In Conversation with the Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul speaks out


In the last week of August, Gul left the presidential palace, which is now occupied by his comrade and friend Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And Davutoglu left his office in the foreign ministry to serve as prime minister.
In the Arab world, it is hard to find a former president of the republic except in exceptional cases. And if you do find one, the latter is often reluctant to be interviewed. In Turkey, the picture looks different. Al-Hayat visited Gul weeks after he left the palace. Below is the text of the interview:

Al-Hayat:  How does a president feel on the last day of his mandate? Are you planning to return to the party or will you retire?
Gul:  When I was leaving the palace I felt the pride and dignity that had I felt the first day on the job, especially that I am handing over the post to an old trail companion and friend. It is important that everyone in Turkey and the world sees how officials in Turkey reach their posts through elections, leave at the end of their mandates, and hand over [their posts] to whoever wins the next election, in a civil and democratic way. I had the pleasure that my experience was witness to that. Some are afraid to leave their posts, but I was proud because I think that I performed my mission as best I could.
Al-Hayat:  In the Middle East, no one likes the title of former president.
Gul:  Of course, there are differences among the countries in the region. And each state has its own circumstances. Turkey is a Muslim country. But its system is democratic. And thus it is different from many Muslim countries. And elections are a very important element of the democratic system. With regard to the second part of your previous question, I contributed to founding this party, I was the first prime minister and president of the republic who came from the party. So it’s natural that I go back to the party.
Al-Hayat:  You have been in prison and in the opposition. And you have lived in the presidential palace. Which is harder?
Gul:  Of course: living in the palace during the presidency.
Al-Hayat:  Harder than prison?
Gul:  Yes, harder, because the president carries on his shoulders the responsibility for all and represents all. If you’re aware of this fact, then the presidency is difficult. But if you’re not aware that you have this responsibility, then the presidency is easy.
Al-Hayat:  Turkey has been in a volatile region since the advent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Saddam Hussein is gone. Syria is in flames. And Iran is engaged with the West. What is the secret of Turkey’s stability?
Gul:  The first reason is respecting people’s will, holding elections in a transparent and timely manner, and implementing their results. Therefore, if there’s a public outcry or tension toward the rule, they will be dissipated through elections, whereby citizens go to the ballot box and make their voice heard. This democratic mechanism works regularly in Turkey. The important thing is that these elections happen fairly and transparently. That’s why the Justice and Development Party has succeeded in staying in power all these years, because the citizen compares the party’s pros and cons and gives his final decision in the ballot box.
The second reason, and more importantly, is economic stability. The economic decisions taken by the first AKP government, which was under my leadership, were correct and disciplined, and they were pursued by the governments that followed. That led to the victory of our party in the elections more than once, because of the economic success.
Al-Hayat:  In light of what is happening in the region, some believe that Turkish secularism is threatened in favor of an Islamic definition of secularism in the constitution under the rule of the AKP.
Gul:  In the past, there have been various implementations and interpretations of secularism in Turkey. The conservative and religious segment of the population in Turkey objected to this interpretation. And we are among those opposed it because we believe that religious freedom is an integral part of fundamental and public freedoms. I’m talking about freedom, not imposition by force. For example, allowing girls to wear the veil, not forcing it on them. In the past, the veil was banned and that was an erroneous interpretation of secularism. So the Turkish people had no objections at all to the secular system in its Anglo-Saxon (Britain and America) interpretation. We did not change the constitution. The constitution still says that Turkey is a secular state. We tried to correct the errors that came with erroneous interpretations of secularism.
Al-Hayat:  The pictures of Kemal Ataturk are still present.
Gul:  Of course, Ataturk is the founder of the republic. It is natural that his pictures are everywhere.
Al-Hayat:  An international alliance has emerged to eliminate the Islamic State. What does Turkey want in order to join it? A buffer zone? Toppling President Bashar al-Assad? What?
Gul:  This will be determined by the current government. But if you ask what is happening in the region, especially in Syria and Iraq, and the emergence of organizations such as the Islamic State today, others in the past, and probably like them tomorrow, the important thing is to prevent the deterioration of the region’s perilous security situation. If we look today at the elements fighting in Syria and we look at their state three or six years ago, we found that they were ordinary people very far from terrorism. I mean, if we leave aside the radicals who came from abroad to fight in Syria and we look at the country’s people, we will see that they are head of households, professionals, and artisans, and that they are ordinary people like us, and are religious. That’s how they were before the war broke out. What changed them? We have to think about this. Unfortunately, circumstances and wars, when they erupt, change everyone and leave no room for reflection. And I’m sure that those Syrians who are being accused today of terrorism had never thought, five years ago, that the situation in their country would deteriorate to this extent and that they would play this role one day or carry a gun. So all problems must be solved politically and diplomatically. Otherwise developments will be open to the emergence of terrorist organizations that spawn other terrorist organizations, like the Russian [Matryoshka] doll.
Al-Hayat:  Does that mean that we must look for a political solution in Syria?
Gul:  Of course, we should work on this matter. Certainly we should confront those who carry weapons in order to terrorize the innocent. But for this mission to succeed, we must dry the terrorism swamp and its sources by reaching a political solution in Syria. The buffer zone is a tactical matter that we had discussed and requested in order to address minor issues that resulted because of the failure to resolve the core issues. This matter was proposed to the United Nations Security Council. Russia and China objected to it. Then we saw a big controversy and a lot of time wasting. All that because the fundamental issue — a political solution — has not been resolved and agreed upon. We must not forget that the buffer zones in southern and northern Iraq under Saddam Hussein were applied based on a security council decision.
Al-Hayat:  I understand that Turkey is awaiting a decision from the security council?
Gul:  This is normal, buffer zones inside another country can only be imposed by a security council decision or by declaring war on that state and imposing them by force.
Al-Hayat:  In June 2011, I was in your office, in the palace, hours after Assad’s speech on reform. On that day, you described his speech as a positive step but that came late and was insufficient. How do you assess Assad’s dealing with the crisis?
Gul:  I’m sure that Assad thinks and says to himself, “I wish I took my friends’ advice.” I have sent several messages that tomorrow reform would be too little too late. I advised him to conduct genuine reforms before his country gets opened up to foreign and external interference. I advised him to move quickly. But he didn’t take the advice.
Al-Hayat:  You sent a message to Assad with then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in summer 2011. What did you advise [Assad] of?
Gul:  We feared that Syria would reach this situation. I told him, “Don’t allow that to happen. Listen to the just demands of the people and make some practical reforms.” I told him, “Don’t fear the elections, because you will win if you hold them now. And through that, you can do a gradual reform process.”
Al-Hayat:  You advised him to hold a presidential election?
Gul:  Yes, yes, legislative and presidential elections, and reforms. And I told him, “You will surely win because the people are going to see that you are determined to make reforms.” And I warned him against Syria falling into this quagmire and ruin. And I gave him an example of what happened in Iraq.
Al-Hayat:  Bashar al-Assad used to be your friend. Erdogan used to say, “Bashar is my friend.” Ahmet Davutoglu told me that he visited Damascus 47 times. Do you think that a political solution in Syria is possible with Assad staying?
Gul:  I think the problem cannot be solved with this proposal.
Al-Hayat:  You mean with Assad staying?
Gul:  This is something else that is complicated. What I am saying is that the attempts to reach a solution at the Geneva conference were not fundamental and profound. They were just tactics. We must search for a fundamental and radical solution to the dispute. In Geneva, each party tried to accuse the other of responsibility for what happened and that [the other party] was at fault. When the matter is related to an entire people and an entire state, the person is not important, meaning that if the Syrians’ suffering will end and that Syria will return to play its role in the region and recover, then we should not [place special importance] on a particular person.
Al-Hayat:  Do you mean that Syria’s future is more important than the future of any particular person in it?
Gul:  Of course, this is what I mean. And it is very important to know the new system on which Syria will be built.
Al-Hayat:  Do you fear that Syria may be partitioned?
Gul:  Yes, of course we fear it. Reality now says that partition is de facto.
Al-Hayat:  Do you fear that Syria gets partitioned into an Alawite, Sunni, and Kurdish areas, and that this would impact Turkey?
Gul:  I’m not talking about the repercussions of partition on Turkey. Turkey can contain the fallout from that. But I say that partitioning an Arab and Muslim country, and its reaching this fate, will be a dangerous and unfortunate precedent in and of itself.
Al-Hayat:  There is a belief that the conflict in Syria is a Sunni-Alawite conflict and that this is part of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region.
Gul:  When we look at Islam’s history, we don’t find that this matter is surprising or new. Since the establishment of the Safavid state in Iran, the Sunni-Shiite conflict has been a historical fact and reality. But today, it is important that, since none of us decides which sect we are born into, and since we could be born either Sunni or Shiite, and as long as the Shiites will not erase the Sunnis and the Sunnis will not eliminate the Shiites, then it is rational that everyone should live together in accordance with clear systems and standards. Just as the Catholics and Protestants succeeded in living together after all these years of war, we too can succeed in this matter.
Al-Hayat:  The example that you mentioned succeeded because the West separated religion from the state.
Gul:  We also must do that. For example, I am a Sunni but should I prefer a Sunni who is bad and wrong over a Shiite who is good and right?
Al-Hayat:  Do you think that the state should not have an official religion?
Gul:  This is not the issue. Whether the state has an official religion may be an option. I am talking about politicians and decision-makers. The ruler, whether he is president or party leader, cannot make decisions based on religious identity. Religious politics is the beginning of the road to division and conflict and fighting, because sectarian differences and diversity in the region is a reality that cannot be denied. What we are living today was experienced by Europe centuries ago. And we have to learn this lesson because the dispute has no end. Running behind this dispute will only lead to the depletion of human resources and wealth. What will result from a war between Sunnis and Shiites? Will one side eliminate the other? Or will one side force the other to live in a cage or in cantons?
Al-Hayat:  What do you say about the Islamic State, the displacement of minorities, and the bombing of religious sites? How do you view this phenomenon?
Gul:  This is totally unacceptable. And the phenomenon is totally unacceptable. This is a radical, extremist phenomenon and it resorts to terrorism in its actions.
Al-Hayat:  Assad criticizes Turkey and says that it has allowed thousands of foreigners to enter Syria in the hope of ousting him?
Gul:  Turkey does not send anyone. But the borders are difficult to control because they are long. And there may be infiltrators from across the border. The government said two days ago that thousands of people who tried to cross the border were captured and returned to their home countries.
Al-Hayat:  You once initiated secret negotiations between Damascus and Tel Aviv. Did those negotiations stop because of the Gaza war in 2008 or because of Iranian pressure?
Gul:  There was no Iranian pressure on us. And Iran cannot pressure us in that subject.
Al-Hayat:  I meant Iranian pressure on Syria.
Gul:  We have to be honest and say that Syria, at the time, was responsive with us and was truly interested in peace with Israel. I am not talking about Bashar al-Assad today but about Bashar al-Assad during that period. The Israeli and Syrian delegations were on two floors in Istanbul and at the time Ahmet Davutoglu was navigating between the parties and mediating [between them]. We had arrived at almost identical formulations for a joint paper. The disagreement remained over only one or two words! At the time, Ehud Olmert was prime minister. I say that Syria’s responsibility for the failure to reach a deal is less than the other party’s [responsibility]. We used to put pressure on both parties. And the Syrian party was more responsive. The Syrian side did not ruin the matter.
Al-Hayat:  Where did the negotiations take place?
Gul:  They took place in a hotel in Taksim Square.
Al-Hayat:  Davutoglu used to shuttle between the two delegations?
Gul:  Yes. At the time, he was not prime minister or a minister. He was an adviser to the prime minister. And there were diplomats commissioned by the two countries. And they used to talk by phone from here directly with Muallem and with Assad. Erdogan contacted the parties several times to resolve the matter. But this opportunity was lost because of the Gaza war.
Al-Hayat:  I heard that Olmert was in the office of Erdogan, who used to move to another office and talk to Assad.
Gul:  Yes, this happened more than once.
Al-Hayat:  Turkey was accused of giving the Arab Spring an Islamic character in cooperation with Qatar.
Gul:  Anyone who had been monitoring the region’s developments for years would have expected these revolutions to happen. What happened was not a surprise. In my speech in front of the Islamic conference in Tehran in 2003, I predicted this happening and I asked the Islamic world to make reforms before the people act. We in Turkey consider what happened to be an internal affair and an expression of the will of the Arab youths. We supported the youths there in order for them to realize their hopes and aspirations. I was the first president to visit Egypt after the events. And there I spoke with everyone, from all sides. I didn’t only talk with the Brotherhood. I talked with leftists, socialists, and Mohamed el-Baradei. I talked with everyone.
Al-Hayat:  Did you give President Mohammed Morsi any advice?
Gul:  Of course, I talked to him at more than one occasion. And when I visited him in Cairo, the street events had begun. I talked to him during the Islamic conference’s last meeting also. I talked to him more than once, and I advised him during more than one occasion.
Al-Hayat:  How do you see the strained relations between Cairo and Ankara?
Gul:  The friendship that brings together the Egyptian and Turkish peoples is very old and deep. Egypt and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean are like two halves of an apple. Turkey is in the north and Egypt is in the south, facing each other. In this context, I would always want Egypt to be a strong country and its people to be prosperous and happy. It pains me and I feel sorry for everything that happened between the two countries. I wished that the disagreement remained quiet. I made my own attempts to heal the rift and solve the dispute.
Al-Hayat:  Is Turkey embarrassed to be a refuge for Muslim Brotherhood leaders and to Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the Hamas movement?
Gul:  Turkey is not an Arab country. Turkey started its negotiations for membership in the European Union. And [Turkey’s] laws are European laws. And in this context, just as some politicians leave their countries because of a difference in opinion and freely reside in London, but under clear laws and controls that they adhere to, they can also live in Istanbul within certain controls. On the other hand, we hope and we ask them to not inflict any harm to Turkey’s relationship with their countries or with any other countries. We expect any person who wants to live in Turkey to abide by its laws and to take into account its interests.
Al-Hayat:  Turkey’s relations with the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani seem good. Have Turkey’s fears about Kurdish ambitions subsided?
Gul:  We consider the Kurds to be brothers and relatives of the Turkish people. This is a fact and history. But there has been a long war between us because the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) resorted to arms and terrorism. But not all Kurds support this party. Our view about the Kurdish file is different when talking with those who leave their arms and enter the political process in Turkey. We work with them to raise the level of democratic standards and to reverse the mistakes that have affected some, of course. Regarding Barzani, he is the head of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and our neighbor. And we always ask them to not support the PKK. They did not support it, which improved our relationship with them.
Al-Hayat:  Is Iran an opponent, a competitor, or an enemy? Iran won in Beirut and has a voice in Syria and is strongly present in Iraq and in Sanaa. How do you see this force and the expansion of its influence?
Gul:  We deal with Iran as a neighbor and we consider it an important player in the stability of the region. I would like to emphasize again that I do not focus on the details, but on the essence of the subject. If we insist on the mindset of proxy wars and sectarian conflicts, as happened in medieval Europe, there will be no stability in the region.
Al-Hayat:  You made the first visit to Armenia. Do you think that it was able to heal the wounds in this region with the Armenians, and between Shiites and Sunnis? And does our culture help this?
Gul:  This is possible if the leadership has a strong will and doesn’t hesitate to carry out real and realistic reassessments. Here the onus is on the region’s leaders. If we look deeply behind the curtain regarding many wars and problems, we find that most of the participants have been pushed to stand with one party or with one side, but that they did not make the choice themselves. Only the leaders determine and choose.
Al-Hayat:  Does Islam need a modern reform movement?
Gul:  We should not talk about Islam here, but about Muslims. The Muslims today can benefit from the lessons of history and change their pattern of thinking in a lot of things.
Al-Hayat:  You came to Anatolia from a conservative rural area and you have studied in the West. Do the Muslims have a problem in dealing with the West or with others?
Gul:  I don’t see any problem. I don’t see that my beliefs are contrary to the principle of acceptance of others. My faith and my beliefs don’t compel me to change others’ opinions, actions, or beliefs. And you may perhaps ask here about political Islam. Let me say that the religious persons, or those who consider themselves religious, are in fact being tested. These religious leaders and rulers, if they rule and lead well and if they behave well, they would, first, be carrying out the orders of their religion. And by succeeding in the rule, they would have achieved their religion’s message in the best way. You talk about acceptance of others. This is a very important feature for the leaders specifically. A leader should be committed to transparency, to accountability, and to acceptance of responsibility. These are all qualities that best express our beliefs and that do not contradict our beliefs. Extremism and repression are not in our religion. But unfortunately they are bad, very bad, political methods. One cannot say that religion requires the repression and the rejection of the other. That would be ignorance of religion.
Al-Hayat:  In your opinion, does Islam have a problem with democracy?
Gul:  Not at all.
Al-Hayat:  Mr. President, what do you read?
Gul:  I usually read books about history and politics.
Al-Hayat:  Which writer do you like?
Gul:  There are many, Turks and foreigners.
Al-Hayat:  Which world political figures influenced you or impressed you with their personalities?
Gul:  Since the year 2000, I have met a lot of officials in Europe and the East. And I got to know many of them. And I worked with the European deputies at the European Parliament for ten years. I have a lot of friends among them. In the last five years, many leaders in Europe changed.
Al-Hayat:  And in the region also?
Gul:  Yes, there are many successful politicians. I don’t want to enter into personal matters, but you can know them through their countries. But what I want to say is that the failures are more than the successes in the region. And the economic crisis proves that. And there’s a lot of evidence. If most world leaders were successful, the world would not be suffering such an economic crisis.
Al-Hayat:  I have read that you used to like poetry?
Gul:  I read a lot of poetry but I have not written any.
Al-Hayat:  Did you read Orhan Pamuk’s [work]?
Gul:  Of course. … He is a Turkish writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. What’s funny and strange is that when he won the award, I called him to congratulate him and I was the only official at the time who was happy that he won the prize, because he was an oppositionist. But in the end, he is a messenger of Turkish literature to the world. And this is what I care about. I don’t care that he differs with my opinions. I met him several times. We opened the Frankfurt fair together.
Al-Hayat:  Which color do you like?
Gul:  This is a strange question. This is the first time someone asks me this question. I was asked about books. But this is the first time someone asks me about what color I like. A color is nice when it’s in the right place. For example, the color red is very beautiful in science. But green is prettier in the environment around us. And blue soothes the sight. But I would not wear a green suit.
Al-Hayat:  Which city do you like?
Gul:  Istanbul has a special place. But I love London in the West because I studied there and because it was the first city that I saw and lived in during my studies, I think that Prague affects its visitors dramatically. It has breathtaking beauty. Looking at the Danube River in Budapest produces calm and satisfaction. I also like the Old City of Jerusalem. I didn’t mention Mecca and Medina because they are two holy cities for us and they cannot compared [to others], of course.
Al-Hayat:  Who is your favorite writer?
Gul:  I love writers of the classical Russian novel. I have read a lot of Russian novels. So I like Dostoevsky a lot. But I also read [the works] of contemporary writers.
Al-Hayat:  What are your hobbies?
Gul:  Apart from reading, I love walking, especially in the mountains and forests.
Al-Hayat:  When you stand on the bank of the Bosphorus, do you feel sorry because Turkey turned from an empire into a state. Do you feel nostalgic?
Gul:  I’m a realistic man. The Ottoman Empire ended almost a hundred years ago. Of course, when I think about history, I feel proud about the history of the Ottoman Empire. But today, in the republic in which we live, what’s important regarding expansion and domination is to live in a democratic system and a strong economy so that the people are prosperous and happy. Happiness today is for the leader not to dominate the other and expand, but to provide happiness and well-being for the people and to strengthen the economy and democracy. This is the most important.
Al-Hayat:  Your answers are still influenced by the period when you were foreign minister. [Your answers] are very diplomatic!
Gul:  This is not due to my work as foreign minister but this is my nature in how I talk even before I worked in politics. I don’t believe that fiery speeches benefit Turkey or the Muslim world in any way. Moderation and diplomacy are the foundation. And perhaps having lived in Europe and the Arab world for many years has helped form my personality.
Al-Hayat:  So you are a moderate politician?
Gul:  Yes, I am a moderate but at the same time I am decisive and firm. Moderation does not conceal these two qualities that I have. In Turkey we have saying that goes, “If you want to throw a stone on the frog, you must be sure that it will scare it.” A statesman should be moderate but, where necessary, he must be frank with the people. Of course, repression and control create problems for people and create polarization between the components of [society]. Moderation is what distinguishes my political personality.
Al-Hayat:  Can we ask you about the last meeting with Assad?
Gul:  I don’t recall the date of the last meeting. But at the beginning of the events, I used to always meet his adviser or special envoy. I used to talk to him frankly. I am very sad my expectations regarding Syria became true. And we got to where we are today, unfortunately. When I see pictures of Aleppo or Homs on TV and images of the destruction and devastation there, I feel as if my house has been destroyed. I even advised Saddam Hussein and sent him a written message with my minister, who was the last foreign official to meet with Saddam Hussein before the war. He was Khorshat Tuzmen, the minister of foreign trade. I wrote to [Saddam]: “You are a man who understands history and talk about the history when you speak. And if you don’t implement the United Nations resolutions with respect to Iraq being free of weapons of mass destruction, the Mongols would return to Iraq and destroy it again.” I’m sad that Iraq collapsed this way. As a Muslim and a neighbor of Iraq, I am very much saddened by what happened to Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell published a book in which he stated that Saddam didn’t have nuclear weapons but that Saddam wanted to scare his neighbors and so he took advantage of the Americans in this matter. At the time, I was prime minister and I called [Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister] Taha Yassin Ramadan secretly to Ankara. Ramadan said to me then, “Don’t you know the power of Iraq and the strength of its people and their heroism?” I told him, “Your army will not weather [the attack].” And we all saw what happened afterward. It saddens me that two strong Arab leaders, Saddam and Assad, behaved in the same way. We advised them but they refused the advice. And afterward, the two countries were ruined.
Al-Hayat:  Did you know Moammar Gadhafi?
Gul:  I met him in 1997, when I was a minister in the government of the late Necmettin Erbakan. We met in Sedra at a press conference. Gadhafi and Erbakan sat side by side and I sat near Erbakan. Gadhafi starting talking in a silly way using inacceptable words. I could not contain myself. So I went outside the tent angry and I told everyone there that this is unacceptable. My position saved the government from criticism by the local press at the time. Then Gaddafi started touring Europe in his famous tent and he wanted to come to Turkey more than once. But I never let him enter throughout my presidency. Gaddafi ran his country for 40 years by using fear, iron, and fire. And when he left, what did he leave behind? He left Libya in this unfortunate situation. He could have made the Libyans live in prosperity and happiness, given the small population and the oil wealth.
Al-Hayat:  Have you ever ordered the killing of anyone?
Gul:  This never happened. That’s why I told you that I have left the presidential palace with a clear conscience. And now I can roam between the people in comfort and safety. Look at those who ordered killings and how they ended up

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