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Visiting Turkey, as ever a crossroads
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Visiting Turkey, as ever a crossroads

Carol and I just came back from Turkey. Why Turkey? Because of its history and archeology. It traces back to the Hittites. The Trojan War and the battle of Gallipoli were fought there. It was the home of Byzantium and the Eastern Roman and Ottoman Empires. It is the burial ground of Alexander the Great and the locale of the legends of King Midas and the Gordian Knot. It has more Roman ruins than Italy. The Silk Road runs through it.

I was afraid that Turkey would be inaccessible to Westerners in a few years, the way Egypt — which is on my bucket list — has become.

The geostrategic position of Turkey cannot be underestimated. It is a bridge between Europe and Asia. Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and Turkey’s largest city, straddles both continents. The European side of Turkey, called Thrace, is about five percent of its land mass. The Asian side is Anatolia. Turkey is slightly larger than Texas.

Two strategic waterways divide European Turkey from Asian Turkey: the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus. The Russian ports of Odessa and Sevastopol need access to these waterways to access the Mediterranean and the world.

Turkey’s strategic location was recognized by the West and in 1952 Turkey was admitted to NATO, making it NATO’s eastern front.

Turkey shares borders with eight countries, including Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Syrian civil war has impacted Turkey with refugees coming over the border. Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia, supports the Syrian rebels, whose inclusion of Islamist groups is a major point of conflict with the Obama administration.

Turkey, with a 99.8 percent Muslim population, is considered the paradigm of a Muslim democracy. There is a 94 percent literacy rate and its economy, with growing manufacturing and service sectors, is one of the strongest in Europe.

The modernization of Turkey is attributed to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, “Ataturk” being an honorific meaning “Father of the Turks.” Ataturk, a war hero, westernized the Turkish remnant of the Ottoman Empire. He gave Turkey its constitution, its legal system, and its Romanized alphabet. He modernized the education system and gave women equal rights.

Ataturk is deified in Turkey and his portraits and statues are everywhere. His mausoleum and its plavza reminded me of Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi.

But Ataturk was an authoritarian and a military man. He rebuilt the Turkish military and left it as the custodian of the political system he created. That system has had a spotty record, alternating between elected governments and military coups.

With its growing economy and agricultural products marketed to Western Europe, Turkey, which was granted associate membership by the European Community in 1964, has sought full membership in the European Union since 2005.

This has turned into an exercise in frustration. The Christian-dominated EU has been reluctant to admit Muslim Turkey, while admitting other countries with weaker economies. The EU has set a changing set of reforms for Turkey to meet for accession.

One reason given for EU reluctance is that the EU does not want to defend the Turkish borders. I find this argument hypocritical because Western Europe is already committed to defend those borders because Turkey is a NATO member. More likely obstacles are Turkey’s Muslim society, an economy which is more robust than most EU members’, and olive oil production which would compete with that of Italy and Spain.

This has impacted Turkish policy and society. Since 2003, the prime minister of Turkey has been Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots. Erdogan, who sought EU membership, has adopted a policy of “normalization” designed to return Turkey to its Muslim roots, in effect reversing or modifying Ataturk’s secular reforms.

Among other things, Erdogan formed a successful, unofficial alliance with prosecutors to remove the military from politics. He replaced ousted military leaders with people sympathetic to his religious leanings. This was considered an attack on secularism.

While we were in Turkey, these same prosecutors brought charges of corruption against Erdogan’s allies. Three ministers resigned after their sons were arrested, along with dozens of others, over alleged wrongdoing in construction contracts and deals with Iran. Erdogan alternatively claims that this is a “dirty plot” by the military, the United States, and/or Israel. These charges have created an upheaval in Turkish politics.

Turkey is coming to a crossroad in March when it holds local elections. The secularists are scared that this may be their last chance to stop the Islamification of Turkey and the reversal of the Kemalist reforms.

On the other side, a schism has formed between Erdogan and a former ally, Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen. The core of the AKP comes from the “National View” tradition, political Islam with anti-Western and pan-Islamic tones. The Gulen movement believes in “cultural Islam” which wants to wean Turkey away from its secular regime. This may seem a distinction without difference to a Westerner, but it is meaningful to the Turks.

With increasing turmoil in the Middle East, the results of the March elections will be significant, not only to Turkey, but to the Middle East and the West.

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