Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat- The “Islamic bourgeoisie” that led to the victory of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the last parliamentary elections is made up of businessmen with Islamic orientations and who are not so distant from politics. They are characterized by the coordination that takes place amongst themselves; a network of close and extensive relations and sufficient funding in support of various candidates in elections. The truth is that the “Islamic bourgeoisie” is not a product of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) experience; it is a product of the reign of former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan’s experience during which a class of businessmen emerged who were close to the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party). These businessmen established the Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association known as MUSIAD in May 1990. When the Association was established, it was met with sharp criticism from TUSIAD, the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association that has a secular orientation. However, MUSIAD soon became one of the most important social institutions in Turkey and its influence is indisputable. According to its director Gazwan Masri, MUSIAD could increase the volume of trade between the Islamic world and Turkey to 44% within a few years. MUSIAD also could establish five free trade zones between Turkey and Islamic countries.
Gazwan Masri, a Syrian from Aleppo who has been in Turkey since 1983, settled and obtained Turkish citizenship. In this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat from his office in Istanbul, Masri talks about the level of trade between the Islamic world and Turkey, the goals of the Association and the criticism it has received from secular liberal parties that accuse it of “financing Islamic activity with the blessing of the Turkish government.”
Gazwan Masri, the first member of the Arab community in Turkey to occupy the post of deputy director, does not deny his close ties to the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who he nicknames “Abu al Tayyip”. On his desk, there is a picture of Masri with the Turkish president Abdullah Gul who he said “loves Arabs dearly.” He stressed that the Association’s activities contributed to changing the mutual stereotypical image of Arabs and Turks.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Q: Many people in Turkey talk about MUSIAD and its influence on the level of trade between Arabs and Turks; how do you view this influence?
A: Ten years ago, I joined the largest economic bloc in Turkey, namely, MUSIAD. I took over the matter of Arab and Islamic countries. We have focused on expanding economic relations between the Arab and Islamic world and Turkey. We had to make the most of the economic blocs in both Turkey and the Arab world and we were able to make progress towards our goals and increase cooperation between Arab and Turkish businessmen. The Association today is the largest economic bloc in Turkey. The number of its members is estimated at 2,650, representing thousands of companies. We have 28 branches in Turkey and 30 liaison centres around the world. The Association has internal objectives, namely, to increase internal economic activity and to bolster the status of members and Turkish companies within the international economy. But its international objectives are to transfer the Turkish experience to Arab and Islamic countries and increase the volume of trade between the Arab and Islamic world and Turkey. This was the fundamental objective of the International Businessmen Forum that was set up by the Association. The volume of trade among member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference represents 8% of international trade; the Association had to connect Turkish businessmen to the Islamic world.
So far the level of trade between Islamic countries is weak and inadequate, but at least since the AKP took over government, the volume of trade between the Islamic world and Turkey has increased by 44%. Free trade agreements were also signed between five Arab countries and Turkey, namely, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine and Syria. At present research is being carried out to establish a free trade zone between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Turkey. Over the past two years, 85 clothing factories were moved from Turkey to Egypt, that is, Turkish factories with Turkish expertise working in Egypt to benefit from the facilitations that are offered by Egypt to foreign investors.
Q: Does MUSIAD’s role involve giving information to the Turkish government on investment opportunities in each Arab or Islamic country?
A: This information is given to our members firstly. During visits abroad, of which there are many, we meet with officials and ministers of economy and gather information about the advantages of each country. We also enquire about obstacles that may impede trade between countries and how to increase the volume of trade. For example, trade relations between Morocco and Turkey were almost severed three years ago. There were no direct flights between the two countries; however, after visiting Morocco, we concluded that we needed to operate direct flights between the two countries and establish a free trade zone. When we returned, we submitted proposals to the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan because of the importance of this issue. Months after the visit, I inaugurated the first flight between the two countries. Today there are more than five weekly flights between Turkey and Morocco. And recently, our efforts were crowned by establishing a free trade zone. This is also the case with Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Erdogan’s government is listening to civil society and benefiting from reports and research that are prepared by these institutions. It also calls on these institutions to prepare reports on specific issues. Although 55% of Turkish exports are to the European Union (EU), this government could open up to the Islamic world like the governments of Turgut Ozal and Necmettin Erbakan that sought to be open to the Islamic economies.
Q: Has the image of Arabs amongst Turks changed since you arrived in Turkey in 1983 and is the stereotypical image negative?
A: Historically, the image of Arabs amongst Turks was not a positive one and vice-versa. Even today there are countries that talk about “Ottoman colonialism” in their history books. At times, it seems as if there are concerted efforts exerted by both sides to hinder Arab-Turkish relations. Some parties succeed in isolating Turkey from the Arab world. However, when Turgut Ozal’s government was in power, this started to change as he made frequent visits to Gulf States. The government of the AKP was able to expand investments and political relations with the Arab world, which changed its image relatively [in Turkey].
Q: What is the general image of Arabs in Turkey today?
A: Firstly, not all Turks have the same perception of Arabs. There are some negative views. The perception of nationalists and leftists is different to that of ordinary Turks in villages and cities. I have seen with my own eyes some Turks kiss the hands of Arabs because they are from the land of the Prophet (PBUH). This perception and the opposite exist but openness helps to strike a balance. Only a few years ago Turks would think of Arabs as dark, curly-haired people and some Arab countries were unknown to the Turks. At present, this perception has changed considerably because of openness, trade, tourism, conferences in Turkey and mutual visits between Turkey and the Arab world. There was a belief amongst the Turks that [all] Arabs are from the Gulf because they were the only people who would come to visit Turkey as tourists. But this image has changed now after many Turkish companies visited countries like Libya and Algeria. They came to learn that Libyans are different to Algerians and Algerians are different to Egyptians and Egyptians are different to Saudis. They became acquainted with new cultures.
As for the image of Arabs in Turkey, sometimes they are seen as “traitors” or “allies of the British” against Ottoman rule. Many parties have been able to propagate this stereotype. Sadly, the issue needs to be reconsidered and revised by historians to know the real circumstances behind it. The Turks used to say that they were stabbed in the back, however, the question is: who was stabbed exactly? What is the role of the English in all this? This requires both the Arabs and the Turks to rewrite their history. The teaching of “Turkish Ottoman colonialism” in some Arab schools could never work in the interest of developing relations between the two parties.
Q: Has there been an increase in the level of Arab tourism in Turkey?
A: It has experienced various stages. Turkey, during the government of Turgut Ozal, opened up to the Arab world so Arab tourism constituted a large part of tourism revenues in Turkey. This was between 1983 and 1990. Then there were price increases in Turkey so Arab tourism turned to Egypt, Lebanon and other places. Between then and 2000 or 2002 roughly, Arab tourism [in Turkey] stood still. Now following a lot of promotion, work and Turkish interest in the Arab tourist, the situation has improved. The European tourist comes as part of a group and spends $1,000 – $1,200 in a week without spending any large amounts on shopping for instance. As for Arab tourists, they spend a lot of money on shopping let alone telephone and hotel bills. There is a tourist area in Istanbul called ‘Osman Bey’ and when Arab tourists or traders go there, there is always a racket as they are held in such high esteem. Arab traders and businessmen, especially from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf would visit this area to shop and Turkish goods began to spread in the Arab world. Now Chinese commodities have begun to take over Turkish commodities.
Q: You have been in Turkey since 1983. Is Islam here influenced by the fact that some Turkish territories are in Europe?
A: Islam is Islam; it is the same in the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan or anywhere. There are some schools of thought that differ, however, Islam is Islam and it is deep-rooted in Turkey. If we look at Istanbul, we would find Islamic civilization, schools, mosques and scientific institutions. Istanbul is famous for all these features; it ruled the world for approximately 600 to 700 years. Turkey’s Islam is entrenched but it is overwhelmed by the Sufi movement, which is also deeply-rooted in Turkey. The Turks are also open-minded regarding some issues compared with the Arab world.
Q: With regards to banning polygamy for example?
A: The banning of polygamy is applied according to the law.
Q: But some Turkish clerics have stated that there is no contradiction between the law and Shariah as certain conditions apply concerning polygamy and it is an exception rather than the norm.
A: This is an issue related to jurisprudence and we cannot generalize because there are cases of polygamy in Turkey, however the number is small. Over the past centuries, contact with Europe through wars and trade made the Turks understand some Islamic issues in different ways to the Arab world, especially political issues and I would like to focus upon that.
We have no political institutions in the Arab world that are similar to those in Turkey. In the field of voluntary organizations, the Turks have made very significant progress in voluntary work, endowments and societies. In the field of education as well, the Turks have worked to develop and expand public and private education for many years. In the Arab world, education was monopolized by governments until a short while ago. As for the political field, Islamists have practiced politics and entered parliament and many coalition governments since 1960 or the era of Adnan Menderis. None of this has taken place in our Arab world. Political Islam in Turkey is advanced in its ideologies and fatwas [religious edicts]. In all these points I mentioned, the Turks have precedence over the Arab world.
Q: How many Arabs are in Turkey at present?
A: There are thousands but there are no specific numbers because they constitute a small minority that is not counted by the government and most of them are Iraqi Turkmen who fled because of the conditions in Iraq. They constitute the majority of the Arabs in Turkey and their number, according to some statistics, is estimated at 35,000. According to other statistics, there are 60,000 [Iraqi Turkmen in Turkey]. They prefer to live in Turkey because they know the Turkish language and for those who do not know the language, they believe that Turkey is a stepping stone towards Europe. This is the second wave of immigration that came after the Iraq war. As for the first wave, approximately 85% of immigrants are students and they settle here, marry Turkish women and set up businesses. This is the basis of the Arab community and most of them are from the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan). They constitute the majority of the Arab community in Turkey. Most of the Arab community lives in Istanbul, however, there are some in Ankara and Izmir.
Q: Do the Arabs play any kind of political role?
A: Most of the Arabs here obtained Turkish citizenship and integrated into society but most of them are businessmen. The number of Arabs, who are interested in politics and have links to Turkish institutions including myself, is limited. There are Arab institutions that have been set up here such as Dar Assalam Endowment foundation that I head. It was founded in 1995 and it undertakes various social and cultural activities with the Arab community. There are no large institutions or blocs for Arabs because they constitute a small number in Turkey; consequently, they cannot run in elections. However, we were very active in supporting some candidates as the AKP’s government facilitated the most important matter for the Arab community, namely, acquiring citizenship.
Q: In your view, why has the AKP enjoyed so much popularity amongst businessmen such as yourself?
A: Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an extraordinary figure of the era of the Turkish republic. Adnan Menderis, Turgut Ozal and now Tayyip Erdogan are three figures who will rightly be noted by history due to their openness to Arabs and Muslims. Tayyip Erdogan has achieved success since he was the mayor of greater Istanbul. Everyone living in Istanbul is appreciative of Tayyip Erdogan for providing clean water and clean air in Istanbul. These successes achieved by Erdogan, his humbleness, and his direct interaction with people have allowed him to gain widespread popularity in Istanbul that promoted him from mayor to premiership. When he was head of the municipality, he made very important reforms that Istanbul’s history never experienced ever before. People were not able to drink water in Istanbul or walk in the streets and the media would advise citizens to stay at home especially elderly people and children as a result of pollution. Newspapers used to distribute masks to those who had to walk in the streets so that they would not inhale the polluted gases that filled the city. The municipality used to advise people not to use water as polluted water caused dermatological diseases and many deaths. Amongst all of this, Erdogan emerged and within just eight years he made Istanbul a European capital worthy of Turkey and transformed it into a social, cultural and tourist capital. Despite all these great successes, he was exposed to injustice at the end of his tenure when he was removed from his position as mayor for reciting some lines of poetry [of an Islamic poem and for modifying some of the lines] even though he was elected by four million Turkish people to be mayor of the city. The court decided that the lines that he quoted were against secularism and he was sentenced to four months and 10 days in jail as a way to eliminate Erdogan. However, the four months and 10 days made Erdogan a greater figure. If they knew what effect imprisonment would have on him, they would never have removed him from his position. But this was his destiny; he entered prison in strong protest and with the public behind him and left prison to assume premiership. What was the secret behind the success of Tayyip Erdogan? The secret behind his success is that, firstly, he was able to eliminate administrative corruption, which is the most significant point, and secondly, he succeeded in getting the right people for the right jobs. He managed to include university professors and experienced people in his government. Thirdly, he worked continuously believing that he could achieve a lot for the Turks and succeeded where former governments had failed. This made Erdogan a popular man amongst the nation who achieved all this over the past four and a half years.
Four years and a half ago, inflation stood at 86% and inflation is Turkey’s worst nightmare as the dollar would rise 5% or 10% in one day. Erdogan was able to fix the rate of inflation at 9.6%, a record number in the history of the Turkish republic. Rates of interest also reached 80%, 90% and 100% even 110% and 140% and we saw that for ourselves. He was able to reduce the significant increases in interest rates to 17%. He also increased the Turkey’s exports from $30 billion to $85 billion in 2006.
The gross national product (GNP) in Turkey was $220 billion when he assumed power four and a half years ago. Now the gross national product is $550 billion and Turkey now ranks 18th in the world with regards to the level of its national income. In 2002, the average income per capita was $1,200 and Erdogan managed to bring this up to $5,500.
Under the government of Bulent Ecevit, 20 banks were declared bankrupt, costing the treasury $45 billion. Erdogan took over a government that was fragmented, weak and in debt. Turkey’s income reached $240 billion and 85% of that was allocated to pay the interest on debts. However, Erdogan was able to advance Turkey to such a great level. He gained popularity within a large spectrum of people and one out of two Turks voted for Erdogan in the elections. Even those who voted for their main parties rather than Erdogan were with Erdogan [in spirit]. People want to maintain this economic and political stability, openness to the world, stable relations with the military and the European Union.
The Turkish state no longer has enemies on its borders. Previously its relations with Syria and Greece were severed but this government managed to repair relations with neighbouring countries. Turkey established economic ties with Syria and Iran. These successes reassured the Turkish citizen particularly businessmen who doubled their funds and the value of all businesses has quadrupled.
Q: What is your view of the present fears for the Turkish industry and does reliance on foreign capital as a main source of investment raise concern since this may come under threat in cases of crises?
A: I would like to answer the second part of the question first. When foreign capital comes to Turkey and is invested in temporary projects there is the possibility that it may depart at the first sign of a crisis but if this capital is used to buy factories and real estate and contributes visibly to the Turkish economy, would they be able to sell their factories and properties in one day and leave? The answer is no. Now the image has changed in Turkey. Capitalists used to come here and were afraid of the situation in Turkey and would fear for their funds because they had no trust in political stability, so funds were only invested in banks and the stock exchange. At the first instance their funds were transferred specifically outside Turkey. Now following the economic and political stability that Turkey has enjoyed over the past four and a half years, investors have been attracted to real investment in Turkey as there are many factories, trade centres and large Arab investments such as Telecom and Jawaher. Foreign investment in Turkey has become a permanent investment and is related to real estate and factories. Foreign investments were estimated at $21 billion in 2006 and $14 billion in 2005.
As for the fact that some fear the absence of heavy industries and the focus on supplementary or assembly industries, I would say that Europe is pushing heavy industries towards the countries of the developing world. At present, Google Inc. has no heavy industrial product and the value of the company stands at US $125 billion. Technical and technological industries are the prerequisite of future industries; therefore, the Arab countries must change their view regarding heavy industries. There are light industries, yet their value exceeds all heavy industries that we have. In Turkey, there is a laptop factory.
Three out of every four television sets, which are sold to the European Union, are made in Turkey. Cars are assembled here. Turkey benefits from its geographical proximity to international markets such as the markets of Europe, the Middle East, Russia and Asia. This geographical location qualifies Turkey to be a centre of assembly industries because transport of commodities and for businessmen is easy. Businessmen who live in Istanbul can reach 53 countries within three hours and a half, which is a considerable benefit for businessmen.
Q: Does Turkey want to be part of the European Union or an Islamic bloc?
A: Of course this government, the Turkish people and businessmen support the government’s diversity of its commercial and economic relations. Before, Turkey’s main goal was the European Union and Ankara made all sorts of reforms in order to join the European Union. Turkey has waited to enter the European Union for 42 years, which is the longest wait for a state to enter the European Union. Many parties in Turkey lost faith that they will someday be part of the European Union. The European Union has allowed many countries that are not economically strong to join; there is an increasing fear of Turkey because it is a Muslim country (75 million) and would be the second largest country in the European Union, which is hard to take in. The European Union keeps Turkey waiting because it does not want or lose it, giving it some facilitation and demanding some reforms. But at the same time, it excludes its accession within the upcoming years and the Turks themselves have lost confidence in being part of Europe anytime soon. What do the Turks want from the European Union? They want to acquire experience and benefit from this large market. They have signed an agreement with the European Customs Union. Now they can export goods from Turkey to the European Union without [paying] any tariffs and import goods without [paying] any tariffs, which is an important point. But the Turks want more, that is, the freedom of movement and labour in Europe, which is still too distant. Therefore, this government is set to open new markets and could first open up to the Arab world, then the Islamic world, central Asia and Africa. It could form and diversify its economic sources and political relations. However, the goal of joining the European Union continues to be one of the main objectives because the European Union is undoubtedly a major international economic power. There are many joint interests between the Turks and the European Union. Today Turkey does not need to the European Union but the EU needs Turkey.