I returned a few days ago from an extremely enjoyable and rather thought-provoking 12-day family vacation in Turkey. The visit included a guided tour of north-western Anatolia – Bursa, Sardis, Pamukkale, Hierapolis, Ephesus, Izmir, Pergamon, Troy and Gallipoli – and then five days of sightseeing and shopping in Istanbul on our own. Without being planned as such, the trip ended up giving us a great – though sketchy – cross sectional view of the region’s rich history, from ancient Troy through Greeks, Romans and Ottomans down to the senselessness of the Great War. As I went through ancient ruins, glorious mosques and silent cemeteries, I could not help but think on the history still being made in the region. Modern Turkey lay all about us, and I found it to be fascinatingly complex.
The fabled walls of Troy.
Ruins of the Temple of Artemis near ancient Sardis, where Croesus ruled and Xerxes reveled.
I’m not sure what I had expected the experience of Turkey to be, but what I found (at least in the areas we visited) was a remarkably well-organized, highly functional country that has achieved an enviable integration of its historical heritage with modernity. Not only were the amenities of modern life all available and functional, people in general exuded a sense of economic participation and civic responsibility. In visiting ancient ruins, we saw no signs of vandalism or neglect. No doubt these exist, but at nowhere near the levels one finds in South Asia. Visiting the amazing Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul, my daughter remarked on how 4000-year old sculptures and reliefs were displayed with no barriers around them, and yet, there was no sign of harm. The guard in each room was sufficient deterrent for all visitors – foreign and Turkish. A remarkable number of things were under renovation, and the rest were obviously well-maintained. Occasionally, one might see a run-down old structure, but that was rare. It was clear to me that the powers that be took their responsibility for maintaining the national heritage very seriously, and that this outlook was broadly shared by people.
Only tourists visit the ruins of Roman Ephesus….
..... but modern life thrives in the shadow of Ottoman glory.
With so much to offer, it was not surprising that Istanbul was swarming with tourists. And yet, there was none of the sense of unreality that pervades so many tourist sites in America and even Europe. The tourists were experiencing a very real place that, yes, made concessions to them, but worked pretty much as it had for thousands of years. Even the Grand Bazaar – the nearest thing to a tourist trap in Istanbul – exuded a sense of history, which was only fitting for a market with centuries of tradition behind it (though rebuilt many times after fires down into the 20th century).
To me, the most remarkable thing was the ease with which people on the street were willing to engage. From cab drivers to shopkeepers to waiters, most were willing to make conversation, to express opinions, to joke and to cajole. These were not people alienated from their society. I’m sure they had their problems, but they still seemed to have the feeling of participation in a self-confident, living culture. Of course, my sample was very limited. I had no opportunity, for example, to talk to construction workers or farmers or janitors, but unhappy societies infect everyone with their poison, and I saw none of that.
Perhaps I should have gone to Taksim Square to see it. We were staying in the old Sultanahmet area, near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, and far from where new history was being made. Every day we were in Istanbul, the police clashed with protesters in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. We stayed away from these areas, partly because we were there to see as much old history as we could in our few days and partly out of natural caution, but it was clear that, for all its apparent efficiency and liveliness, not all is fine in Turkish society.
Even though we stayed away from the protests, they were omnipresent. Directly or indirectly, many people I talked to – from our erudite tour guide to rug merchants in the Grand Bazaar – had something to say. Based on my limited interactions, my impression was that Erdogan had a lot of support on the street. The protests – as protests often are – have been driven by the young, the educated and the idealistic, but have not captured the sympathy of other groups. Of course, it is too early to say if this is the final disposition of the situation, and the protests must be understood in the context of recent Turkish history.
The beautiful main dome of the Blue Mosque, whose inscriptions most Turks can no longer read.
In the ninety years since the inception of the Republic, Kemalist Turkey has been a massive sociopolitical experiment: A democracy ruled by an edict of amnesia. Recognizing the potential dangers posed by religious zealotry and rivalries, Mustafa Kemal forced Turkey into an experiment without parallel in modern history. He forced millions of people, with a long, rich cultural tradition grounded in Islam, to give up that tradition immediately, to change their mode of living, their way of dressing, even their language and their faith. Such edicts – usually imposed by conquering outsiders, but here imposed by the country’s own government – always have complicated consequences, and Turkey has been no exception. Over the decades, aggressive Kemalism supported by the iron fist of the military has managed to create a distinctly modern, secular culture in urban Turkey. But, beginning with the election of the first Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbekan in 1996, it has become increasingly clear that the embers of tradition are far from extinguished in the country at large. And as that country has moved into the cities – Istanbul now accounts for about a fifth of Turkey’s population – it has brought its conservative ethos to the street as well. As in many other countries of the region, it is a competition between a globalizing (and, therefore, Westernizing) educated youth and a populace tied to thousand year old traditions. The manifestation of this competition is different in each country, determined by socioeconomic conditions and history. Turkey, with a dynamic economy, strong industrial and agricultural base, educated population and no memories of colonial oppression, represents probably the most important case for the world at large.
Only the willfully blind would deny that – for better or worse – some kind of Islamic “awakening” is afoot in the world today. Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia are looking for a suitably “Islamic” mode of sociopolitical organization. Lacking any recent historical models, each society seems to be exploring its own model, often with disastrous consequences for social cohesion and human rights. At the risk of over-generalizing, however, one can identify three distinct types of models on offer. The first – very well-defined but of necessarily limited appeal – is the Shi’a theocracy of Iran. The main reason its appeal is limited is that it relies on a framework that does not exist in the rest of the Muslim world: The Shi’a institution of a well-defined clerical hierarchy that can provide formal guidance. The second model is the Salafist approach that wishes for a forced return to the (often mythical or misread) laws and social contracts of fourteen centuries ago. While the violent form of this model, i.e., jihadism, has not had much political success, a less militant but equally pernicious form has found a home in many places through the patronage of rich, Salafist-minded regimes. Pakistan offers a case study of what happens when this goes horribly wrong, and an even worse case may be in the offing in Syria. The third model is the one on display in Egypt and involves the much more “practical” approach promoted by overtly political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Jamaat-e-Islami in the Sub-Continent. Unlike Salafists, these groups wish to engage with modernity, but on Islamic terms. They seek an “Islamic order” that implements the principles of orthodox Islam in the modern world, though it is clear that even the most thoughtful proponents of this model have a woefully – and perhaps willfully – inadequate understanding of modernity. In a real sense, this is a movement that is attempting to walk on the edge but is precariously close to falling into the Salafist maw (again, see the case of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan).
Turkey’s current Islamist government offers, potentially, a fourth model. Turkey differs from most Muslim-majority countries in the region in several respects:
2. Turkey has not suffered a significant loss of sovereignty for centuries – in fact, never within the cultural memory of the society. It is, therefore, free of the social conflicts and psychological scars of colonialism, and is able to act with self-confidence (I owe this observation to a recent talk by Mustafa Akyol).
3. Unlike many other countries in the area, Turkey has also not emerged only recently from a period of abject poverty, isolation or medieval social organization. It has been a cosmopolitan, prosperous, significantly urbanized and internationally integrated society for centuries, and arguably for millennia.
4. It has the most recent and well-remembered experience of being a world power and regional hegemon among all powers in the area. Reminders of this recent glory exist all over the country in mosques and mausoleums, palaces and forts that are still part of peoples’ lives.
5. Most importantly, Turkey has decades of experience with (often imperfect) secular democracy, and has moved beyond the debilitating superficial issues that haunt the discussion of “Islamic government” in so many other societies. Even if this issue appears a little less settled today, Turkish society at large has no appetite for theocracy.
These – and many other – factors make it at least possible that Turkey could offer a more successful model for integrating an Islamic ethos with modern governance. Whether the autocratic Mr. Erdogan is currently offering such a model is still an open question. It is not clear whether his goal is simply to reverse the aggressive anti-religious policies of the Kemalist Republic (e.g., forbidding the wearing of headscarves) to arrive at a kinder, gentler and more culturally Muslim version of it, or if his ultimate aim is to replace the secular state with something that the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to achieve elsewhere – albeit more successfully than the Brotherhood. Only time will tell whether today’s Turkey truly offers a new model for a modern “Muslim” state. One thing that is already clear, however, is the role Mr. Erdogan sees for his nation on the world stage, and that is the main reason anyone interested in geopolitics should pay close attention to Turkey. Arguably, it is one of the few most important countries in the world today.
A modern Turkey rises behind the old palaces.
Over the course of his years in power, Prime Minister Erdogan has given important clues about his ambitions. His stand on the Gaza flotilla, his early support of the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions, his aggressive policy in Syria, his hard-nosed approach to Israel, his courting of the EU, and even his long-overdue (though now flagging) rapprochement with Kurdish nationalists, all indicate a desire to play a much stronger and more global role in the geopolitics of the region – a role not compatible with interior strife (as with the Kurds) or inconvenient social unrest. As by far the most successful country in the entire region, Turkey feels self-confident enough to assert itself abroad and, consistent with the Islamist outlook of the ruling party, reclaim the leadership of the Sunni Muslim world from India to Morocco. In this, it needs to hold off the influence of the Iranians, counteract the Salafist ideology emanating from the Arabian peninsula, and fold in the destitute Islamists of Egypt. The first goal is aligned with Western interests and is not difficult for Turkey as a member of NATO. The last is almost too easy as Egypt sinks into its latest plague of economic misery and grasps about for a helping hand. The second? Well, that is more complicated, but a nominally secular version of “Muslim democracy” might well become attractive to many in the region over time as they tire of the Salafist extremists’ carnage.
One way to understand these ambitions is to look at the history of one of Mr. Erdogan’s heroes, Ottoman Sultan Selim I (r. 1512-1520) – called Yavuz Sultan Selim Han (Stalwart Sultan Selim Khan) by Turks and Selim the Grim by the West. By any objective measure, Selim I was one of the most successful of all Ottoman Sultans. Though he ruled for less than nine years, he more than tripled the size of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, it could truly be called an “empire” only after Selim’s conquests. He stopped the westward advance of the Shi’a Safavids from Iran and mercilessly persecuted the Shi’a Alevi sect in Turkey to ensure that Sunni Islam remained the dominant brand in the Middle East and Asia Minor. He also captured Syria, Palestine, Hejaz, and Egypt, bringing to an end the rule of the Mamluks and the nominal caliphate of the Abbasids in exile. He thus became the ruler of Islam’s holiest sites – Mecca and Medina – and of the most important region in the Middle East – Egypt. He had himself named Caliph, establishing the Ottomans not only as secular rulers over their lands but also as the deputies of God to whom all Muslims owed obeisance. Later, even the Mughals in India would acknowledge this nominally. The treasure he added to Ottoman coffers was so enormous that, for the remaining 400 years of the empire, the Treasury bore his seal and not that of the current Sultan. Among the treasures he brought to Istanbul were the traditional symbols of the Abbasid caliph’s legitimacy: The mantle and sword of the Prophet Muhammad. Regardless of whether this attribution was genuine or apocryphal, the symbolism was genuine enough. Selim I and, through him, the Ottomans were the rulers of the House of Islam.
It is significant that the Erdogan government has proposed naming a new bridge being built over the Bosporus after Selim I. The Alevis are not happy to see the name of their oppressor glorified and the matter is now in abeyance, but the signal is clear enough: It is no longer necessary to name everything in Turkey after Mustafa Kemal and other heroes of the Republic. The new Turkey is looking towards heroes of an earlier age, who knew not only how to govern their country but also how to expand its power and defend its faith. Of course, it would be impossible today to replicate the conquests of Selim I, but in the 21st century, empires are defined not by possession of land but by projection of influence. All indications are that, from his prosperous stronghold in Anatolia, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan is dreaming of a day when Turkey once more will be the primary influencer of events from Damascus to Tripoli – and, who knows, in Mecca and Medina! Inshallah.
Given the mess that is today’s Middle East, this may not be such an impossible dream, if only those pesky demonstrators in Taksim Square would stop tweeting away.
The piece above is, obviously, just a compilation of personal thoughts, not a scholarly article. I have tried to avoid taking a position one way or the other on what I think of as “the Turkish experiment” – both in its internal changes and its external ambitions. The region that I discuss – from Pakistan westward – is littered with failed states and clearly needs new ideas. If an invigorated Turkey can supply some of these ideas, that would not necessarily be a bad thing. For many parts of the region, it would, in a sense, be a reversion to an earlier and, in its time, more successful order. At the same time, I cannot help but be wary of those who come peddling the wares of piety and faith. From my viewpoint, these are not ingredients of a solution but causes of the region’s current problems. It will be important to see how far the Turkish government goes in reversing Kemalist policies, and whether it gets onto the slippery slope of religious interference in the state. Some think that it is already there, but I am not sure.