Council of Europe interview brings Greek and Turkish Culture Ministers together

Informal meeting of the European Ministers responsible for Cultural Affairs : «The new role and new responsibilities of Ministers of Culture in initiating intercultural dialogue, with due regard for cultural diversity» - Strasbourg, 17- 18 February 2003

Council of Europe interview brings Greek and Turkish Culture Ministers together

In the last years, after centuries of conflict, Greece and Türkiye have been shrugging off their mutual prejudices and setting out to forge new ties, political, economic and cultural - an example which many other countries could usefully follow. We talk to the Greek and Turkish Ministers of Culture, both in Strasbourg for a ministerial colloquy on intercultural dialogue and conflict prevention.

Question: In your own lives, what was the first real culture shock - the first time you came face to face with cultural difference?

Hüseyin Celik: I come from a little village in Anatolia. As it didn't have a school, I had to leave home when I was seven and go to a school a long way from my family as a boarder. It's a shock leaving the things one knows so young. The change was a painful one for the child I was then. But it did open up new horizons. In the little town where I went to primary school, then secondary school and finally teacher training college, I met people who were different, who lived in ways I knew nothing about. I learned a lot. And then, when I went on to higher education, I saw the big cities - Istanbul and later London. New shocks and new discoveries. I travelled all over Europe. It gave me a chance to see other cultures and countries - but also to see the various faces of my own country.

Evangelos Venizelos: I don't like the word "shock". I'd prefer "break", "change" or - let's be positive - "opportunity". I was born in Thessaloniki, a town with a very old cosmopolitan tradition. It was a Greek town, of course, but it had a profound and vital of the Jewish community, of whom very few were left after the second world war. It was also a town which had special ties with Istanbul - or Constantinople, as we call it in Greece. It was a town where, in the past, people with different cultures, religions and lifestyles - Greeks, Turks, Jews, Armenians, Slavs and others - used to live contentedly together. This tradition of peaceful coexistence has left positive traces in its school system, where otherness and acceptance of otherness have long been realities. Throughout my own childhood, the presence of Jewish classmates was a living expression of cultural pluralism.

Question: The new ties which have developed between Greece and Türkiye in recent years, regardless of the governments in power, are an example of successful intercultural dialogue. What prejudices did you have to overcome along the way?

Hüseyin Celik: We have one great thing in common - we are human beings first. And it's also vital that we're neighbours. We used to be enemies, but that was in the past. The important thing now is to live for today, and build a better future together. of course, we must learn from history, learn from our past. But building the future is what really matters. We have suffered enough because of ethnic and religious conflicts. We must do everything we can to consolidate the new ties between our countries, the progress we have made already. We can live together peacefully on the same planet. It has enough air, enough oxygen for Turks, Greeks and all the others - and it has enough water too. These are thing we don't have to fight over. They are there for everyone. Obviously, we are not blind to our differences. We are not all made the same way. We can't all be the same shape, and have the same religion, language, feelings and ideas. That is impossible. We must respect one another's differences and we must try to live peacefully together. Mr Venizelos and I are both Ministers of Culture. We are interested in people's hearts and heads, their ideas and their feelings. It is up to us to try and change outlooks and attitudes for the future. That is our task - and our duty.

Evangelos Venizelos: The rapprochement between our countries is, first and foremost, a political rapprochement, and is rooted in the sense that we must do all we can to protect peace and stability in our region. It was our shared future in Europe which gave us our great opportunity to come closer together. Türkiye's progress towards Europe and the European dimension of our own foreign policy were the key elements in this. Europe's shared political and institutional tradition is a vital aspect of its culture - and the very basis of European integration. And the rapprochement between Greece and Türkiye, which is based on that shared political and institutional tradition, is a vital factor for stability in our region.

Question: What practical forms has rapprochement taken, particularly in the cultural field?

Evangelos Venizelos: One very important aspect has been getting rid of ideological and historical stereotypes. Culture is not just a matter of heritage and the arts. It is a matter of life - of everyday life, which is changing all the time, and of all the contradictory things that go into it. Many national or community cultures embody stereotypes and prejudices, which are spread, not just by civil society, but by school systems too. This is why both our governments had to make a start in schools. We went through our history textbooks and jettisoned anything which, instead of helping children to understand the past, portrayed other people as enemies. Changing attitudes, fighting taboos, overcoming the so-called "clash of civilisations" - this is even more important at a time when there is so much talk of war. None of this is easy, but we mean to do it.

Hüseyin Celik: We have a lot in common with Greece. We're both European countries and we're both in NATO. Greece is in the EU already, and we want to join it. Above all, we have known each other for over five centuries. We have had our conflicts, but we know the Greeks better, and have shared more things with them, than with any other people. You can see that in the cultural heritage we share: there are Ottoman monuments in many parts of Greece, Thessaloniki being one of them. And Greece has left many traces of its culture in Anatolia. But the biggest thing of all is that we are both democracies, that we both believe in democracy, in the values of democracy. And there are good reasons for this, since both our countries have suffered as a result of coups d'état in the past. The rapprochement between us was clearly demonstrated in the help and support we gave each other when both our countries were hit by earthquake in 1999. And now we are taking it further with the help of major economic agreements, symbolic gestures like the twinning of Greek and Turkish towns, and shared cultural events. There are now many Greek tourists in Türkiye, and Turkish tourists in Greece. This is a great step forward, and exchange between our countries is now constant. For example, Mr. Venizelos has invited me to Thessaloniki for the cultural conference to mark the Olympic Games in 2004. I have accepted with pleasure, and we shall do all we can to contribute. The better we know each other, the more we appreciate each other.

Question: Apart from institutions, what are the European values you share?

Evangelos Venizelos: Europe is a very dynamic concept, and Greece and Türkiye both have special parts to play in building it. Türkiye's geographical position makes it an important link between Europe and Asia - a bridge between the two continents. And Greek culture is the essential matrix of European civilisation. In a sense, indeed, Greek culture is the oldest badge of European identity. But it is the future that interests us. Bringing Türkiye into the European process is a political priority, and essential to securing social, economic and political stability in Türkiye itself. This is why, within the EU, Greece is the first to proclaim that Türkiye's future lies in Europe, in acceptance of Europe's institutional and political culture. I greatly appreciate the clear way in which the new Turkish Government has come out in favour of commitment to Europe and the West. And the Council of Europe, which embodies the European value system, is a kind of institutional, ideological and political guarantor of Türkiye's European identity, both political and cultural.

Hüseyin Celik: I agree with my Greek colleague. We are both democratic countries. We both believe in the European values of democracy and international law, and we are both civilised countries and societies. This is the central point. As Mr Venizelos has just said, Mr Erdogan, our leader, and Mr Gül, our Prime Minister, have the same position: we are part of European culture, and our goal is full membership of the EU. We share the same values as all other Europeans: democracy, human rights, free speech and the market economy. There is absolutely no doubt on that.

Question: Can the rapprochement between Greece and Türkiye set other countries an example?

Hüseyin Celik: I very much hope that other countries will follow the example of Greece and Türkiye. of course, we have our problems too, problems which are rooted in the past. But in spite of all our disagreements, we can sit down, look at these problems and solve them together. I believe that dialogue - intercultural dialogue, based on acceptance of cultural diversity - helps us to do this.

Evangelos Venizelos: Our next joint objective, once Cyprus joins the EU, will be finding a political solution to the problem and uniting the island under new institutions, with the two communities living peacefully together. This is a vital issue - not just for Greece and Türkiye, but for Europe and the whole international community. At this difficult time, in the midst of the Iraq crisis, it is vital for us, as the country holding the EU Presidency and as a NATO member, and for Türkiye, as a neighbour of Iraq and a NATO member, to create a political climate which will enable us to banish the threat of another war in the region. Our chief aim is to establish a basis for peace and stability in the whole region, not just in the Balkan peninsula, but throughout the Black Sea and in Asia Minor.

Question: Do you think that the enemy you share, in cultural terms, may be globalisation and the standardisation that goes with it?

Evangelos Venizelos: Cultural diversity has two dimensions - internal and external. For more traditional countries, it poses the problem of ethnic and social cohesion. For European, western countries like Greece, it poses the problem of retaining control of our own cultural market. The European market is threatened by the omnipresence of American culture, and we need to defend it.

Hüseyin Celik: Globalisation doesn't have to be a bad thing. It can include cultural diversity. It gives all the cultures a chance to get to know one another. The Council of Europe is a positive example of globalisation - a place where so many different countries can meet, talk things over and find solutions they can all accept. Another positive aspect of globalisation, which we have seen at work in the last few days, is the ability it gives us to mobilise globally, for example, against possible military action by the US in Iraq. Countless people throughout the world, regardless of religion, language or location - near Iraq or far from it - have said a clear "no" to military action. We can thank globalisation for giving all those who refuse to accept the unacceptable a chance to make themselves heard. We have a phrase in Turkish which expresses this positive side of globalisation very well: kesret içinde vahdet, which can be literally translated "pluralism in majority and unity in diversity". The best symbol of globalisation might be a rainbow - different colours, but harmoniously combined.

Question: A last word

Evangelos Venizelos: This Council of Europe conference on intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity has given me and my Turkish colleague, who took up his duties just a few weeks ago, after the general elections in Türkiye, a splendid chance to meet and talk for the first time. It is very important for both our countries to confirm once again that, regardless of any domestic political changes, we are determined to work together for stability and peace in the region, and also for Türkiye's future in Europe.

Hüseyin Celik: My last word will be for Cyprus. We want a solution in Cyprus - a just solution. The present situation benefits neither of the island's two communities. I am deeply convinced that civilised peoples can solve all their differences through dialogue.