The importance of dialogue – be it in politics, religion, between cultures or in everyday life – cannot be denied. Dialogue opens doors, helps us to understand and reason with each other, and of course, dialogue is the key to sustainable peace. Between East and West, one of the biggest challenges today is to maintain a strong, productive dialogue. But for such a dialogue to be established each party needs to be able to empathize with the other, and while this may not seem like a big obstacle, today one of the main issues that we can’t seem to overcome is how we engage with the “other” – the individual who is perceived as substantially different to our interpretation of “self”.
The issue of dialogue between East and West is usually crippled by conflicts which arise through differences in culture, tradition, expectation and/or prejudice. To be able to start a continuous, and more importantly, reliable dialogue, these conflicts first need to be overcome. But how can this be managed without empathy or without building bridges, so to speak?
Istanbul, with a population of over 13 million, is literally that: a bridge between East and West. Having lived my entire adult life in this city, I have been exposed to two different cultures harmoniously and was lucky enough to grow up with an understanding of both Eastern and Western cultures. I did not, however, realise the influence this unique condition had on my perception of “others” until I came to London to do my PhD in the department of Middle Eastern Studies. I found myself in yet another unique situation; I was at the heart of the Western world whilst spending my days in my department, surrounded by fellow Middle Eastern graduate students, talking, reading and writing about the issues of the Middle East.
This particular experience allowed me to realise something I may have not, had I never left Istanbul: there seemed to be a trouble for my Western and Middle Eastern friends in conducting and maintaining dialogue between the two cultures. I am not just talking about political dialogue, but even conversations regarding ethics, family, work, food, education or relationships. There seemed to be a gap between the two groups which they struggled to bridge. I, on the other hand, along with my other Turkish friends, find it somewhat easier to be able to understand and emphasise with both cultures with equal convenience. This simple observation reminded me of a question that we have been dealing with for a very long time: Do we, as Turks, belong to Eastern or Western culture?
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The truth is, we are not one or the other but a combination of both. I am mostly speaking for my generation when I try to answer this question. We, as the Turkish youth of today, grew up right in the middle of two different cultures. With the help of the technological advantages of our time such as the Internet, social media and easy access to information, we grew up with the ability to understand and engage with both worlds. The Turkish poet, sociologist and political activist Ziya Gokalp elucidated this when he said, “We come from the East, we go towards the West.” This, I believe, is what makes the Turkish youth unique and again, this could be the key to building a bridge between two cultures.
Turkey is currently in negotiations for full-membership with the European Union. It has been a long journey with many obstacles along the way, yet Turkey is closer to the Western world than ever. At the same time, Turkey is perceived as a source of inspiration, if not a role model, in the Middle East. And for good reasons: it is living proof that democracy, secularism and a free market economy of the Western world can be carried out without compromising Islamic values. It is a country that could adopt Western ideals without stripping itself from its Eastern roots. At a time when the West suffers from Islamophobia, Turkey symbolises a unique possibility: a pluralist democracy in an Islamic society. Turkey is a part of Europe, but it is also outside of it; it is a part of the Muslim world but it is also unlike any Muslim country in the world.
However, if we wish to build a strong bridge for dialogue which would not be easily abolished, we need to lay a strong foundation. We need to start with the youth, because what chances do we have of engaging in a dialogue if the two cultures do not understand each other’s primordial issues? We first need a youth who is empathetic and perceptive enough to look beyond stereotyped images and ideas of “others” and the Turkish youth could be the inspiration needed to start building towards that foundation. According to the 2000 World Bank statistics amongst 152 countries Turkey, with only a 5.8 % elderly population, is the country with the youngest population within Europe. This could be interpreted as a young, dynamic group of people who already have an understanding of both cultures and who wish to be able to connect two continents, not just geographically but also culturally, and perhaps in the future, even politically.
Needless to say, for such a dialogue to develop, there has to be multiple platforms with appropriate conditions where issues can be discussed without bias, prejudice or hostility. This is one of the many reasons why it is important for Turkey to become a full member of the EU, as well as, to maintain and further develop its relationships with the Middle East; it can bring many opportunities and form platforms of comprehensive communication. After all, politics is a platform where decisions that have an ever lasting impact on societies are made. If the youth are not included, the process will be crippled. Therefore, colligating the youth of both parties, with a bridge in between, could be a good idea.
EDITOR'S PICK How about trying Turkey's approach towards Iran?