In an unprecedented bid to gain more clout in the Muslim world, Turkey is campaigning hard to win the leadership of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) later this month, according to Turkish diplomats.
Having focused on its main foreign policy objective -- to integrate with the West -- Turkey has until recently shown little interest in the Islamic community, which its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, dominated for some 500 years.
Ankara's candidacy for the OIC secretary-general post comes amid its efforts to mend fences with Arab countries, which have criticized its close ties with Israel under a 1996 military accord.
Past OIC summits have left a bitter taste for Turkey as it was scolded for bonds with the Jewish state as well as frequent incursions into northern Iraq to hunt Kurdish rebels.
Turkey, on the other hand, has regularly put conditions on OIC resolutions, saying it will obey them as far as its strictly secular constitution allows.
Ankara hopes the OIC foreign ministerial summit in Kuala Lumpur on June 27th –30th, when a new secretary-general is due to be elected, will refresh its relationship with the 56-member body, founded in 1969.
"We are optimistic, because we have generated significant support," Turkey's candidate for the post, Ambassador Yasar Yakis, 62, told AFP.
"We want to show the Muslim countries that we will not turn our back on them now that we are on the road to European Union membership, as some people think," said Yakis, who has served as ambassador in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Turkey, a NATO member, was declared an EU candidate nation last December.
"A country cannot abandon its Islamic identity when some 90 percent of its population are Muslim. We want to show that secularism and Islam can co-habituate," Yakis added.
He played down suggestions that flourishing ties with Israel could have a negative impact on Turkey's candidacy.
"Our relations with Israel have been exaggerated. We have similar military cooperation agreements with nine Arab states," Yakis said.
Arab ambassadors to Turkey refrained from voicing a clear stance on Turkey's bid.
"I have to hail Ankara's recent efforts to improve ties with the Arabs," the envoy of a leading Arab country said on condition of anonymity.
But he added that "Turkey's ties with Israel will not go well in our eyes as long as the Middle East peace process falters and Israel continues to occupy Arab territories."
Yakis said Turkey could bring professionalism and dynamism to the OIC, transfer its experience from Western organizations and serve as a bridge in boosting cooperation between the body and the EU.
Yakis has recently toured major OIC countries, among them Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Malaysia, in search of support for his candidacy.
The four-year secretary-general post rotates among the three groups into which OIC members are divided -- Asian, Arab and African -- and it is the turn of the Asian group, which includes Turkey, to produce a leader.
Under OIC traditions, the secretary-general is elected by consensus and the members do not challenge the candidate who gains the most support from the group.
"Out of the 17 members of the Asian group, nine have officially notified us of their support. Including ourselves, we already have the majority," Yakis said.
The other candidates to succeed Secretary-General Ezzedine Laraki of Morocco next year are another Moroccan, former Foreign Minister Abdelouahed Belkeziz, and Bangladeshi Parliament Speaker Humayun Choudhury.
If a consensus does not emerge in Kuala Lumpur, the secretary-general will be elected either at a foreign ministers meeting in New York in September or a heads of state summit in Doha in November – ANKARA (AFP)
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