A year lad a half ago I wrote an article about how Turkey’s strategic geo-political position in the world has them in an identity struggle between Western and Eastern influences.
Is Turkey a future member of the EU (after 48 years of associate membership) or will their large Muslim population perpetually keep them as a special relation to the West? Undeniably, Western Turkey has been a setting where important events in European history have played out over the last 2000 years, thus they can’t be written off as un-European.
With that in mind, where does that line draw on their relations with their Muslim neighbors? Turks are far from Arabs, but what exactly is their current status in the Islamic world?
These types of questions can be thrust upon different eras in history and produce distinctly circumstantial answers each time, just like the layers of influence from different periods built on Hagia Sophia.
In the article from a year and a half ago I concluded that both of Turkey’s perspective are growing stronger and more stubborn simultaneously.
But how fast things can change. Upon my return to Istanbul I discovered that all the Middle Eastern news that I’ve read has had real and direct impact on Turkey, and that their Eastern looking perspective has begun to shape Turkish society and politics more than their Western one.
Examples and Events:
- The flotilla raid of a Turkish ship by the Israeli military during the Palestinian blockade;
- The constant plight of the Kurds from bordering Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) to Eastern Turkey as Iraq continues to struggle for internal peace;
- The Arab spring changing the political landscape of the region with a former influential Egypt focusing more on turmoil within their borders and keeping status quo internationally;
- And now the big event, the one that is happening right now: Syria’s Uprising.
Can it be that Turkey was waiting for this grand opportunity? The destruction of civil-war casts a stray bullet (bomb) across the Turkish border and kills an innocent family, a woman and her children. What more is needed to justify war? Even though the Turkish parliament claims that approving military intervention with Syria is not a declaration of war it’s safe to say that the table is set and mom is calling the kids from outside to come in and eat.
Many Eurocentric political pundits will claim that Turkey is doing the West’s bidding, that after Libya Europe can’t enter Syria without taking a beating in public opinion in the Middle East, and, well, the US is still the US of A where the stereotypes of the A-rab are much the same as anti-American sentiments on the other side.
It is true that Turkey will be doing them all a favor if they invade Syria, after all they’re all in the same boys club called NATO? But for Turkey it seems that all the stars are aligned. War with Syria is supported, if not unofficially, by the West, which means they’ll help finance it, but more importantly for Turkey is that they get to flex their muscle in the region. After all Turkey not so long ago was the mighty Ottoman empire with their own influential Caliph that ruled much of the region both physically and spiritually.
The past glory of the Turks is taunting them now: a little puppet of the West? Prime Minister Erdoğan doesn’t think so, and that’s why people are talking that the Sultan is back in town.
Up until now I’ve focused on international relations to demonstrate Turkeys position. It’s easier to compare in this way when you’re not in the country, however, friends who live there get to see all the internal happenings that don’t get exported as much to Western media.
Let me begin with a joke I was told:
Napoleon comes back to life in the present day. He goes to the US and tells Obama that if he had his weapons he never would have lost Waterloo. He then visits Putin in Russia and tells him that if he had his secret police, again, he never would have lost at Waterloo. Lastly, he visits Erdoğan in Turkey and tells him that if he had control over media like he does then no one would ever know that he had lost at Waterloo.
The government controls the media. This statement is true for many states, it’s more true in Turkey. If the examples that will follow can happen in a mega cosmopolitan city like Istanbul – with unrivaled, incomparable history on the same lines as Rome – than it’s safe to declare that the public is controlled and pacified. Actually, that’s the lighter extreme: it’s more likely that the government has the vast majority of support, though not necessarily for war with Syria.
The following tales will demonstrate this and have you questioning how a European city of over 15 million have stayed idle while the region is a flux and the following changes in society have taken place.
-A new mosque was built in Istanbul, Mimar Sinan Camiiwith, and it comes with a VIP section. It is named after famous Ottoman architect Sinan, who designed Sultanahmet, while ignoring everything he stood for architecturally. As a friend said, “The mosque is suppose to be a place where a VIP can go and become a regular person, not a place where believers go to be seen as VIPs.”
-Health minister Recep Akdag wants to reverse the legality of abortion, citing that the government would take care of babies born out of rape. They want to introduce a ban on abortion. The Health Minister! This issue, the government intervening with the rights women have over their own body’s, is a paramount example of how a conservative government is intervening and forcing their values on the lives of their citizens. Read here and here for more about abortion rights in Turkey.
-Systematic erasing of Ataturk’s personality cult, and the values he represents. A scandal involved the Turkish education board that apparently claimed courses about Ataturk and the revolution which transformed the Ottoman empire to the present state of the Republic of Turkey has no place in Turkish society. They have removed his photo from school textbooks along with his speech to youth which includes warnings of potential enemies within the state working with enemies outside the state, and the necesity it may be to revolutionize once again. They’ve replaced him with a picture of current Prime Minister Erdoğan.
-Canceling of Victory day celebrations because the president had an ear infection. And then they send police to block off Ataturk monuments from citizens wishing to celebrate it by placing flowers at the statue. No mass movements allowed, including celebratory parades.
Turkey is not only facing East but have turned their backs on the West. Is a more conservative society a direct consequence of the greater role for Islam in Turkey, or is it the other way around? Great religiosity helps earn the respect, admiration, and justification of a leadership role in the region and makes influencing their Arab neighbors all that more attainable.
The Turks were always considered as the Other for both Europeans and Arabs. But just like their Ottoman past, they have greater strength in the East rather than West.