As many readers of this blog may know, I am sometimes able to tear myself away from my love of derbies and football shirts in order to write about Turkish politics. A month ago I wrote one such piece (not football related) that garnered Honorable Mention from Tufts University‘s “Turkey’s Turn” essay contest. My friend Clint Richards, a respected risk management and geopolitical consultant, was kind enough to publish the essay in its entirety on his website Asia To Africa Intel. Although admittedly a bit optimistic, the piece may still be of interest to those who follow Turkish politics. I invite any readers to visit Mr. Richards’ site in order to see my post professionally presented, as well as to explore other matters concerning political developments across Asia and Africa.
Turkey 100 Years On
After a tumultuous century Turkey has moved to the forefront of the global political and economic arena, an unlikely role for a country born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey has endured a slew of internal and external conflicts, working through numerous military coups and internal instability while navigating through a sea of conflicts on its borders to claim its role as an essential hub between Europe and the Middle East.
The turning point in modern Turkish history came a little over ten years ago. Just like the United States, which experienced a horrific Civil War almost ninety years after its foundation, Turkey also went through a chaotic internal struggle in its ninetieth year. Yet, like the United States, Turkey was able to emerge from it as a stronger and more unified country than ever before.
On May 31st 2013 the proposed destruction of a city park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square gave way to over a year of sporadic street protests and violence. Through the chaos, however, came unity. Turks from all walks of life, from disparate ethnic and linguistic groups, were able to come together and realize that essential feature of any successful democracy—empathy.
Before 2013 the secular elite couldn’t fathom the traditional majority in their midst who—despite Mustafa Kemal’s revolution—still looked to Islam for inspiration and guidance. The years of AKP rule taught the previously haughty secular elite what it meant to have their freedom and way of life denigrated by those in power. It allowed them to look back on the failed militant secularism backed by the military that, in the end, marginalized pious citizens and brought about the AKP before pushing the country to the brink of civil conflict. After 2013, the secular elite were brought onto the streets where they found that they did indeed have a common bond with those that they previously viewed as uneducated peasants—the vision of a truly free country where those who wished to sip raki on the shores of the Bosphorus could do so free of any prejudice, while those who wished to attend communal prayers on Fridays could do so as well, free of prejudice.
Before 2013 the masses of rural religious Turks thought that the only solution was a party—and leader—that they would reflect them. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was just that kind of leader, and for years he carried the day. But the corruption scandals weighed him down, and in the end it became clear that he was not a pious Muslim—in fact, he was just another corrupt politician taking more money for himself and those close to him. After 2013 the people of rural Anatolia responded, understanding that Islam is a personal choice, and a personal belief system, that need not be politicized or monetized, in the most un-Islamic of ways.
Before 2013 the majority of Turkish society couldn’t understand the Kurds or the “Kurdish problem”, as it was termed, like it was some mystifying event. For many the Kurds just lived in the backwaters of southeast Turkey, perennially involving themselves in violent conflicts with the military and security forces. After 2013, the majority of Turkish society saw first hand what heavy-handed tactics by the police force could result in—too many died, including children—from the indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Finally, the urban elite could put themselves in the shoes of their fellow citizens and see first hand that no solution could—or would—ever come from violence. And that was where the empathy was born.
With a new vision for the country, it was no longer a zero sum game pitting secularists against their religious brethren, it was not Turks against Kurds, it was not urban against rural. It was no longer divide and conquer but unite and prosper. Ten years on we are seeing the results of a society that is no longer kept united by constantly sitting on the brink of chaos—domestically and internationally.
The new found understanding between Kurds and Turks has led to unprecedented cooperation between Kurdish Northern Iraq and Southeast Turkey. With the oil boom to the south, cities like Diyarbakir and Mardin are no longer marred by sporadic clashes but are rather becoming regional hubs for the development of cross border trade. As the Turkish southeast developed it became a key regional hub, usurping a role previously held by such storied cities as Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus—cities that for years were rocked by violent conflict. As the near-eastern remnants of old-world British and French colonialism waned the new-world Turkish Southeast waxed, creating a smaller—yet still complimentary—hub to Istanbul in southeastern Turkey. In the past, money had to come through Ankara and Istanbul before it trickled down to the Southeast. Now, regional cooperation means money is coming through both ends of the country, making both Turkish and Iraqi democracy stronger in the process.
Indeed the warming of relations between the United States and its erstwhile enemy, Iran, has also contributed to the boom in eastern Turkey. With the opening of the Iranian economy more and more trade has been routed through cities like Van and Hakkari. Before, this was informal trade characterized by vagrants and drug smugglers; now the trade is licit and the cities of eastern Turkey are seeing the benefit. With money flowing in, a new generation of internal migrants is moving in the opposite direction that previous generations had moved. Kurdish families no longer choose to scrape by in decrepit suburbs of an already overcrowded Istanbul. They can now find jobs that pay reasonably well with a cost of living at a fraction of that in Istanbul. This reverse migration has, in turn, meant that Istanbul has become a true regional hub that is no longer mired with snarls of car traffic—many businesses and people have relocated to the east of the country to take advantage of the new-found economic relationships with both Iraq and Iran.
In the west of country, things are looking up as well. The European Union—while still holding out on full membership for Turkey, made a landmark decision to allow visa-free entrance to Turks. It has allowed the EU to bolster its work force while also allowing Turks the freedom to travel. In fact, most Turks are not interested in living and working in Europe—they prefer to stay in their own country and speak their own language—but they do want the freedom to go on a weekend trip to Barcelona or Paris. This freedom of movement has contributed to a new sense of identity for Turks—they can see how things work in Western Europe, and take the ideas back home. Previously it had been Europeans that came to Turkey for its exoticism—a very Orientalist perspective. Turks, on the other hand, couldn’t visit the places these people had come from. The traffic—and understanding—was all one-way. The open visa policy with Russia was a start, and with the new agreement with Europe there has been a transformation in how Turks see themselves and how they see their country. Turkey is no longer a bridge between cultures rhetorically, it is a bridge between cultures in reality.
The fact that Turkey has come so far in a century is remarkable, but still more remains to be done. The educational system must be reformed so that people from all regions of the country have access to equal standards of education. This will ensure that Turkey can cement its role as a regional hub and remain a real inspiration to emerging democracies the world over.