Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's embrace of the Arab revolutions that have swept North Africa, coupled with Ankara's recent downgrading of relations with Israel, have cast a spotlight on Turkey's foreign policy aims.
To better understand those aims, RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique turned to Yasar Yakis. A founding member of Erdogan's ruling AKP party, Yakis served as his country's foreign minister from 2002-03 and is now a lawmaker in Turkey's Grand National Assembly.
He spoke to RFE/RL on the sidelines of the Riga Conference 2011 in the Latvian capital.
RFE/RL: Some call the foreign policy being advanced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "neo-Ottomanism." How would you characterize it?
Yasar Yakis: On the contrary, we never use this terminology. We try to avoid it, actually, because the Ottoman legacy is remembered more for its negative side in the Middle Eastern countries and in the former Ottoman [Empire]. For this reason, what we want is not to go back to Ottoman times but to use the common points that we have had since Ottoman times for the better evolution of democracy and human rights in the region.
RFE/RL: How do you see Turkey’s role in the post-Arab Spring Middle East?
Yakis: We should not put the evolution in various Arab countries in the same basket. In each country, the Arab spring has different reasons for surfacing and a different evolution will take place in every single country. The solution which is valid for one Arab country is not valid for [another]. So we have to see how it is going to take place.
For instance, with Egypt, the best organized political movement is the Muslim Brotherhood. And during his visit to Egypt, the [Turkish] Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] praised secularism there. The Muslim Brotherhood, who were one of the staunchest supporters of our party -- Edrogan's party -- started to say that they don’t need Turkey’s advice on how Islam will have to be practiced in Egypt.
So, when you approach concrete things, then the differences surface. But Turkey is very proud of its secular practice and it believes that secularism brought Turkey a lot of things that other countries were deprived of because they were not secular. So Turkey is in favor of trying to praise its own regime. Whether the countries of the Arab Spring will be inspired by it is up to them.
RFE/RL: Do you think Turkey has the resources to play such a prominent role in the region?
Yakis: If you are talking about bribing these countries with money in order to get your model [adopted] as their future model, [Turkey] doesn’t want to use this system of bribing countries with money. Turkey’s example is there, Turkey's experience is there with a strong part and a weaker part. If the countries want to be inspired by it, it’s up to them. For this we don’t need [financial] means. The experience is there and it’s up to them.
Turkey’s means are not unlimited -- we are aware of it -- but this should not stop Turkey from doing its best in order to help these countries. If these countries come to Turkey and ask for advice on how to do this and that in secularism, in fundamental rights, and in freedom and democracy, etc., we will be prepared to explain to them our experience.
RFE/RL: Your domestic critics say that while your party is very active in reshaping the Turkish political system, it is very harsh on domestic opponents, especially journalists. How would you answer them?
Yakis: We never say that Turkey is a paradise of democracy. We have our weaknesses, we have our discrepancies, but we are trying to correct them and we have done a lot of [things]. We have covered [a long] distance in this regard. Turkey is no longer the country it was in 2000 or in the 1990s. [We] have made a lot of progress, but we have a lot of other things to do.
You see, in the present Turkish media some people who say that before Turkey solves its problem on the Kurdish question we cannot preach to the other countries in the region on the question of human rights. Turkey is aware of this, and it is [making] progress on the Kurdish issue.
You may have followed what has been taking place in Turkey -- for instance, the teaching of the Kurdish language. There are courses [that are taking place] now; the government lifted the embargo, or ban, on teaching of the Kurdish language. One of the state Turkish TV channels broadcasts in the Kurdish language 24 hours a day and 32 percent of the members of parliament, within the ruling party, are of Kurdish origin. There are always three or four ministers in the Turkish cabinet of Kurdish origin. So Kurds are not isolated in Turkish society.
RFE/RL: How do you see the role of political Islam in Turkey?
Yakis: We believe that the best guarantee for a religion is [for the state] to become secular. It may look controversial to many people, but we have this perception because when you have a secular state the clash between pious Muslims, less pious Muslims, no Muslims, atheists, Christians, Jews is eliminated because the state has the obligation in a secular regime to be equally distant to all of them, and to the atheists, as well.
So the society lives according to its own beliefs -- you don’t impose Islam on every single [person]. This is why, I think it was "Kayhan International" in Iran which used to write that in the Friday Prayers, there are more mosquegoers in Turkey than in Iran. Why? Because in Turkey, nobody forces you to go to the mosque and you go there of you own volition, whereas if a person is forced to go there, they find an excuse not to go.
Rather than looking at secularism as an impediment for Islam or other religions, on the contrary, it is a guarantee which smooths the strained relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim segments in the society.
RFE/RL: Where do you see the Israel-Turkish relationship moving after the recent downgrading of diplomatic relations?
Yakis: Turkey has diplomatic relations with Israel. It has downgraded [them], but the diplomatic relations are still there. Instead of this being carried on by an ambassador, it is carried out at a second-secretary level, but the relations are there.
We have a very prosperous Jewish community in Istanbul that controls a lot of industry and we also have a good lobby in Israel composed of Turks who immigrated in 1948 to Israel and they still speak Turkish in Israel.
What Turkey is asking Israel is also supported by a lot segments within Israeli society. They put pressure on [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu to abide by the request of Turkey. So the atmosphere is not as gloomy as many people see from outside. There is pressure on both sides to solve these problems.
RFE/RL: What kind of Turkey do you see in five years?
Yakis: Internally, domestically, I believe that this trend of being the fastest developing country in the world -- competing with China only, that has 9 to 10 percent growth even in the crisis period for the world economy -- shows that Turkey’s growth rate will continue and Turkey will become a more prosperous country. The more you become prosperous, the more the country becomes stable, because poverty creates instability. I mean, social classes revolt against the [unequal] distribution of wealth, etc. So when their income increases, they are better off and they don't complain.
This trend will continue and this trend will also allow Turkey to use its soft power in getting involved in the problems of the region. Soft power is more welcome in the world than hard power. In Afghanistan, Turkey is there with military power, but the Turkish military in Afghanistan acts more with soft power -- in the construction of mosques, schools, construction of roads, and that type of things.
So we are more efficient with less money in Afghanistan than other countries who are present there with their hard power.