“Turkey is a European country, an Asian country, a Middle Eastern country, Balkan country, Caucasian country, neighbor to Africa, Black Sea country, Caspian Sea, all these.” – Ahmet Davutoglu
“Many analysts compare Turkey with countries in the Middle East, but I think we need to compare it with Russia. Both countries come from a tradition of empire, and also from a tradition of the strong state.” – Elif Shafak
In the winter of 2014, I traveled to visit Tomer in Turkey, who was studying at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul for the semester. Growing up in Israel, the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Middle East for centuries, were all around; thus, it was fascinating to visit the magnificent center of its’ power.
During the visit to Istanbul, I felt a ‘whiff’ of violent energy in the air. When I reflect on that now, that intuition I felt makes sense in the right historical context. In 2014 many Islamic zealots from all over the world joined ISIS, and their route into ISIS territory frequently passed through Istanbul.
The highlight of the tour by far was spending a few days in Konya, where Rumi lived, taught, and wrote. Konya remains, even today, as the center of the mystical Sufi Muslims, and watching the Dervish dancers whirling during the Mevlana Festival was magic.
Some Context about Turkey Geopolitics
Why is Turkey not yet a member of the EU?
The question of Turkey’s European credentials has been growing since 1963 when Turkey became an associate member of the European Community, which agreed that eventual full membership was possible. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952 and has been lobbying for membership in the EU since 1987. Although it is recognized as a candidate country, opinion on its prospects remains deeply divided and unanswered.
Less than five percent of Turkey territory is in Europe; the rest, everything east and southeast of the Bosporus straits, is in the Middle East; that’s one reason. Another factor is its record on human rights, especially those of the Kurds. Another is the economy, the fear that disparity in living standards would result in a mass influx of labor. And what may also be a factor, albeit unspoken within the EU, is that Turkey is a majority Muslim country (98 percent). The EU is neither secular nor a Christian organization, but there has been a thorny debate about “values.” For each argument for Turkey’s EU membership, there is an argument against it, and in the past decade, the prospects for Turkey’s joining have diminished. This has led the country to reflect on what other choices there may be.
Who was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk?
In the 1920s, for one man, at least, there was no choice. His name was Mustafa Kemal, and he was the only Turkish general to emerge from the First World War with an enhanced reputation. After the victorious powers carved up Turkey, he rose to become president on a platform of resisting the terms imposed by the Allies. At the same time, he also pushed for modernizing Turkey and making it part of Europe. He initiated the Western legal codes and the Gregorian calendar; Islamic public institutions were banned. The fez’s wearing was forbidden; the Latin alphabet replaced Arabic script, and he even granted voting rights to women (two years ahead of Spain and fifteen years ahead of France). In 1934, when Turks embraced legally binding surnames, Kemal was given the name Atatürk – “Father of the Turks.” He died in 1938, but subsequent Turkish leaders continued working to bring Turkey into the West European fold. Those who didn’t found themselves on the wrong end of a coup d’état by a military determined to complete Atatürk’s legacy.
What now and where is it going?
By the late 1980s, however, Europe’s continued rejection and the stubborn refusal of many ordinary Turks to become less religious resulted in a generation of politicians who began to think the unthinkable – that perhaps Turkey needed a plan B. President Turgut Ozal, a religious man, came to office in 1989 and started the change. He encouraged Turks to see Turkey as the great land bridge between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. A country that could, once more, be a great power in all three regions. The current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has similar ambitions, perhaps even greater ones.
My reading recommendation
Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres
Snow, A Novel, by Orhan Pamuk
My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk
Istanbul, Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk
The Forty Rules of Love, A Novel of Rumi, By Elif Shafak
The Bastard of Istanbul, By Elif Shafak
Istanbul Passage, A Novel, by Joseph Kanon
Midnight at the Pera Palace, The Birth of Modern Istanbul, by Charles King
Erdogan Rising, The Battle for the Soul of Turkey, by Hannah Lucinda Smith
The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan
What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, by John L. Esposito
Rumi: Voice of Longing, by Coleman Barks
Pure Water: Poetry of Rumi, by Coleman Barks and Jalaluddin Rumi