Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent visit to Turkey was a milestone in Lebanese-Turkish affairs.
For the first time, Hariri and a Lebanese delegation of eight ministers met with Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoðlu, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan and many other Turkish business leaders and investors. More important than this unprecedented meeting were the meeting’s outcomes, which included eliminating entry visas between the two countries for the first time since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War when Lebanon came under French control.
For decades, many Lebanese – both Christian and Muslim – harboured negativity toward the Turkish state. The Christian Lebanese community felt that during the Ottoman Empire the Turks treated Christians as second-class citizens. Christian religious leaders, part of the then Christian majority in Lebanon, were instrumental in attempts to achieve Lebanese independence from the Turkish Sultanate. Add to this the influx of tens of thousands of Ottoman citizens of Christian Armenian origin to Lebanon during the First World War, especially after the mass killings in 1915 when they were perceived as a threat to the Ottoman state.
Muslim sentiment in Lebanon is no less important. The end to the Ottoman caliphate and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 generated anger among Muslims in Lebanon and the region who wanted Turkey to remain a leader of the Muslim world. Hence, secular trends within the Turkish government, instituted by Turkish President Kemal Ataturk, negatively influenced the outlook of many Muslim Lebanese toward Turkey.
A third factor limiting positive Lebanese relations with Turkey was the latter’s recognition of Israel in 1950, a country not recognised by Lebanon.
Aside from a brief period in the 1950s when Lebanon and Turkey shared similar interests against Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab movement and a common political affiliation with the United States, there has been very little positive interaction between the two countries at the government level.
In this context, the Hariri trip could not have taken place at the level at which it did, and with the resultant outcomes, without certain factors in place. First, the new government in Turkey – the Justice and Development Party – has prioritised building better relations with countries in the Middle East. Second, amiable developments between Turkey and Syria have played an important role in Turkey's relationship with Lebanon with Syria has using its influence with the pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon to encourage the country to soften its position toward Turkey.
Regardless of how Turkey practices its secularism, its implementation represents a model in a society formerly divided between the majority Sunnis – numbering 45 million – and the country's 20 million Alawites, who comprise a sect within Shia Islam.
Lebanon still grapples with public calls to modify its confessional political system, where political and institutional power is distributed proportionally among religious communities. And secularism represents one possible solution for societies comprised of diverse cultures and faiths. As such, multi-religious, multi-cultural Lebanon may have something to learn from the secular Turkish experience, and closer ties with Turkey could prove beneficial in this regard.
However, the Turkish example is not perfect. Turkey still grapples with the existence of laws that when practically interpreted have been considered discriminatory against its religious minority – limiting the personal and religious freedoms of the Alawites. And there is still an ongoing debate on the right to wear the hijab, or headscarf, in public buildings and institutions like universities.
Therefore, the Turkish experience may represent a model for Lebanon in principle, if not always in practice. And in this sense, perhaps Lebanon – with the religious and political freedoms it affords its citizens – could also serve as an example to Turkey, introducing mutual benefits for both countries through a closer relationship based on political, as well as social and cultural interests.
* Dr. Mohammad Noureddine is a professor at the Lebanese University, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Beirut, and Editor-in-Chief of Choo'un al Awssat magazine in Lebanon. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).