Turkey was the subject of two separate talks in London last week. One conference in Whitehall with noted speakers from academia and diplomatic circles covered the usual ‘wither Turkey and the West’ question that has been plaguing Western statesmen for several hundred years. It was interesting to hear the same sort of concerns that must have resonated in the same halls more than 150 years ago when what was left of the Ottoman Empire was regarded as something necessary – but not quite what you would bring into the front parlor.
“However disagreeable its rulers may be, we cannot afford to let Turkey and the straits fall into the hands of the Russians. We must continue our efforts to bring Turkey onside and not let the Russians grab everything.”
Talks in last week’s conference weren’t much different. “We know that President Tayyip Erdoğan is difficult to deal with and not quite anyone’s idea of a real democrat. But we simply must carry on with some sort of dialogue. We don’t want to wake up one morning and find that the country has jettisoned the West in favour of Putin.”
True enough. But treating Turkey as a distant, dyspeptic relative who shows up uninvited for a long weekend in the Cotswolds obscures the powerful social, political and economic forces driving the country today. It is those forces, not the temporary rule of Tayyip Erdoğan, that will determine the future of Turkey. With all the headlines and outbursts surrounding Erdoğan it is sometimes easy to forget that the country is much, much more complex than the bombast of its leader.
The reality of modern Turkey belies the simplistic, one-dimensional characterization that Erdoğan and many outside observers love. Terms like ally, enemy, religious, secular, democrat, autocrat have absolutely no meaning by themselves. Turkey can, at the same time, be one or all of these things. Trends like rising education levels, the growing middle class, deepening interaction with the global economy, sharp social and political divisions make it impossible to slot Turkey into a rigid mold. Anyone who thinks he begins to understand modern Turkey would be well advised to stop and think again.
It was the internationally-acclaimed author Elif Şafak who took us beneath the dry diplomatic concerns about Turkey and offered a clear-eyed, sympathetic view of that reality. The talk at one of London’s leading bookstores ostensibly was to discuss her most recent novel, Three Daughters of Eve. The book discusses the lives of three Moslem women – one pious, one hostile to Islam, and one unsure where she stands on religion -- studying at Oxford.
She also bemoaned the tendency of Turkey’s current rulers to present the country in simplistic nationalistic, religious and social terms. The Turkey she described, and one I experienced in more than two decades in the country, is not the un-differentiated, homogeneous mass that Erdoğan and his acolytes would have people believe. Turkey is in fact a rich, heterogeneous mixture of people and religion. Yes, most of the people are Moslem, but there are several shades and varieties of Islam within the country. Even the subject of nationality is not straightforward. The question of who, exactly, is a Turk becomes even more complex when you consider the question of the millions of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.
While people are proud to call themselves citizens of the Turkish Republic they are equally quick to point out their unique family histories. Some are indeed direct descendants of the Turks who swarmed out of the Altai mountains more than 1,000 years ago. Some of these families proudly claim direct links to the non-Ottoman tribes that controlled different parts of Anatolia. Others claim their heritage from the far-flung regions of the Ottoman Empire: the Balkans, Crete, Yemen, Egypt, mainland Greece. Many of the villages along the Aegean coast that were vacated during the population exchange with Greece in the 1920s were re-populated with Turks driven out of their homes in the Balkans.
Erdoğan also ignores the complex reality of the modern Turkish economy and how much it is intertwined with the global economy. Under his mis-management the economy may be sliding fast, but it remains closely tied to the wider world in critical areas like finance and trade – including trade in those very basic raw and intermediate materials that keep Turkish factories working.
Given Erdoğan’s overwhelming control of almost all political discourse in Turkey today it is revealing that estimates about the outcome of the referendum giving him total control are as close as they are. But perhaps the very complexities he ignores in his quest for this control could result in his unexpected defeat. Even he is learning that ‘one-size-fits-all’ does not really apply to Turkey.