Interview with Muzaffer Şenel

Bordering the southernmost point of the European Union, modern Turkey boasts an incredibly vibrant society and bright economic prospects. TNP writer Melissa Rossi traveled to Istanbul and spoke to Professor Muzaffer Şenel from the International Relations Department at Şehir University about issues concerning Turkish society, religion and efforts to build more solid and long-lasting bridges with the West. Prof. Şenel’s research interests focus on EU policies towards the Middle East and Cyprus, Turkish Foreign Policy and the European international order. He is also a member of the executive board of the Center for Global Studies (CGS) at Turkey’s prestigious Foundation for Sciences and Arts (Bilim ve Sanat Vakfı, BİSAV).

MR: Prof. Şenel, tell us about the research goals of the Foundation of Sciences and Arts (BISAV) and how did the idea of founding Sehir University take place?
MŞ: The Foundation for Sciences and Arts (Bilim ve Sanat Vakfı, BİSAV) is a research and educational institution that tries, on the one hand, to understand the main dynamics of the contemporary world and, on the other, to find the ‘roots’ of Turkish society in order to build a sound future upon these roots. What lies beneath the current intellectual crises of not only Turkey, but of all non-Western societies, is their failure to nurture their own ‘intellectual tradition’. BISAV has aimed to transcend Turkey’s psychological and intellectual barriers by creating a platform for independent and original research and teaching for over a quarter of a century thanks to its four research centers that organize courses, seminars, conferences, panels and publications: The Center for Civilizational Studies (MAM), the Center for Turkish Studies (TAM), the Center for Global Studies (CGS/ KAM), and the Center for Art Studies (SAM).
BISAV’s library holds more than 100.000 books in several languages and the Foundation sponsors 2 Journals, Dîvân: The Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies ( and TALİD Türkiye Araştırmaları Literatür Dergisi / The Turkish Studies Review (
The founding of İstanbul Şehir University was a natural evolution of the Foundation who sponsored its creation in 2005. Şehir received its first students in the 2010- 2011 Academic Year. Lectures are carried out in English throughout its 12 departments and 5 different schools. The school’s environment is extremely multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and international with 15 percent of its students coming from 42 different countries. It also offers very compact full scholarships, which attract good students from all over the world.

MR: How does the work of these new centers of higher education and research help to build bridges with Turkey’s neighbors, in particular with the EU?
MŞ: We can classify our efforts into 3 major points:

a. Cooperation and joint projects: Research centers at BİSAV work on joint projects with universities from the EU, the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus.

b. Producing, sharing and transferring knowledge and know-how: These research centers organize seminars, public lecture series and conferences on neighboring countries and regions and of course on Europe.
The Center for Global Studies is particularly active on this front. We have various roundtable discussion seminars such as China Talks, European Union Talks, Eurasia Talks, South and East Asia Talks, Africa Talks, Nationalism Talks, Middle East Talks, Economics Talks, and so on. I am responsible for the organization of talks and seminars on the EU and so far we have had more than 3 panels and 15 public lectures on Europe to discuss the latest developments on the EU and on Turkish-EU relations.

c. Expanding our academic network to improve the efficiency of existing social and cultural ties and open new dialogue channels.

MR: The question of Turkish identity is perhaps confusing for many Europeans accustomed to more individualistic and exclusionary national identities. As part of an everlasting crossroads between East and West Turkey boasts of a culturally rich population and has a more inclusive approach to diversity. How would you define modern Turkish identity and how does secularism play a role in shaping views on Islam, the country’s predominant religion?

MŞ: Modern Turkish identity is made of four dimensions, Eastern (Middle Eastern and Islamic), Western (European), Northern and Southern.
History and tradition have a greater impact on Turkey’s evolving identity. Starting in the 1920s, Kemalism rejected the Ottoman past and Turkey’s Islamic influence was deemed as inferior. Kemalist historiography and its alphabet revolution (introduction of the Latin alphabet) had a tremendous impact on modern Turkish society, which is no longer in touch with its pre-1928 history. On the other hand, secularism in Turkey, at a discursive level, has always used strong Islamic explanations to penetrate society. Turkish social life is regulated with embedded traditions wherein Islam has a very significant role, giving colour to traditions and norms. If you force Turkish people to choose between Islam and secularism, more than 70 percent would choose Islam over secularism. Just look back to the debates of the 2007 general elections in Turkey, where many polls were carried out on the topic and people predominantly chose Islam.
Today Turkey is witnessing a new kind of self-confidence, which is more cosmopolitan and inclusionary than in previous years. This emerging identity is more comprehensive and complex than the previous Kemalist Turkish identity. Modern Turkish people are grandchildren of a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious society but modern Turkey unfortunately lost its multi-cultural features. Nevertheless, the children of current Turkish society, which is the most homogenous society in Turkish history, will certainly be more heterogeneous and cosmopolitan than their fathers.
Just think about 100 years ago when 30-35 percent of Turkey was non-Muslim. Nowadays, the percentage of non-Muslims in the country is less than 5 per cent due to wars, population exchanges and mutual mass deportations. Many non-Muslims had to leave their homeland in Anatolia while many Muslims had to leave their homelands in the Balkans and the Caucasus and emigrated to Turkey. What very few people know is that Turkey is founded by refugees and migrants. About 1/3 of today’s Turkish society has Balkan origins, more than 15 percent has Caucasian ties and more than 12 percent are Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and so on.
This migration was so strong that the number of Bosnians living in Turkey is higher than that of Bosnians living in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The same goes for the Albanian population or the Abkhazians, whose presence in Turkey is at least 3 times larger than the Abkhazians living in Georgia.
Turkey is a transitional model between East/West and North/South from the perspective of geopolitics, geo-culture, and geo-economics. It is a Muslim/Middle Eastern-Asian country from its cultural/demographic perspective while it is a Western/European country from the perspective of its political establishment and membership in international organizations such as NATO, OSCE, the Council of Europe etc. Turkey might be perceived as part of the South based on the basic economic indicators such as high density of population and low per capita income, while it might be seen as part of the North for being a member of the OECD, the G-20 and other international links with the global capitalistic market.
Secularism in Turkey took on the French model, having thus a very bad record until recent years. In a practical level, Turkish secularism fights with Islamic traditions and values. On the other hand, secularism uses Islamic discourse to be accepted by large segments of society.
Nowadays, however, we are witnessing the transition of Turkish secularism from a French-style model to a more inclusive Anglo-Saxon understanding in accordance with its historical traditions and new understanding. This is an ongoing learning process for the Turkish people in terms of secularism.
I hope that, to this extent, secularism will be helpful to the conservative segment of Turkish society and that it will help to fight against their embedded nationalism. The main threat for Turkey is nationalism rather than religious relations or the Islam–secularism debate.

MR: There is still resistance in the West in accepting that secularism and Islam can move side by side. Is such a statement contradictory?

MŞ: Let’s ask this question in a different way. Do religions live together with secularism?
Does Christianity live together with secularism? If so, why not other religions? Or even better, which is more superior: religion or secularism? When you ask people to choose one of them, what will they choose?
There is no single answer to this question. First, if Christianity and secularism can co-exist, why not Islam? Both Islam and Christianity believe in their universal values and organize the life of their followers in accordance with their own set of values and norms
From my point of view Islam and secularism will live side by side. Turkey is not the only example of this; just take the case of Indonesia for instance. What kind of secularism are we speaking about? The French-style is the worst one possible and does not include any tolerance. British and American secularism is more welcoming. Islam is against any kind of pressure on everyday life practices. In the Muslim world, Tunisia and Turkey are some of the worst examples of secularist movements, almost totalitarian in their nature of being totally against the visibility of religious symbols in the public arena. Remember that in Tunisia, women are not allowed to go out with the hijab (headscarf), while in Turkey, for many years, women were not allowed to go to the university with a headscarf.
If secularism and secularist policies do not intervene in the daily life practices of a religion they will not pose a problem for citizens but if it forces people to deny their identity and to live other than what they believe in, then that is when the problem arises.

MR: How is the EU perceived by Turkish society? Is the international institution seen as a friend or a foe to the common citizen?

MŞ: The EU is not only an institution, it represent much more than that. European identity was always “part” of Turkish identity and will be in the future. Still, the position and place of the EU is problematic. Will the EU have a central position and a central role in Turkey? I don’t think so. It has a very significant position and role but not a central role as does Islam and the Ottoman culture. Moving from the center as concentric circles, our historical traditions, values and norms which are shaped by Islam and Ottomans lie at the core of Turkish identity and then western ideas represent the second circle where EU as an institution has a place.
The EU within its own territories has also Turkish and Muslim minorities, which impact the Turkish understanding of the EU. The largest Turkish migrant community (i.e. Turkish, Kurdish, Assyrians, Armenians and so on) outside of Turkey lives in the EU. Just recall academic terms such as Euro-Turkistan, Euro-Kurdistan or Euro-Muslim.
So, as I said, many of these traditions, values and norms overlap and for more than 70 percent of the Turkish people, the EU is not perceived as an enemy. We are all part of humanity like fingers to a hand, we are different but each of us fulfills a unique role. Without one of them, we cannot do everything properly.
On the other hand, a small but highly motivated radical leftist (i.e. the Labor Party of Turkey, the Turkish Communist Party; their presence is not more than 1 percent) and some Kemalist and nationalist groups (i.e. some radical members of the CHP; Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party in parliament and from the conservative nationalist MHP; National Movement Party, around 15 percent) and the conservative Islamists (SP; Saadet Partisi/ Felicity party; around 2 percent) are strongly against the EU for different reasons in accordance to their ideological stance.
There are also negative social discourses/perceptions that are common but not represented strongly at the political level. In particular, our historical perceptions play a very central role. According to many Turkish citizens, we lost our territories and allies because of the efforts of European powers to divide the country, for instance during and after World War I. For many Turkish citizens who are sensitive about Islamic issues, European powers lie at the core of the problems of many Middle Eastern states, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
People are also unhappy with the representation of Islam in the media in many European countries (i.e. the Prophet Mohammed cartoons created big distrust among the Turkish people and questioned the EU’s human rights understanding). Also, the rise of extremist right-wing parties represented by leaders such as Wilders of Denmark or Le Pen and Sarkozy of France disappointed the Turkish society who criticizes the rise of such ideas.
On the other hand, EU westernization and modernization via democratic values, respect for human rights, the equal distribution of wealth, a strong institutionalized social security and its healthcare system attract people.
Again, I am trying to use a pendulum terminology to describe the general feeling towards Europe, which oscillates from a superiority to an inferiority complex.

published: 3. 5. 2012

Datum publikace:
3. 5. 2012
Autor článku: