People in Europe and the United States can be forgiven for being confused about Turkey. Many Turks themselves are confused. The country defies simple classification and labels. Friend? Foe? Autocratic? Democratic? East? West? Sticking any single label on Turkey distorts reality. This large, dynamic country is filled with contradictions, and those contradictions and tensions are distilled to a fine essence in the megalopolis of Istanbul.
Claire Berlinski mentions some of these tensions simmering just beneath the surface of Istanbul in her perceptive article Weimar Istanbul. She describes the uneasy shift of power from the old social and economic elite of the city to the newly arrived masses from the countryside. The government is exacerbating this tension, according to Berlinski, by its heavy-handed response to any criticism and the mass trials of its opponents that bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Soviet purge trials of the 1930s.
The contradictions of Istanbul begin with the very name. In seeking to do away with any association with the ancient Greek city of Constantinople the founders of the Turkish Republic decided the name should be changed to Istanbul. Fine, but the word Istanbul is merely a short version of the Greek phrase that means ‘to the city.’ The Turkish nationalists would become apoplectic if they realized that the word for the heartland of Turkey, Anatolia, derives from the Greek word for East, Anatoli.
Beyond semantics, the enormous demographic shift from the country to the cities has transformed the city far beyond what I remember from when I first arrived in 1964. Then, the population was less than two million, there were no bridges across the Bosphorus, and you could go for walks in the green hills on either side of the strait. I remember swimming across the Bosphorus in 1964. Now, there’s so much ship traffic I wouldn’t put my toe in the water.
Less than 50 years later the population has exploded to 13 million, there are two bridges spanning the Bosphorus, and ugly new housing developments have ripped up the once lovely green hills. Unlovely, brutal, high rise apartment complexes stomp across the western and eastern edges of the city. It now takes well over an hour, on a good day, to drive on the motorway from one side of the city to the other. The graceful old city that had withstood so many armies and so much political turmoil was finally overwhelmed by another Eastern invasion. An Anatolian monoculture has replaced the multicultural, international character of old Istanbul where several languages could be heard in the space of a few city blocks.
Old Istanbulus (natives of the city) lament this change. In their selective memories they recall the pleasures of a polyglot city where they felt proud to be part of Ataturk’s brave experiment to build a modern nation on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. They were the vanguard of this experiment and devoted their lives to making it work. The occasional intrusions of atavistic, nationalist frenzy that drove out most of the remaining Greek population are remembered more with sorrow than with any sense of triumph. One frequently heard complaint is that the villagers who have descended upon Istanbul ‘simply do not understand what this city means. They have no appreciation for what was here.’
Beyond the yawning cultural gulf between the natives of Istanbul and the new arrivals is the shift in political power. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has very cleverly capitalized on the resentment felt by people in Anatolia toward the traditional Kemalist (Ataturk) elite. There are maybe 10 to 15 million very well educated, middle class and wealthy (some extremely wealthy) people in Turkey. There are also 60 to 65 million undereducated people who sit on the bottom of the economic ladder. Unemployment and underemployment among this group are major problems. In Istanbul alone, according to one estimate, the unemployment rate among the young new arrivals is more than 15%. The AKP has successfully appealed to the deep resentments of perceived injustice and has promised to re-align the social and political order of Turkey. Where the Kemalist elite were stridently secularist, AKP has made a point to stress Turkey’s Islamic heritage. Conservative and religious symbols like the headscarf are much more prominent now than 1964. I have often heard well dressed Istanbul women confront a headscarved villager who ventured into an upmarket neighbourhood. “What are you doing here? Go back to your village.” There is also a shift in economic power where entrepreneurs from Anatolia who just happen to support AKP are rapidly becoming extremely wealthy.
The AKP says it is simply expanding the concept of democracy in Turkey as it hounds the Kemalist judiciary and the once-proud military. An increasing number are sceptical of this claim, and recall that the prime minister famously described democracy as a train that you leave once you reach your destination. They wonder just where the destination is, and what awaits them once the train gets there.
The contradictions that define modern Turkey – Islamic/secular, autocratic/democratic, rural/urban, old/modern, liberal/conservative, nationalist/internationalist – make the American culture wars seem quite mild. One can only hope that foreign politicians, Americans in particular, can avoid stale stereotypes when dealing with Turkey, and realize that the dynamic and volatile mixture of that country does not fit easily into one narrow container.