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The Momentous Confrontation in Turkey

By       Message Bernard Weiner     Permalink
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By Bernard Weiner

Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers (

The current political situation in Turkey is explosive and how it plays out will alter that region of the world and beyond for many years.

One of the reasons I wanted to travel to that country last year was precisely because of Turkey's having been a linchpin in world and cultural history over the ages. Situated at the nexus that links Asia and Europe, it couldn't help being influential. Indeed, for many centuries as the Ottoman Empire expanded, Turkey was dominant.

I wanted to directly assess that energy and dynamic by actually being there, on the ground. It turned out that I didn't feel I truly understood Turkey's vital contemporary role until that visit to Istanbul.


Istanbul is a bustling, immense metropolis with a population of almost 14 million, and the Bosporus where it sits is constantly filled with boats and ships, testimony to Istanbul's central role as a vibrant trading, economic powerhouse. How could it be otherwise? The Bospurus is the humming-with-activity funnel where all the Black Sea traffic from the north (Russia, Eastern Europe, etc.) pours into the Mediterranean Sea. 

Yes, even in this vibrant economy, very occasionally one might see a beggar in Istanbul (or in Kapadokya), but nothing like what one sees everyday in Paris or New York or in my home city of San Francisco. Turkey has its poverty regions, to be sure, and unemployment is high, especially in the rural areas and among the young. But the country as a whole seems stable and relatively prosperous and progressive when measured against other nation-states in the region. But even so, during our visit one could pick up disquieting rumbles beneath the surface.

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At a jazz concert we attended with a Turkish friend at a local park, the young people we met, mostly in their 20s and 30s, clearly were nervous about their country's, and their own, future. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, projected an open, secular face to the Western world, they said, but behind that friendly facade something else was going on. 

(Turkey's application to join the European Union is still active, if seemingly going nowhere because of EU reluctance to allow this Islamic nation into the tent of Western culture, seeing it as a potential stalking horse for Muslim activism or even extremism.)

But behind that copacetic facade, our young Turkish friends indicated, is an increasingly Islamist-leaning Erdogan, and his rightist political party, the A.K.P.  After more than 75 years following the revolutionary secularization of Turkish society by President Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, the father of the Republic of Turkey, now there were disquieting signs of Taliban-like extremism -- especially regarding the presence of alcohol in the country's bustling cultural life, and the place and treatment of women. Recently from Erdogan's party, there have been open verbal attacks on the social policies of "Kemalism" and even on Attaturk himself -- especially about the revolutionary Turkish leader's tendency to drink prodigiously.

One Attaturk story that is indicative of the man's political genius:  When he assumed power in 1923, there was a raging controversy over which religion should have control of the massive Hagia Sophia Mosque. It had been an Orthodox Christian (and later Roman Catholic) cathedral for centuries and the Christians wanted to restore that control. But in the 15th century, the Moslems had seized it and had maintained it as a mosque for centuries. The dispute threatened to explode into violence in the 1920s. Attaturk had to make the decision. So he defused the entire situation in 1931 by turning it into a national museum. Brilliant!


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Photos and other images of Attaturk are seen everywhere in contemporary Istanbul, and the Western-influenced culture celebrates that more relaxed secular lifestyle in its with-it style and its active democracy. For example, you'd be hard put to differentiate between women in Paris and women in European Istanbul. The fashions and clothes are similar, and the face and head hair are visible and trendily fashionable.

Even Turkish women who adhere to religious codes of dress are not immune to Western-style fashion influences. In a window of a high-end Islamic coat shop on the European side of Istanbul, one could see  the long coats, which go demurely all the way to the ground, adorned with Western accoutrements in buttons, colors, design elements, etc. Almost flashy in religious-female circles.  When visiting the more Asian part of Istanbul, women are much less colorfully dressed -- more greys, black and dark blues in their coats, hijabs and scarves covering virtually every woman's head and hair. 


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Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer-editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (more...)

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