It is striking how very knowledgeable the academics and specialists on Turkey are in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland and how closely they follow developments in Turkey. To my further delight, they lack the characteristic arrogance of the modern academic, demonstrating instead the humility of the true scholar. Some spoke openly of their spiritual search and how they have decided to follow the Sufi path.
Informed of my lecture topics, the president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, gave me an audience. In the simply styled presidential mansion, the president offered me tea and freshly made pancakes. For one-and-a-half hours he asked me almost a dozen questions about my lecture topic and research interest. He was sincerely interested in alternative views and perspectives on my field of work, on intercultural dialog, issues related to Islam and Muslim integration in the contemporary world, especially in Europe.
President Grimsson asked why I had been asked to lecture about interfaith and intercultural dialog and how this had been received in the Scandinavian countries. He asked whether I could do the same in Muslim Arab countries, how that would be received by local Arab scholars and how non-Arabic speaking lecturers or scholars might be received in the Middle East or Arab contexts. He asked about the reason for the rise of young radicals in those countries and possible ways to appeal to their citizens, especially the younger generation. He expressed surprise that within the same period religion is declining in the European context but gaining prominence in the United States.
He also asked if events in Turkey resemble the efforts of the Christian right and religious groups to influence the courts in the US. He asked about the Turkish government's intent on the constitutional amendments, especially the amendments concerning the courts. From his own extensive knowledge of world politics, he gave examples of how the law and courts can be used to crush opposition. He gave examples from Texas, Mexico, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India and Turkey of ways of eliminating opposition, with exact names and dates and cases going back to the 1940s.
President Grimsson noted that Turkey occupies an important place culturally and politically between West and East. He expressed surprise that in Turkey the state bureaucracy and some very high-powered businessmen are against EU accession. While he saw the bureaucracy's stance as understandable to a certain extent, he saw the businessmen's rejection as inexplicable.
He said that while Turkey can play a great role between East and West and in Europe culturally, the authorities in Turkey do not seem keen on taking that initiative. He argued that India is the best example of multicultural, plural democracy, while acknowledging its weaknesses and faults in some aspects. He pointed out that members of the Indian Sikh, Catholic and Muslim communities had been able to occupy influential positions such as that of prime minister and president, making India a great example of intercultural and interfaith representation.
He also asked about the Turkish community in Iceland and about their needs in terms of faith, education and successful integration. He asked about the cultural center established by people of Turkish origin living and working in Iceland.
Discussing economic corruption in Europe, broken marriages, single parenthood, drug abuse and a rising nationalist militancy, he noted that he does not accept the argument that European society is declining demographically He said the statistics and thus the claims are fallacious. He explained that many people in his country and in the Baltics have a different understanding of family and family leadership, and to compare their family structure with traditional Eastern models and values is misleading.
Hailing from a social science background himself and keen to learn more about the state, government, republican history and developments in Turkey, President Grimsson said he would read my own recently published book, “The Gulen Movement: Civic service without borders.” In line with his interest in the peaceful integration of minorities and dialogue, he also expressed approval of the title and approach of Jill Carroll's 2007 book “A Dialogue of Civilizations.”
President Grimsson's erudition and his willingness to read and inquire about other cultures and nations and benefit from their experience, combined with his straightforward and humble manner impressed me greatly. Issuing a heartfelt invitation to Turkey and with an exchange of good wishes, we left with an impression of a man who, while ruling a country, remains for and among the people.