A friend in need is a friend indeed: Turkey and Pakistan

Today marks the 63rd anniversary of Pakistani independence, and this great nation of almost 180 million people is celebrating its cherished freedom from alien domination.

It is quite sad, however, that this joyful occasion came at a time when about 15 million Pakistanis were severely affected by floods, leaving at least 1,600 people dead and many more missing. As water washed away harvests in fields and damaged homes, millions became homeless overnight, requiring immediate humanitarian assistance. According to the UN, 6 million of the affected are children. Our hearts go out to our Pakistani brothers and sisters, already faced with the threat of terrorism.

The cry for help resonated deeply within Turkey, whose special ties with this Muslim nation helped shape the recent history between the two close allies, creating a unique relationship known very well to the average citizen on the street. The government donated $5 million in cash right away, along with thousands of tons of supplies airlifted by Turkish military cargo planes. The Turkish prime minister further pledged to be involved in reconstruction efforts in flood-stricken areas once the waters recede.

It did not stop there. Fundraising campaigns from private sources across Turkey were launched, with many aid ads running in national papers and TV stations asking for money for cash-strapped Pakistani authorities. It is very natural for an average Turk to associate him or herself with the plight of the Pakistani people because of our shared history and culture, defying geographical distance and differences in language and ethnicity.

If you ask a Turk on the streets of İstanbul or Ankara or in remote provinces in the heartland of the country what he or she thinks of Pakistan, you will in all likelihood get the usual response: “How could we forget the Pakistani women who donated their wedding rings to help us fight the occupiers during our War of Independence?” This unforgettable memory is deeply rooted in the minds of Turks, and as such nurtures a lasting love affair with our Pakistani brethren.

We all know how the Muslims of South Asia always kept the cause of freedom and independence of their Turkish brothers as their very own sacred cause. In fact, the people of Pakistan considered the national struggle of the Turks a part of their own independence movement. There were key leaders on both sides, the founders of modern Turkey and Pakistan, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who shaped this close affinity between what some people called one nation in two countries.

There is also one prominent philosopher-poet of Pakistani origin who deeply impacted the psyche of the two nations. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who was vey much revered in Turkey, has become almost a household name after leading Muslim scholar and cleric Fethullah Gülen often touted his name in sermons in mosques and quoted his speeches. I remember how the Turkish audience burst into tears when Mr. Gülen recalled a rally in Lahore during which Iqbal delivered a passionate speech praising the Turkish soldiers’ stand in the battle of Tripoli in 1910.

Today Turkey and Pakistan are working closely on a number of fronts, including but not limited to bringing stability to Afghanistan and resolving the Iranian nuclear standoff through diplomatic means. Turkey unequivocally backed Pakistan over the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination, and Islamabad has always stood by Ankara on the Cyprus issue. During the visit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Pakistan in September-October 2009, the two countries signed a joint declaration establishing a high-level cooperation council jointly chaired by the prime ministers of the two countries. The High-Level Cooperation Council is required to meet annually, in each country, to discuss and review trade and economic cooperation. The first meeting of the Turkey-Pakistan CEOs Forum was also held during this visit.

That followed a visit by President Abdullah Gül to Pakistan in March-April 2010, when three Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) were signed focusing on trade enhancement, energy and agro-based industries. The second meeting of the Pakistan Turkey CEOs Forum was held in Pakistan and coincided with the visit of the Turkish president. Efforts are under way to enhance bilateral trade between Turkey and Pakistan to $2 billion by 2012 from the current level of $782 million.

Both sides are planting the seeds of desired bilateral trade. The landmark decision to upgrade the railway link between Islamabad and İstanbul via Zahedan and Tehran, costing $20 billion, is a sign of what is to come. This will link South Asia with Europe and boosts regional integration. The national airlines of both countries have regular flights between the two nations and have plans to increase their frequency.

Turkey is also trying to help Pakistan out during the latter’s economic difficulties. Turkey is one of the founding members of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan (FoDP), and in fact hosted one ministerial meeting of the FoDP in August of last year. It also contributes to reconciliation between Pakistan and Afghanistan, organizing trilateral meetings on various levels. Turkey has hosted four summit meetings with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan in İstanbul and Ankara.

Last but not least, I have high hopes in popular Turkish schools operating in Pakistan. I think they are planting the real seeds of a sustainable friendship between the two countries, providing a steady stream of young human resources that understand both cultures and speaks both languages.

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