About five years ago, Ori Soltes and one of his colleagues were lecturing on Shariah at a conference of approximately 200 federal judges and attorneys. During the Q-and-A portion of the presentation, Soltes claimed that Turkey was “positioned to [connect] the East and the West,” and that Turkey now had an opportunity to “re-engage the Arab world, which had been largely hostile to the country for a long time.”
“And my colleague did what you never do,” said Soltes, the Goldman Professorial Lecturer in Theology and Fine Arts at Georgetown University. “He laughed at me in public.”
If Soltes had any lack of good grace, he’d be the one laughing now: He maintains that the scenario he hypothesized five years ago is exactly what’s developed in present-day Turkey.
Turkey’s role as a conduit between worlds will be one of the primary ideas that Soltes hopes to address in his lecture at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in the Hall of Philosophy. Of course, to do so, he must provide his audience with a considerable amount of context on Turkey and its place in the Middle East.
“Turkey has become much more integrated into the Arabo-Islamic world of the Middle East,” Soltes said. “At present, Turkey will be even better positioned if it can re-establish a firmer, warmer relationship with Israel and continue to maintain its constantly improving relationship with the Arab world. Functioning within the European Union as part of the West but also as part of the East, it’s in a perfect position to become a bridge between cultures, religions and worlds, and I hope it does, because I think that would be good for it and good for the world.”
Soltes said to understand the people and politics of Turkey, one needs a sense of how interconnected the country’s history and culture have become.
“I’m talking merely the last 3,000 years,” Soltes said, “but in particular the last thousand years, because those centuries become the background against which the last hundred years occur. How things played out then and how things continue to play out now are in part informed by the Turkish sense of self and where that’s come from.”
Once he has set up this broad contextual framework, Soltes will be able to narrow his focus to more recent events, including Turkey’s past dozen years under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the recent protests in Taksim Square.
“All of that and the relationships of Turkey with other Arab countries then become the basis for speculating about where things are going to go in the future,” Soltes said, “because it seems to me there are a number of different possibilities.”
In his discussion, Soltes will draw on his nine visits to Turkey, an extensive knowledge of Turkish culture and years of studying and teaching theology, philosophy and art history.
He said these disciplines interact to inform his understanding of the most basic questions which “resonate through the history of the human experience.” These questions — through which people attempt to find or create meaning — lie beneath Turkey’s issues, as well as humanity’s history.
For Soltes, the questions fall into two primary categories.
“One is the category of theology,” Soltes said. “How we humans deal with the sense that there is something other than ourselves which we presume not only has created us with a purpose that we have to figure out, but which also can destroy us.”
In turn, he believes these theological questions interface with socio-anthropological questions about what humans are and how humanity differs from other species on the planet.
“So, for example, the very idea that we have a concept of divinity — as far as we know — distinguishes us from other species,” Soltes said. “As far as we know, we’re the only species that worries about death and whether there’s something beyond it. We’re the only species that has the kind of language that we have, which extends us but can also be limiting — language can only take us so far.”
Keeping in mind these sorts of questions as unifying elements of the human experience will better equip people to address issues as complicated as Turkey’s role in the Middle East and the overall Turkish mindset, Soltes thinks.
“It’s always a truism of negotiating, discussing and being with another person that, in an ideal world, you want to try and understand what’s going on not only from your perspective, but from that other person’s perspective,” Soltes said. “Which is why it’s enormously important for us to understand what Turkey is all about.”