The current political situation in Turkey is explosive and how it plays out will alter that region of the world and beyond for many years.
One of the reasons I wanted to travel to that country last year was precisely because of Turkey’s having been a linchpin in world and cultural history over the ages. Situated at the nexus that links Asia and Europe, it couldn’t help being influential. Indeed, for many centuries as the Ottoman Empire expanded, Turkey was dominant.
I wanted to directly assess that energy and dynamic by actually being there, on the ground. It turned out that I didn’t feel I truly understood Turkey’s vital contemporary role until that visit to Istanbul.
The first thing my wife and I saw the night we arrived was one of the two bridges that connect the Asian landmass to Europe in Istanbul. It was lit so as to accentuate its symbolic and actual importance.
Rumbles From Below
Istanbul is a bustling, immense metropolis with a population of almost 14 million, and the Bosporus where it sits is constantly filled with boats and ships, testimony to Istanbul’s central role as a vibrant trading, economic powerhouse. How could it be otherwise? The Bospurus is the humming-with-activity funnel where all the Black Sea traffic from the north (Russia, Eastern Europe, etc.) pours into the Mediterranean Sea.
Yes, even in this vibrant economy, very occasionally one might see a beggar in Istanbul (or in Kapadokya), but nothing like what one sees everyday in Paris or New York or in my home city of San Francisco. Turkey has its poverty regions, to be sure, and unemployment is high, especially in the rural areas and among the young. But the country as a whole seems stable and relatively prosperous and progressive when measured against other nation-states in the region. But even so, during our visit one could pick up disquieting rumbles beneath the surface.
At a jazz concert we attended with a Turkish friend at a local park, the young people we met, mostly in their 20s and 30s, clearly were nervous about their country’s, and their own, future. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, projected an open, secular face to the Western world, they said, but behind that friendly facade something else was going on.
(Turkey’s application to join the European Union is still active, if seemingly going nowhere because of EU reluctance to allow this Islamic nation into the tent of Western culture, seeing it as a potential stalking horse for Muslim activism or even extremism.)
But behind that copacetic facade, our young Turkish friends indicated, is an increasingly Islamist-leaning Erdogan, and his rightist political party, the A.K.P. After more than 75 years following the revolutionary secularization of Turkish society by President Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, the father of the Republic of Turkey, now there were disquieting signs of Taliban-like extremism — especially regarding the presence of alcohol in the country’s bustling cultural life, and the place and treatment of women. Recently from Erdogan’s party, there have been open verbal attacks on the social policies of “Kemalism” and even on Attaturk himself — especially about the revolutionary Turkish leader’s tendency to drink prodigiously.
One Attaturk story that is indicative of the man’s political genius: When he assumed power in 1923, there was a raging controversy over which religion should have control of the massive Hagia Sophia Mosque. It had been an Orthodox Christian (and later Roman Catholic) cathedral for centuries and the Christians wanted to restore that control. But in the 15th century, the Moslems had seized it and had maintained it as a mosque for centuries. The dispute threatened to explode into violence in the 1920s. Attaturk had to make the decision. So he defused the entire situation in 1931 by turning it into a national museum. Brilliant!
Women in Today’s Turkey
Photos and other images of Attaturk are seen everywhere in contemporary Istanbul, and the Western-influenced culture celebrates that more relaxed secular lifestyle in its with-it style and its active democracy. For example, you’d be hard put to differentiate between women in Paris and women in European Istanbul. The fashions and clothes are similar, and the face and head hair are visible and trendily fashionable.
Even Turkish women who adhere to religious codes of dress are not immune to Western-style fashion influences. Have a look at this photo taken at an Islamic coat shop on the European side of Istanbul. The long coats, which go demurely all the way to the ground, are adorned with Western accoutrements in buttons, colors, design elements, etc. Almost flashy in religious-female circles.
When visiting the more Asian part of Istanbul, women are much less colorfully dressed — more greys, black and dark blues in their coats, hijabs and scarves covering virtually every woman’s head and hair. But even in European Istanbul, one can find Muslim women covered up in home-made, burka-style fashions, as we did here at Topkapi Palace with these two, tech-savvy Muslim tourists.
Young Turks’ Trustrations
The young Turks we spoke with in Istanbul and Kapadokya, many of whom have lived in or visited the United States or Paris or Munich, seemed angry, frustrated and discouraged. Some talked openly about emigrating to Western countries because of the more restrictive direction Erdogan and his A.K.P. were taking the country. They didn’t see a free and active place for themselves in an increasingly conservative, constricted Islamist society.
So I wasn’t surprised when the protests erupted in Turkey a few weeks ago, led in the main by young citizens resentful of the government’s crackdown on alcohol-drinking (many of the demonstrators are college students and like their Effes beer) and its anti-environmental stances when favoring more building-development on land designated for use as a popular public park.
Below the surface of a seemingly stable society and once-popular government was a roiling antagonism that was just waiting for a catalyst to bring it alive in the streets. The catalyst was the way the Erdogan government sanctioned extreme police rioting and brutality against the young people and others who wanted to save the Gezi Park trees from the corporate shopping developers in league with government officials. Police behavior was like going after a gnat with a howitzer.
The battle was joined, the police continued their onslaught of tear gas and billy clubs, and similar demonstrations began popping up all over Turkey, directed at government policy and then at the government itself.
How this will resolve itself is not clear as of this writing. It seems that Erdogan, who has been democratically elected three times in recent years, thinks he can break the back of the protests with more use of forceful police and militia violence, and so he’s not in the mood for any major compromises with his opposition. (As I write this, his forces are moving back into the streets and squares with massive tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and swinging clubs. One has to anticipate deaths in all this.)
If Erdogan is able to crush the nascent rebellion — which started out in favor of trees and has by now morphed into calls for his resignation — the rightwing in Turkey (and beyond) will interpret the defeat of the liberal opposition as a mandate to move further, faster in a more conservative, authoritarian direction.
On the other hand, it’s possible that Erdogan, in his arrogance, might well overplay his hand by unleashing massive force on the children of the middle-class. That could provoke sympathy for the demonstrators and their cause from more moderate factions in society. A “Turkish-Spring”-like event is not out of the question, albeit unlikely, one that could have serious ripple effects throughout the Greater Middle East.
The next few days and weeks will tell the tale. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy Turkish ride.