Turkish American ‘balance alignment’

Ali Halit Aslan
Ali Halit Aslan

Date posted: March 20, 2013

Ali H. Aslan, Washington D.C.

If, when I began working in Washington 16 years ago, someone had come up to me and said, “The day will come when nearly 50 senators and representatives from the US Congress will participate in a Turkish gathering,” I would have said he was dreaming.

And if someone had also insisted to me that one day Turks from different ideological roots would support one another’s activities and events, even going as far as to make some joint public statements, I would have thought, “Those days cannot possibly be close.” Yes, in those days, I definitely never would have believed that an umbrella organization in America that gathered not only Turks from Turkey but from other Turkic nations could ever successfully be formed. All of these things that previously seemed like dreams are now really happening.

The TAA is the largest Turkish organization in the US, with six regional federations under its roof, as well as more than 200 different organizations connected to it spread throughout the country. Representatives from the other two large Turkish organizations in America — the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA) and the Federation of Turkish American Associations (FTAA) — were also present at the convention. Officials from lobbying groups like the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) and the American-Turkish Council (ATC) joined, as well. Compared to the past, the relationship between various Turkish groups in America is more civilized and there is a greater tendency toward cooperation than we have seen before. One example of this is a recent joint statement condemning the Islamophobic ad campaign that aimed to portray Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as some sort of terrorist. Of course, the role played by the Turkish Embassy in Washington and Ambassador Namık Tan is particularly noteworthy in bringing us to this point.

The TAA was formed not long ago, in 2009. It has, from the very start, worked to make sure its horizons remained wide. To begin with, there was the purposeful move to make the organization’s name include the word “Turkic” rather than “Turk.” The goal was to make not only Turks from Turkey living in America feel welcome, but in fact to create a platform for all the various Turkic communities living there. The power of ethnic lobbies is proportional to their populations. So if you add the Turkic peoples from Central Asia and the Caucasus region, as well as related ethnic groups like Bosnians and Albanians to the Turks from Turkey, you find yourself facing a community of some 2.5 million or so. This is a number that cannot be easily dismissed, so long as all this potential energy is turned into kinetic energy.

At this year’s congress, the TAA put the spotlight on the “Turkic” dimension of the organization, taking an important step towards forming a stronger lobby. Delegations from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were invited, in addition, of course, to a delegation from Turkey. The diasporas of all these countries were fully welcomed. There were also separate panels held for each of these countries in the academic forum organized by Rethink Institute on the topic of “Energy, Trade and Development.” It was the largest activity ever to take place in the US for Turks and Turkic peoples. Here is what Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Kanybek Imanaliyev had to say about the significance of it all: “The days Atatürk envisioned when all the Turkic peoples would come together are finally arriving.”

Naturally, it wound up attracting the attention and curiosity of the US government when the TAA brought this spectrum of the Turkic world to Washington. In fact, many high-level officials from the State Department, the Energy Department, the Department of Commerce and the Defense Department joined in the panels, both as speakers and as audience members. Former House Speaker and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi attended the gala reception for the TAA. No less than eight senators and about 40 members of Congress stood at the lectern to say positive things about Turkey and the Turkic world. What’s more, all of this took place despite the fact that 23 senators and 66 representatives had joined together to write a letter condemning comments made earlier by Erdoğan in relation to Zionism.

One of the greatest successes of the TAA is that it has brought together politicians from Turkey from both the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as well as the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Representatives from the National Movement Party (MHP) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) were invited, but unfortunately they did not attend. Thus, the eight-person delegation from the AK Party and the seven representing the CHP joined American and Turkic colleagues in what wound up being a general tableau of friendship at this convention. Of course, some statements from the AK Party and CHP representatives drew very different pictures of today’s Turkey, but as I see it, this underscored Turkey’s multi-voiced democratic image and so it was ultimately positive rather than negative.

President Abdullah Gül relayed his own congratulations and expressed his appreciation for the TAA’s efforts in a written statement. There can be little question that the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), one of the largest and most visionary civil society organizations in Turkey, played a great role in this success. This was the second time that TUSKON was the co-host of the Turkic American convention and as TUSKON President Rızanur Meral noted, it brings “value added” to Turkey since “reciprocal awareness” between the Turkish world and the US lays the groundwork for increased trade and political gains.

The recent TAA convention was vital in terms of shedding light on just how much the nature of Turkish-American relations has changed. Though relations were quite formal and based on military contacts in previous years, they are more and more civilian-based now. It also used to be the case that only certain circles from Turkey would be engaged with the US on high levels, and it is now true that a much wider, more colorful spectrum of Turkish society is involved.

In the wake of the famous sight of tanks rolling down the streets of Sincan in 1997, Gen. Çevik Bir, at the time second in command of the military’s General Staff, said at a fancy Washington hotel during the American Turkish Council conference ball, “We made a [wheel] balance alignment to democracy.” As I watched the TAA congress unfold last week at Washington’s JW Marriott Hotel, memories of those days long past came to mind. I was assured again that, in fact, in democracies the real alignments are made by civil society. Let’s all hope for a well-balanced future in Turkic-American relations.

SourceToday’s Zaman 20 March 2013

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