During her visit, the Bangladeshi prime minister emphasized the expansion of bilateral trade and more investments from Turkey, in the energy sector in particular, stating that he hopes the current trade volume will increase from the figure of approximately $1 billion today to $3 billion over the next few years.
*Mohammad Amjad Hossain, a retired diplomat from Bangladesh, writes from Virginia in the US. This piece was originally published on www.newagebd.com