A delegation from Turkey's Virtue Party is in Washington on a bid to improve what the party believes is its negative image in the West. The group, led by Virtue Party Chairman Recai Kutan, is meeting with high level Department of State and Congressional leaders to explain their party's positions on issues ranging from secularism to Turkey's energy policies.
One of the key issues Kutan is raising in his meetings with U.S. officials is the persecution of practicing Muslims in Turkey. The Virtue Party's goal, says its chairman, is not the establishment of an Islamic state, but a relaxing of Turkey's harsh anti-religious measures that exclude observant Muslims from enrolling in universities, advancing in the armed forces, or entering politics.
In Kutan's view, Turkey today is not secular in a Western sense since its government takes a hands-on approach to religious affairs, to the degree that it is accused of religious persecution. "We believe that the government should make sure that nobody is trying to control anybody's religious beliefs, and the government should be at an equal distance from every kind of belief in the state," Kutan said Monday night at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
In a meeting Monday with Ambassador Harold Koh, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and other State Department officials, the group "emphasized their view of secularism, more in a Western conception, which they supported, and their interest in human rights," a senior State Department official told iviews.com on condition of anonymity.
The Virtue Party is currently under the threat of a ban by the Turkish prosecutor's office for "anti-secular activities." The delegation's trip to the United States may in part be designed to make such a move more politically difficult for the anti-Islam forces in the Turkish government. Indeed, the State Department official indicated sympathy with the issues raised by the delegation:
We have spoken out about the government's treatment of the Islamist movement... We don't try to interfere in judicial processes. But we have said many times when there have been [these kind of] motions that the closure of legitimate political parties in any country is a violation of international norms of democracy, freedom, and human rights.
Asked whether the United States would feel threatened by a rise in Virtue's influence in Turkey, the official said, "We don't support or oppose any political parties. But we don't believe that Islam and democracy are incompatible."
iviews.com spoke about some of these issues with Temel Karamollaoglu, a leading Virtue Party Member of Parliament representing the province of Sivas. Karamollaoglu is a former parliamentary leader of Necmettin Erbakan's banned pro-Islamic Welfare Party.
What follows are excerpts from that interview.
Iviews.com: In one sentence, what does the Virtue Party offer Turkey?
Karamollaoglu: We want peace, prosperity, and tranquility in our country, for our people.
Iviews.com: What issues will you raise with U.S. government officials this week and what issues do you think they plan to raise with you?
Karamollaoglu: We think that Virtue is misrepresented and misunderstood in the Western countries generally, and in the United States. We wanted people in authority and in the civilian sectors to understand that better. We are showing that we want a fully democratic country, where human rights are respected, where people are free to do anything at all, in any and every different field, whether in religion, or in enterprise, or social activities. At the same time, we want a country that upholds justice and the rule of law. And we want a better relationship with the Western countries, and with the Eastern countries as well, with Muslims countries on equal terms.
Iviews.com: Do you think that the Turkish constitution, as it is, guarantees human rights, and that the problem is in its implementation? Or do you think changes to the constitution need to be made?
Karamollaoglu: Basically, the Turkish constitution gives people the rights that the people need. But I think there are a bit too many ifs and buts. If we can eliminate those, then this constitution will provide what the people wish for a happy life in our country. Of course, this constitution was prepared during or toward the end of a military regime. Everyone agrees that certain changes should be made to eliminate misunderstandings. But the basic notion of human rights, freedom, upholding of the law, and prosperity and just distribution of national wealth are all mentioned in the constitution.
Iviews.com: Does the United States have anything to fear, with respect to its interests, from a Virtue Party government?
Karamollaoglu: No. What we are trying to say is that in our country, and in the U.S., people want peace inside their country. The world is getting smaller and smaller, so the internal peace in any country is directly influenced by peace in the world in general, so there should be cooperation and interaction to promote peace in different countries. What we are propagating is that. The universal norms of human rights, freedoms, upholding of the law, should be respected by everyone, whether you are living in Turkey, or in the Eastern countries, or in the Western countries. If we stick to these universal norms, the interests of no other country will be harmed by the actions of another country.
Iviews.com: The treatment of Merve Kavakci by the Turkish government has raised concern among human rights groups, yet the U.S. has been fairly silent about it. Would you welcome a U.S. statement on her situation, or U.S. pressure?
Karamollaoglu: This is a judicial matter. We are trying to create a favorable atmosphere in Turkey, in terms of public opinion, but at the same time, this case is being fought in the courts. We will receive what will come out of this. But what we are trying to represent in the Western countries is that this is a human rights problem from our point of view. This should be very well understood in these countries, so that there will not be any approach in Turkey that will prevent the development of democracy or human rights and freedoms in general.