Tolerance and Reconciliation

Tolerance and Reconciliation

Prof. Dr. Toktamış Ateş*

Everybody draws out their own meaning from democracy. Some people claim that democracy is carrying their ideas to power by persuading others; some claim democracy means being able to express their ideas freely. When it is time to speak, everybody defends democracy. But the number of people who are sincere enough to oppose a dictator who back their way is extremely limited.

Some of the disputes, which started when Mr. Necmettin Erbakan became the Prime Minister, have continued until today with an increasing zeal and they seem to continue. The essence of these disputes is the apprehension that in Turkey there are some centers of power in favor of Shari’ah. They view democracy as a means to come to power and once they have come to power, they will destroy our laic [secular] and liberal Republic. According to this assumption, these centers conceal their real intentions. They are making dissimulation.

On my part, I do not think that it is possible to be able to say something certain concerning to what extent people are sincere in their speeches or acts and to what extent they are making dissimulation. But if there is something of which I am certain, it is the fact that the probability of Shari’ah coming to power in the 80th year of our Republic is very weak. However, some social and economic indicators such as huge inequalities in economic life, big gaps among incomes, and an increase of immorality add to this type of apprehensions. But I believe that our Republic is based on foundations formidable enough to bring any desire or attempt to this end to nothing. That is why I always tell people who are anxious about this matter: “If a free election like today’s had been made in 1930s, the proportion of people who wanted Shari’ah would have been very high. But today, political parties, which have similar demands, are not able to take even 20% of votes.

In my opinion, democracy is a regime of “tolerance” and “reconciliation.” It is easy to put forward “disparities.” But it is much more essential to put forward “common points.” It is even vital.

My approach and attitude to “Shari’ah” disturb some of my friends. Wherever I make a speech or participate in a panel, I am pestered with a bombardment of questions concerning this issue. I have to answer such questions as, “Professor, how can you be so close to reactionaries?”; “How do you bear that kind of people?”; “Are you too changing mind?” etc.

I have either written or verbally explained hundreds of times: I am in dialogue with several religious and Shari’ah-oriented people not because I pursue an agreement with them in thought but with the aim of hope of being able to find an answer to the question, “How can we live together despite our differences in thought?”. Actually, I already know the answer of this question. But I am rather trying to find out the answer to the question,

“How can we practice it in life?” It is this same answer, which Mr. Fethullah Gülen is searching in his book in your hand.

The answer to this question can be summarized as “By believing in democracy and being tolerant.” In fact, most people know this answer but we have difficulty in realizing it in the practical life because we have serious fears. We are afraid that others will exploit “our good intention.” There are some other problems too.

Everybody among us is in favor of democracy. But everybody defends democracy only when people or thoughts that they regard in their favor come to power. When they come across a term, which they do not like, they forget all about democracy. Most of our people think that some rights that they desire for themselves are superfluous or luxurious for others. Our society can never free itself from a “double standard” which is like a contagious disease.

“Tolerance” is not a concept outside democracy but while everyone expects tolerance for their own thoughts, faiths and values, they cannot approach others’ thoughts, faiths and values with the same tolerance. The reason why they do so is quite simple: the double standard disease, which I have just mentioned.

Tolerance means having a “friendly” attitude towards people who have different systems of values and life styles than one’s own. More precisely, it means being in a state of “friendly endurance“. I think to realize this is not very difficult.

Tolerance is the result of a person’s confidence in his or her own thoughts, beliefs, and system of values. People, who lack confidence in their thoughts and value system, are usually aggressive and intolerant. I am confidant of my own thoughts and beliefs, so I have no fear of being tolerant towards others’ thoughts and beliefs.

I am also asked: “Professor, are you aware that there are some people who want to establish a Shari’ah government?” Of course, I am; I am not blind. Furthermore, I am trying to observe them as closely as I can. But I am also trying to distinguish people who pursue a conservative [pious] life style from those who want to establish a Shari’ah government, without feeling any fear.

There are, of course, similar tendencies in every democracy; this must be quite natural. But in my opinion, our public view will not give credit to any tendency, which will harm democracy. I do not suppose that people who have already acquired the right to make decisions about themselves, that is, “who are sovereign”, will not want to renounce their sovereignty. Besides, I know that it is possible neither to eradicate such tendencies nor to exterminate the people who have them.

We are traveling on the same ship. If it sinks we will sink all together. However, our aim is that the ship should not sink. Additionally, an internal conflict will mean the biggest disaster, which we must avoid at all costs.

No one should ever think that a “Pyhrus victory” would bring benefit.

Tolerance is needed for the reasons above. I assume that the reasons why Mr. Fethullah Gülen has felt the need to write this book are the same.

Besides tolerance, we should also say a few words about “reconciliation”. Some of my friends are in favor of reconciliation. They say to me, “Your attitude of reconciliation is correct. You have to put up with a great deal of trouble but you do the right thing.” But some others of my friends are very disturbed by this attitude. They approach my idea in the same way they approach the matter of tolerance. They say: “How can it be possible? How do you come together with people with whom you have that many differences?”

Still some others among my friends claim that it is not possible to reconcile with everyone under every condition. Of course, they are right. You cannot reconcile with everyone under every condition. In order to be able to reconciliation, you must be in “consensus.” I mean you should have some “common points” with the person with whom you seek reconciliation. Certainly, you cannot reconcile on every issue either. There are some issues on which it is impossible to reconcile. You cannot bear any change in them.

There are three elements for me to be tolerant and to reconcile on any matter with someone:

– To preserve the unity and the unitarian structure of the Turkish Republic within the present national borders of Turkey.

– To try to actualize democracy in life with all its rules and institutions. This also means the preservation of laicism in an indisputable way.

– To work hard in the lead of modern science for a modern Turkey where the basic human rights and freedoms, including primarily the freedom of thought, have been put into practice without restraint. This effort constitutes the essence of the Turkish or Atatürk nationalism in my mind.

I can reconcile with any person with whom I share the same stand with respect to these basic issues or with whom I am not in a serious disagreement on them. I can also approach them with tolerance. Moreover, I believe in the necessity of such a reconciliation and tolerance.

Is democracy not a “regime of reconciliation”? If we do not have the intention, nor the effort, to reconcile, can it be possible to maintain democracy? Democracy has tens of definitions. I like and use the ones among these definitions, which give priority to the participatory aspect of democracy. My definition is: “Democracy is people’s participating in the process of making decisions on any subject which may interest them.” If reconciliation is not reached as a result of “participation,” there can be no democracy nor can the aim of participation be realized.

Being sharp can sometimes give people a feeling of satisfaction. However, in my opinion, what is important is not to search for satisfaction in such cheap ways.

In this book, Mr. Fethullah Gülen presents readers with the distilled form of the feelings and thoughts that have been acquired and advocated for a whole life, which has passed on the road to tolerance and reconciliation.

I hope it will achieve its aim.


Forward to the book by Fethullah Gulen “Love and the Essence of Being  Human“, 2004, 2nd Edition, Journalists and Writers Foundation Publications, Pages 13-18.

* We publish this article in honor of  Prof. Dr. Toktamış Ateş who passed away today. Dr. Ateş was a professor of political science at İstanbul University and was the head of department at İstanbul University’s Department of Political Science and International Relations. Having written over 30 books, he also wrote columns for the Cumhuriyet daily for more than ten years. He was most recently writing regular columns for the Bugün daily.  He was among the recipients of the “Tolerance Award” given by the Journalists and Writers Association in 1996.

Known as a Kemalist and a secular, Dr. Toktamis Ates posed to the cameras, in an Iftar Dinner in 1995, hand in hand with Mr. Fethullah Gulen, which drew harsh criticism of ultra-secularists.


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