Jeannette Okur

Eduardo Luna, a government senior and international student, learned to appreciate and dispel any misconceptions he had of Middle Eastern cultures while undergoing a transformative and enlightening experience on his study abroad program in Turkey. 

His only regret was that he couldn’t stay longer.

“More often than not, ignorance breeds conflict,” Luna said. “I think it is tremendously important for students to study other cultures, especially ones that are as heavily stereotyped as the ones in the Middle East.”

Being that it is a nation that has had a changing political evironment in the last decade, Turkey was always fascinating and inspirational for Luna. 

However, Turkey is currently facing civil unrest arising from religious and political conflicts between the Turkish people and their government. Secular Turks are rebelling against the government’s mishandling of religious regulations and fighting for religious freedom. Being a political, cultural and geographic bridge between the United States and the Middle East and an important American ally, Turkey’s current situation could impact its relations with America.

“Turkey is making history right now,” Luna said. “If the protests in Turkey are successful, I think it will embolden an already interesting U.S.-Turkish relationship.”

According to Jeannette Okur, a lecturer in the Middle Eastern Studies department, Austin and Antalya, a city in Southern Turkey, became official sister cities which facilitated intercultural and interfaith dialogue as city officials and diplomats have gone back and forth between the two cities. Antalya is home to polytheists, Jews, Christians and Muslims, and thus has a tradition of peaceful coexistence among faiths.

Senay Ozdemir, a journalist, visiting professor at UT and an international exchange agent, is currently working on creating an independent news outlet to report on Turkey. Ozedemir is a strong advocate of opportunities for students to travel and study in Turkey.

Ozdemir said since the end of the Cold War, no region has been more critical to United States foreign policy than the Middle East, whether as a source of oil, international strife or terrorism. Being a mediator between the these regions, Turkey plays a significant role.

“Turkey is the place where American students can discover how Islamic values can be combined with modernity, feminism and a contemporary way of living in Middle Eastern countries,” Ozdemir said.

Ozdemir said globally important institutions such as UT-Austin should foster understanding of Turkish government and society through multiple channels, which she proposes could be achieved through emphasis on Turkey for UT students studying in relevant disciplines in study abroad programs.

“American academics should acknowledge that Turkey is an opportunity for the West to see it as a bridge to the Middle East, not only for the generations that govern today, but for future generations,” Ozdemir said. “The academic study and resulting awareness and increased knowledge will help US students – tomorrow’s leaders – understand a world of 350 million Middle Eastern Muslims.”

Okur led the UT students on an exchange program to the TOBB University of Economics and Technology (TOBB-ETU) in Ankara, Turkey.

Okur said Austin’s city, academic, business and religious leaders have developed strong ties with Turkey.

For about 15 to 20 years, UT has had full campus exchange programs with Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey and the Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara. Okur said students and faculty members have regularly travelled to both campuses on study and teach abroad and exchange programs. 

“The most active exchange is between the engineering schools in these universities but we’re hoping to expand that to other disciplines,” Okur said. “At this time we have eight students in Istanbul and about the same number in Ankara.”

Such a program has not only increased Luna’s exposure but also contributed greatly to his understanding of the region and its issues, Luna said.

“A little understanding goes a long way, and visiting a foreign country while immersing yourself in a different culture is the best way to develop that understanding,” Luna said. “I think that Westerners should make a little more effort to understand and educate themselves about the diverse Middle Eastern cultures and the different issues afflicting the region.” 

Follow Rabeea Tahir on Twitter @rabeeatahir2.

Journalist Abdülhamit Bilici discusses the role of Turkey shaping the Middle East during a lecture in the Texas Union Building on Tuesday.

Photo Credit: Kiersten Holms | Daily Texan Staff

The Turkish nation’s rich history plays a huge part in its future as a leader of the Middle East, said Abdülhamit Bilici, Turkish journalist and general manager of Cihan News Agency in a discussion hosted by the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and the Raindrop Turkish House on Tuesday.

The talk emphasized the importance of Turkey’s historical experiences over the past millennium of dealing with neighboring countries, minorities, secularism and nationalism.

“I hope you will not limit your questions and concerns to the latest breaking news in the Middle East,” said Jeannette Okur, a lecturer in the Middle Eastern Studies department.

The talk was meant to delve deeper into Turkey’s importance to the region than what is usually heard in an everyday context dominated by recent headlines, Okur said.

The audience obliged Okur’s request and an interesting discussion about Turkey’s emergence as a bridge between the Middle East and the West followed.

“There is no other country in our region on good terms with the Islamic world, the Middle East and also on good terms with the European Union,” Bilici said.

Bilici acknowledged Turkey’s civil tensions between opposing political groups that plagued the country and believes this is what has made the country a model for potential problems that may occur in other nations in the Middle East. He said since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the nation has been subject to a struggle between nationalists and secularists on one side and the religious and minority groups on another. Despite restricting regulations, the people managed to maintain their individual identities, he said.

“With the hard-line interpretation of secularism, they banned teaching the Quran,” Bilici said. “They banned Hajj, but people did not forget to make it a part of their lives. There is a difference between the people’s approach and the official approach.”

According to Bilici, the people’s voice played a role in Turkey’s development, as the nation transformed from a country run by a nationalistic government into a place where importance on the individual began emerging. Bilici said the nation’s television network is an example of the move away from nationalism. He said Turkish television in 1990 consisted of one state-run channel, but more than 200 channels are broadcast in the country today.

“This was unimaginable,” Bilici said. “Small people could be very strong voices.”

The passing of the Arab Spring, the recent uprisings throughout the Middle East, has many nations that could emerge as democracies looking to Turkey as an example of a government able to function despite cultural divides, said Bilici. Eighty-five percent of people surveyed in the Middle East looked to it as a model of government in 2010. People within the nation also expect Turkey to be a negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.

“Seventy-five percent of Turkish people are expecting Turkey to have a major role in bringing a settlement between Israel and Palestine,” Bilici said.

Turkey’s role as a proponent of Western-style democracy that merges with traditions of the Middle East excites Middle Eastern Studies senior Amelia Pittman, who is interested to see how Turkey will emerge following the Arab Spring.

“It’s always been a midway point between the West and Middle East,” Pittman said. “It’s not completely European and not completely Middle Eastern. Turkey has a strong voice. It’s a very significant country, and I’m interested in where it goes from here.”