23.02.2017 11:15

Click here for Vuslat Doğan Sabancı's full speech

Dear President Bollinger, distinguished faculty of Columbia University, dear students, I am delighted and honored to be here tonight.

Before I start my speech, I want to tell a little bit more about myself. I am a Muslim woman. In my private life I live my faith as I believe. Obviously I am not a Muslim scholar. I learned my religion from my family, especially from my grandmother. I grew up watching her live her faith and practice Islam in order to connect to God. She was a great storyteller. She told stories, many stories but especially stories of love, compassion and forgiveness that really formed the foundation of my understanding of Islam.

In my public life, I live a secular way of life. As a businesswoman and as a publisher, I am an advocate of freedom of the press and human rights. I profoundly appreciate the importance of secular law especially because it is unbiased to all people. It has also enabled Turkey to progress in the areas of science, technology, civil rights, education and the economy.

So this is who I am, and now you know me well. But I before I move onto the subject matter, I want to highlight one thing. Thank you for the wonderful introduction Lee but there is one thing, the most important thing in my CV, that is not being a publisher, is not being a philanthropist or an activist. Can you guess what it is? Of course it is being a Columbia graduate.

When I graduated from Columbia 20 years ago, we thought the world was going to be a one big global family and digital media was going to democratize the news because it was going to be reachable to everybody instantly. But we all know that it did not unfold like that. In the last 20 years, the world, instead of becoming a one happy family, became villages - unfortunately hostile villages. Globalization came with global problems.

We should have gotten closer to each other but we did not know how to deal with the vast magnitude of problems and the culture clashes we had. We retrieved into our shells, into our villages. And digital media did not do much. It has indeed democratized the news but it has also accelerated the polarization. And with the arrival of the Internet we all assumed that our conversations would improve, right? If every byte was equally accessible, if you are rational, reasonable actors, then the result would be a much, much better agora. Well, apparently not.

A recent study by the Columbia Journalism Review demonstrates that the decline of traditional media leads to polarization and the new media has not yet given us the tools to engage in better, more thoughtful conversations. Internet traffic, Facebook likes, and Instagram followers have all come into our lives to get our attention, and attention has become the new currency. What do we do to get attention? We scream louder. We produce more sensational news, which is so sensational that it leads to fake news. Fear is the most important element in creating urgency, and that creates emotional roles and leads to anger and resentment.

Globalization has not yet brought us happiness. It has brought us fear and hostility.

One of the other effects of social media is the rapid organizational protest rallies. Some violent groups like ISIS are using digital media very effectively. They are spreading propaganda and recruiting. We have all seen ISIS attacks in France, Germany, Belgium and San Bernardino with horror. They invoked in the name of Islam. And yet they do not only stage attacks in the Western world.

In Turkey we have had five major massacres by ISIS over the past year. On the night of New Year’s Eve, while people were celebrating in a club, they were shot a few hours into the New Year. So terror, invoked in the name of Islam, is not only a problem of the non-Muslim world. It may be an even bigger problem for the Muslim world. We can only overcome this threat by coming together as Muslims and non-Muslims.

Data from the PEW research company shows that this it is not easy. According to PEW, 58 percent of people in the West viewed Muslims as fanatics. The same percentage of Muslims views Westerners as egotistical, arrogant and as individuals who impose their own values. This type of mutual disdain is extremely dangerous for world peace. It is ridiculous to believe that we can build up walls divide the world in two, three, four walls, and live safely within our walls. It is not going to happen. Our destinies are more interdependent than ever. A threat in one place has an instant effect on the other side of the world. We have seen this in the field of finance, global finance, public health and climate change, and now we are seeing it in the refugee crisis and also terrorism.

Anthropologists tell us that for most of human history, the vast majority of humans interacted with just 100 other humans over their whole lifetime. Today many of us interact with 100 different people a day. So we have to acquire the ability to co-exist. Otherwise the 21st century is going to be a nightmare for all of us.

The only way to find a solution to live peacefully altogether in this world is to start communicating. That seems easy but it is actually not so easy. Communicating is easy but communicating well is not. I believe that good conversation holds more keys than the loudest slogans. I yearn for better conversations around the most difficult topics.

What do I mean by better conversations? Let me explain. Conversations happen when we are willing to listen to the other side. When we acknowledge what they say even though we do not agree with them. Conversations begin with intent to be able to evolve together. That is when we start to erase the walls that separate us.

I recall my grandmother’s language when she got engaged in good conversations. She was a strong witty woman who had a huge heart with compassion. She melted the boundaries whenever she engaged in conversations. I call this the wisdom of Anatolia, which is where she lived and which is the land that was the foundation of hundreds of different ethnic identities that have lived in peace for centuries.

There are some key pillars of conversation.

One is listening attentively, with the intent not to respond but with the intent to understand.

Another is acknowledging the other. You know we may agree or disagree, but if we acknowledge the other then everything changes. A feeling of calmness and relaxation comes when you know that you are acknowledged.

Another pillar is that if you acknowledge somebody, if you really hear their story, I am sure you will find something very human in there that you can touch and connect with. That opens the door for compassion. And now you can speak out courageously without being afraid, because whenever there is compassion there will not be violence.

Clashes and conflicts of character within our societies are inevitable. We do not have to agree on everything. But if we know that our thoughts are heard and recognized, only then can we move to the next stage of conversation: Finding solutions.

We must have better conversations in order to be able to correct misunderstandings that create fear. At present we have the issue of Islamophobia. Islamophobia not only feeds ignorance, it also causes hatred, which in turn goes back and creates hatred among some Muslims in the Western world. So it is a vicious circle. Islamophobia also gives radicals a priceless propaganda tool. ISIS mostly targets oppressed people for recruiting.

Islamophobia is certainly poisonous and should be fought against. But as a Muslim woman, I am also aware of the responsibility on the part of Muslims. The Religious Affairs Department (Diyanet), the highest ranking Islamic religious organization in Turkey, published an academic report two years ago. The report focused on jihadist organizations and their beliefs. I want to read a part of the report:

“They have shadowed the understanding of decency and justice of Islam, the message of love, mercy and compassion of Islam that embraces the globe. They have disrupted the march of civilization. They have created Islamophobic fears within the Western world and have become the instrument for certain ideological and interest groups wishing to create a clash between civilizations.”

This is indeed a very accurate assertion. It is a fact that Islamophobia is being fostered by jihadist movements. I believe that this fact is also being expressed by Muslims and will lead to a more fertile platform for conversations.

At the beginning of my speech I made it clear that I am not an expert in religious studies. But I want to quote an expert, Professor Ali Bardakoğlu, in order to make a particular point regarding the understanding of Islam in today’s world. Professor Bardakoğlu is a highly regarded Islamic scholar. According to him, Muslims have to face the historic nature of their religious culture. “Our prophet did not consider it appropriate for woman to travel alone because in nomadic societies, they could be attacked when passing a desert. This was a historical fact and a safety measure, not a rule of religion for today,” he says.

Today, based on this historical fact, some Muslim groups find it inappropriate for a woman to travel on her own. They are not allowed to visit Mecca and women in Saudi Arabia, with the continuation of the same logic, are not allowed to drive.

Professor Bardakoğlu actually reiterates the words that our Prophet once said: “The day will come when a woman will travel from Yemen to Damascus on her own.”

The ban was a practice of the past and this hadith explains the situation truly intended by Islam.

In his latest book, Bardakoğlu writes the following: “In the present day we Muslims have a duty to understand and explain our religion correctly in order to embrace democracy, human rights, to develop our countries in every aspect.”

This requires a multifaceted conversation.

For example, the Muslim world has condemned ISIS. But could we not have done it more forcefully? If we can nurture better conversations internally then we can engage with our Western friends with confidence. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The test is whether we can build a vibrant and just society. I am surprised that we still do not have platforms across the Muslims world where we bounce ideas and launch bold, civil conversations about what it means to build more vibrant societies and how we can do it.

I believe the media has a big responsibility and role in creating better conversations. Digital media has not yet found this, but I am optimistic about it. I don’t know if any of you have read Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to his Facebook employees posted a few days ago. He said Facebook was looking to finds ways to fight against isolation; looking for ways to bring together interest groups. So I am optimistic.

On the other hand, traditional media has a big platform. I have tremendous respect for the New York Times. I wish the New York Times’ readers were able to see ordinary Muslims and their lives as equally valuable. I wish they could see their story. I wish there was a way that New York Times readers could know about how Ali Bardakoğlu views the ability of a single woman to travel from Yemen to Damascus unmolested.

I want to give another example of how media can be used for a better conversation. The Hürriyet newspaper, of which I am the chair and publisher, was established two years before Turkey’s first multiparty elections in 1948. So the age of Hürriyet is approximately the same as the age of Turkish democracy, and we have seen all the ups and downs of Turkish democracy. We witnessed how the AKP government came to power 14 years ago with strong anti-establishment promises. As the paper that also included the establishment, we were in big shock. We asked how this could happen. That is very similar to what the New York Times is feeling now after the election of Donald Trump. It was difficult. We went through a lot of discussions. Then after discussion we were able to take off our blinders and tried to see what we did not see. There is a price to including opposing and conflicting views. Polarization wants to pull you in. Readers and audience want you to take sides. They do not want to read just anything. They do not want to see anything that is opposing them. But if you can hold that space, we have seen that in the long term and in the medium term it pays off. Because no matter what, we still need mediums that we can get unbiased reporting from, as well as forums for opposing and conflicting opinions. There is a value to that today, and the price will increase more and more as it gets more and more necessary.

Just over a year ago, our offices were raided by a crowd that came to protest our critical reporting of Erdoğan. Then during the failed coup attempt of July 15, similar crowds came to support our reporting. We heard the same crowd say: “We never thought we would come to this building with these feelings.”

So if you can, go back to your core and ask yourself why you are here? For independent reporting. To be able to reflect the opinions of the public in an unbiased way. Of course, opinions are always partial, but if you can keep them together and let them engage in conversations, you can create an incredible view.

Dear Columbia University family, freedom of thought and speech is one of the most fundamental human rights. It is the sine qua non of the enlightenment and progress. A free press is the backbone of democracy. We must treasure the freedom to ask questions. We should vigorously defend it. We must exercise such freedom not only to have our preconceived notions verified, but also sometimes to ensure that our counterpart’s voice can be heard better, expressing themselves without fear in the playing field of respect. If we are recreating the rules of living together, we must defend the other’s right to be heard as much as we defend our own freedom of speech. This is how we open the doors to better conversations.

We are all in this boat together and we have nowhere else to go. If we want peace, we have to find ways of living together. For this we have to put aside our typical opinions and our prejudices. We must invite each other to understand, listen and converse. We could serve as a channel of hatred and fear, or we could serve as a channel for wisdom and reason. The kind of media we choose will have a big impact on world peace and harmony.