Originally Published for Dispatches International in 2011
“Turkey is a medium-sized country and there is going to be a power vacuum because historically we have a perspective of Europe and if we stop having this perspective we will have to have another one. Unfortunately, the closest option for Turkey is the eastern world,” says Asli Postaci, a PhD candidate in political science at Yeditepe Univeristy in Istanbul.
With the ongoing unrest in the Arab world, Turkey is starting to become a major player in the region. It has become clear that the European Union has put any plans to add Turkey as a full member on hold. As a result Turkey has shifted its policies in the Middle East. This past May, Turkish relations with Israel were greatly strained with the Gaza Flotilla Raid. This was a Turkish demonstration to show that it will create its own foreign policy in the Middle East, even if it directly opposes policies that Western powers have in the region.
With the combination of feeling unwanted by the EU, and respected by the victorious opposition parties in the Arab world; Turkey is gaining comparatively greater power from their Asian side rather than the European. Before discussing this, Postaci steers the conversation to what she thinks is more vital: understanding the Turks in order to understand their politics.
“There’s a cultural duality, and this is one of the major sickness of Turkey,” she emphasizes.
On one side there are modern, educated Turks, and on the other, conservatives. The modern Turks are western-orientated, middle class people like any other from Europe. The conservatives, Postaci explains, are a little different.
“They are still feudalistic. Just think of someone still in the village and working as a peasant, or just moved to the city because he can’t make enough money as a peasant. He is just trying to survive better, so he moved to the city where there are lots of employment opportunities due to industrialization. But still didn’t become a member, didn’t internalize the city way of life.”
Postaci is talking about are people who left their village, but never adapted to city life.They marginalize themselves in the city. In other words, the village stays within them. Conservative political parties are aware of this type and target them for votes.
“They either have to belong to a religious segment or a nationalist segment of society, some group like this, because they don’t have multiple identities.” Thus, it is of no surprise that presently there is a religious conservative party in power, the AKP (Justice and Development Party).
“The major actors in the Turkish political arena are a Muslim democrat party, a social democrat party, a Turkish nationalist party and a Kurdish nationalist party. These are the four political parties voted for enough to have a group in Turkish Grand National Assembly,” she elaborates.
“The funny thing is that the poor segments of society vote for the right wing parties, and those who vote for the social democrats are the modernists.”
Postaci describes some qualities of the opposing parties: “The profile of the social democrat voters are university graduates, upper middle class, people who don’t really need to worry about others, but still do because they are educated and they believe that society should be better, only then can they be better personally,” she says.
“The conservative parties push religious values, nationalist values, and they distribute goods to the people. They give food, and clothes, things you can use at home and they basically buy the votes. But it is okay for the people because they are thankful that they are being helped.”
Postaci explains a breach in communication that the opposing supporters are facing. “I believe that those two segments of society are not speaking in the same language. They all speak Turkish but mentally they are not belonging to the same world,” she says.
“It is like two people, one is worried about the other and votes for the social democrats because they want society to be good, and the other is like, ‘who are you to care about me? I am going to vote for the conservatives because they give me an identity under a religious flag or nationalist flag, and they give me food. And what do you do? You are opening stupid exhibitions when I’m hungry.’ They do not really speak the same language.”
On the surface Turkey seems to be a unified culturally singular, but it is a large, diverse and multilingual country. Out of the 77 million citizens of Turkey 70% of them are ethnic Turks. There is a large population of Kurds, and even Arab and Iranian groups. Depending on who you ask, between 15 and 20 million Kurds live in Turkey, mostly in the south-east, in the regions of ancient Mesopotamia and Istanbul. Istanbul is the city with the highest number of Kurdish inhabitants in the world. Yet despite these demographic differences, until recently they all shared two things in common. The first thing, of course, Islam; the second, Postaci recounts, was their support of Turkey’s EU membership.
“The European Union accession was very popular among the whole population, until recently.” She says. “And although the people did not really know what it would bring to them, to be part of the EU, they still supported it.”
Many supporters of the possible accession to the EU were ignorant of the reasons it may benefit Turkey. “It was a fact that certain surveys showed that people did not really have a healthy idea of what would happen if they accessed the EU but they were still in favour of it, until recently that is,” Postaci says.
“Until the European Union made it more and more clear that they didn’t want Turkey as a member state. There is this grandiose sense historically in the subconscious of Turks, like, ‘who are you not to want me.’ This is an immediate reaction. And it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, intellectual or not.”
“European Union is not important,” says Hasan Atash, an ethnic Arab from Antakya who operates a guesthouse for travelers.
“Europe is better, but Syria is easier and cheaper. Europe is difficult to go. But people have democracy. They have nice museums. Before Turkish people look at Europe for economy. Not now, now it’s not important. Turkey is strong now. Before, Turkey had economic problems, now no problem.”
His view of the economic situation in Turkey parallels the reality of Turkey’s economy and its position between Europe and the Middle East. “I was retired but now I have to work. Economic problem before really bad. Now not so bad, but I have to work,” Atash explains.
His father worked in Germany for a year over fifty years ago. He brought his earnings back to Turkey and was able to buy land and start a business. Now, with it being more difficult for Turks to get working visas in Europe, they look east.
Atash gives an example of men using these opportunities: “All peoples, 80% of men here in Antakya go to work in Saudi Arabia. Out of 40 men here in this town Ekinci, 35 go. They work and bring money back.”
Since these apparent opportunities outside of Europe exist for Turks, they don’t necessarily think about Europe first. On their eastern borders are people of the same faith, and that perspective is gaining ground. However, there are still those people who hold the European perspective. Samet, 23, an engineering student is one of these people.
“I’m from Ankara and came to Gaziantep to study,” he says. “Halab [in Syria] is less than three hours away. I would love to see it, just for a few days to walk in this ancient city. But I can’t because I want to go to Europe for a conference. It is hard enough without a Syrian stamp in my passport,” Samet laments.
Europe closes their doors to the Turks and then punishes them for going into open ones. Samet still holds onto the dream of EU accession because he longs for the free movement that the EU entails.
“Every segment had their own reasons to be part of Europe,” Says Postaci, the political science PhD student. “Less-educated segments thought that they would become instantly rich. Other segments had reasons based on human rights. But when it became more and more clear that it was not going to happen, people reacted accordingly. But what happens if we turn our back on the EU?”
Postaci has her own reasons for not directly criticizing the EU: “My only concern is that if Turkey loses its European perspective, the Islamic movements that are already very strong can take stronger positions in the country.”
One would think that Europe would be aware of this also, but they are too occupied with their own Muslims at the moment, especially in Germany, France and the Netherlands.
While it will not accept Turkey as a full member, the EU seems to have a plan for keeping a hand in Turkey. “What we have today is that the EU is keeping us in the orbit, they never let us fall, they never let us leave the orbit, we are always around them,” explains Postaci. I think this is the best call for the EU, to keep Turkey around so that it doesn’t change its perspective.”
It isn’t Europe’s perspective that is important for Turkey right now, but rather their own. With a strong internal division, a split identity, the struggle of each side to take control of the country and shape Turkey’s future, there is a lot being fought over and determined right now within the country itself without full focus on the EU.
Postaci agrees. “So this is the major problem of Turkey, and wherever you go what you find awkward or weird or fascinating about Turkey – what makes Turkey very different from the rest of other countries is this: There is a huge clash of two different identities in this country, and they have to live together. None of them are losing their character. They are not becoming something in between. They are not becoming slightly like each other. There are still harsh differences.”
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