US Congressman Charlie Dent: Many Americans think Turkey’s leadership in Middle East will be constructive

When Congressman Charlie Dent was offered an opportunity to visit Turkey, he thought »»

When Congressman Charlie Dent was offered an opportunity to visit Turkey, he thought this could be a great opportunity to assess the country’s influence in a tempestuous region.

 He had a chance to see Turkey over the span of a week with his wife, Pamela. Although they had different reasons to be excited about the trip, they both found many more during their stay.

Since 2005, Congressman Dent has represented Pennsylvania’s 15th district in the US House of Representatives. Although a member of the Republican Party, the congressman has been elected four times in an area that generally favors Democratic candidates. Congressman Dent is a member of the US House Committee on Appropriations and serves on several of its subcommittees, including Homeland Security; State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs; and Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies.

He has visited different parts of the Middle East at various times, but had not been to Turkey until October. The trip gave this distinguished couple a chance to meet people from different walks of life in Turkey. Upon his return, Congressman Dent spoke with Sunday’s Zaman on topics ranging from politics to culture and from history to current affairs.

What was your perception of Turkey before this trip? Did your thoughts change after it?

I wasn’t sure if Turkey was going to be a more European or Middle Eastern country before the trip. I wasn’t quite sure. I always sensed that İstanbul was much more European and other parts of Turkey in Anatolia might have been more Middle Eastern. That was my perception walking in, but the more I visited Turkey, the more it struck me as frankly more European than Middle Eastern. The country is much more modern and more secular than I [had] anticipated. Particularly İstanbul is much more secular.

What were your expectations when you accepted the offer to travel to Turkey?

I wanted to visit Turkey because, one, it is a very good ally to the United States. Two, Turkey is strategically very significant, with the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, with what is happening in Syria and its proximity to Iraq, to Iran and the missile defense program, and certainly to Armenia and Georgia to the east. So it is strategically very significant. The fact that Turkey is playing a much larger role as the Arab Spring unfolds is consequential. It appears that Turkey is going to exercise a great deal of leadership, and I believe most Americans think that leadership will largely be constructive. When Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan went to Egypt and talked about the need for Egypt to be a secular nation … I know [this] caused him to be criticized in Egypt, but it was a good message to deliver. My main reason for going was to understand this important ally better. The Iranian missile program, America’s exit from Iraq and the uprisings in Syria are critical issues to Turkey. Turkey is in the middle of it all.

I’ve traveled throughout much of southwest Asia: Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Georgia. When I travel to the Middle East, I usually do not visit tourist destinations. So another added pleasure of Turkey was its fascinating cultural heritage. For me, I had the best of both worlds. This trip was different: We had a lot of traditional government briefings and we also gained the knowledge of Turkey’s rich cultural heritage.

We had better exposure to the Turkish economy and industry then I had anticipated. That was very useful for me to understand the depth of Turkey’s industrial capacity. Their industrial progress over the years is far more advanced than I had anticipated.

There have been comments about Turkey having shifted its axis. The criticism is that Turkey, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] government, has turned its back to Europe and its face to the East. You have met so many politicians in Turkey. Did you feel this shifted axis? In this respect, what is your consideration about the relationship between Turkey and the US?

In terms of Turkey shifting its position to a more eastern orientation, the current administration under the prime minister, Erdoğan, seems to have more appeal to the Islamist elements within Turkey. What I also notice is that Turkey is trying to rebalance its relationship with Islam. And this relationship is different from what you would see in the Arab world. I get the sense that Turkey is very secularized because of Atatürk. It seems that Atatürk’s imprint on Turkish society remains very strong, and he left a very indelible secular mark on the country. There are people within Turkey who want to rebalance the relationship between Islam and the government. But it struck me differently than what you might see in Egypt. In Turkey, the debate between Islam and government is carried out within more confined parameters. I sensed the debate was a narrower one. For instance, should women be covered in government buildings? This is a much more limited discussion then what you might hear from some of the other Arab countries with large Muslim populations. There is a culture war of sorts in Turkey. We use the term “culture war” in America to describe at times political differences on sensitive social issues. But it seems the culture war in Turkey is contained within more restricted parameters.

Turkey wants to play a bigger role within the Middle East. I do not think that it is coming at the expense of its relationship with the United States, although it saddens me to see two great American allies -- Turkey and Israel -- at such a low point in their bilateral relationship. I know that I am and our government is committed to bringing that relationship to a better place.

What do you think about the military and economic relationship between Turkey and the US?

Our military and the Turkish military enjoy a very strong working relationship. The American military does share information and intelligence in real time with our Turkish allies and partners. Again, there is a very close collaboration between these two militaries. I believe the Turkish military would agree with that comment. Our military has been very supportive of Turkey’s attempts to crack down [on] the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. We absolutely recognize the PKK as a terrorist organization and a very nasty one of that. I think that the Turkish leaders are justifiably concerned as the American presence in Iraq draws down so significantly over the next couple of months.This can make the situation more tense along the Iraqi-Turkish border. We have a debate within our own country: Should the United States draw down its troop levels to just 150 people -- 150 soldiers as opposed to a number closer to 10,000, which is what our American military had recommended to President Barack Obama? Is the American drawdown too steep? This can have an effect on the future of Iraq, which will certainly have an impact on Turkey as well as other neighboring countries.

But one more thing I learned throughout the trip was our economic relationship is much more underdeveloped than it should be. Given the economic turmoil in Europe, and it appears Turkey is not likely to be accepted into the EU in the near future, there may be greater opportunities for American and Turkish economic collaboration.

You have seen some institutional examples of the Gülen movement, which promotes education and dialog activities for peace in the world. You visited Melikşah University and the Private Kılıçaslan High School in Kayseri and Zirve University in Gaziantep. You have met businessmen who support these institutions inspired by Mr. Gülen. What are your thoughts about the Gülen movement?

What is fascinating to me about the Gülen movement is that in Turkey, Gülen seems to be a household name. People know who he is. Very influential industrial leaders and government leaders all know who he is and what his philosophy is. Gülen lives 45 minutes from where we are seated, and I suspect that no one in this community has any idea who Gülen is. Gülen is unknown to most Americans. It’s fascinating that we have a man who lives here in the United States and is such an influential figure within Turkey. He strikes me as more of a philosopher, whose ideas have been embraced by the founders of the universities and institutions we visited. The universities seem to have embraced a secular curriculum, teaching disciplines like arts and humanities, social sciences, English, other languages, math, sciences and engineering. They do not appear to be religiously oriented schools.

2011-12-04

Interviews