HIMMAT is starting off as a blog by Rajmohan Gandhi who has written on the Indian independence movement and its leaders, South Asian history, India-Pakistan relations, human rights and conflict resolution. His latest book is Modern South India: A History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (New Delhi: Aleph, forthcoming).

Turkey and Iran

Iran and Turkey have old links with India. 

While most of India’s Mughal and Sultanate-era rulers had Turkic connections, Persian was the court language in Mughal times. After the British came, Persian continued to be used in much of India, including by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Kolkata. 

It was the official language of large ‘Mysore’ when Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan governed that territory in the last third of the 18thcentury. Once the 19thcentury started, it was in Persian that Maharaja Ranjit Singh conducted his negotiations with the British.

In 1945 or thereabouts, my school in Delhi offered our class (we were not yet in our teens) a choice of Sanskrit or Persian as a third language to learn, after Hindi and English.

But 21st-century Iran and Turkey are what I wish to speak of here, more than their earlier links with India. Both are influential players in today’s world. Each has an edgy relationship with the so-called Western world, which is no longer a homogenous monolith. Turkey and Iran have a tricky relationship also with Russia, a powerful neighbour to each.

As our world steadily becomes less and less unipolar, countries like Turkey and Iran (and India and Indonesia) become increasingly important, for they possess (a) geo-strategic value, (b) large and talented populations, (c) bustling economies (in Iran’s case seriously hurt by US-led sanctions), (d) strong nationalist sentiment and (e) proud cultures. 

Though Turkey and Iran are both Muslim nations, Islam divides them, for Turkey was for long the leader of the Sunni world and Iran is of the Shia world. Yet the roots of the age-old rivalry between Iran and Turkey, which is an old story, may be more psychological and human than theological.

I have long wondered why Turks and Iranians don’t talk more with one another. They are neighbours. Both countries see themselves as Muslim. Each wants to be independent vis-à-vis the US and Russia. Each is vibrant. Interestingly, each has valuable art links with Japan as also with China.

Present in large numbers in Europe and the US, Iranians and Turks can converse easily with one another. But they seem to steer clear of each other.

When on occasion I ask Turks or Iranians about this, I receive ambiguous responses. Maybe the historical divide is daunting.

But when so much is changing in the world, and so rapidly, it is curious that Turkey-Iran dialogues do not take place. I don’t have governmental talks in mind, although those too can do no harm and may do some good. 

It is people-to-people interactions between Turks and Iranians, contacts among scholars, writers and other professionals, that I picture. Someone should encourage or prod such interactions. Maybe Indians should. Or Pakistanis. Or Afghans. Or Bangladeshis.

All these South Asian lands would have much to gain from steps that Turkey and Iran can take towards each other.

Turkey and Iran also, of course, possess neighbours other than the ones mentioned. They have the Arabs and the Israelis. And it isn’t as if the Arabs agree among themselves. Or the Israelis with fellow-Israelis. 

If, on a plain sheet, every line of tension, friction or suspicion in the Middle East were to be drawn in black ink, a mass of black lines might swallow every blank space.

However, conversations have to start somewhere, across some divide. If they start between Turks and Iranians, the world might begin to look very different from what it seems right now.

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