Notes from Turkey: Istanbul (Part 2)


Today is my last day in Istanbul. I have held off writing a second post on the city, where I have now been researching for just under two and a half weeks, until the eve of my departure to give a fuller picture. Tomorrow I head to Ankara in search of interviews with government officials and NGOs, so before then, under the shadow of the Dolmabache Palace – another fine setting besides the Bospherous – in sweltering heat, I’ll offer some more thoughts.

Not the Middle East

An Istanbullu friend reading my post last weak complained that I instinctively compared Istanbul to other Muslim cities I had encountered rather than with the great cities of Europe that it aspires to be. I hold up my hands in fault. I am uncertain whether it is because I personally focus my attention on the Middle East, or if this is something that all westerners do, harking back to the 18th century Orientalists who longed for the exoticism of Constantinople, but my frame of reference for Istanbul has always been as the ‘beginning’ of the Middle East. The classic, ‘east meets west’ cliché, if you will. While I have always seen the other city that claims this mantle – Beirut – as a bit of a fraud, effectively being a Middle Eastern city desperately trying to hide its true identity with nightclubs, bars and skyscrapers, in my imagination Istanbul was the true convergence of cultures. However, in my two weeks here I have reassessed this position. Though perhaps not for the reasons some might assume, to me Istanbul feels more European than it did eight years ago and, irrespective of that, it feels wrong to label it ‘Middle Eastern’.

Too frequently people, including myself at times, wrongly conflate ‘Middle Eastern’ with Islam. Islam has had a permanent presence in Europe (in different places) since the 8th century. Even if people want to question the ‘European-ness’ of the children of Muslim migrants from non-European lands (which they shouldn’t), Bosniaks, Albanians and, yes, Turks, still provide sizable indigenous Muslim communities in the continent. At the same time, Christianity is as much Middle Eastern as it is European. Therefore why should we automatically equate the presence of Islam and Islamic symbols in Istanbul – mosques, women in headscarves etc – with the beginning of the East? To do so seems depressingly essentialist and Huntingdonian. I may discover as I delve deeper into Turkey that parts of the country do indeed deserve the ‘Middle Eastern’ label – whatever that may mean – but its largest city, the majority of which still sits on the European side of the Bospherous, does not. Indeed, I may discover that, these days, we should just jettison the superficial labels of ‘east’ and ‘west’, and settle with ‘Turkish’.

Secular ambivalence towards ‘green money’

Istanbul side 1

From personal experience, I would argue that actually Istanbul feels more ‘European’ that it did during my last visit in 2004. This seemingly goes against the popular narrative of Turkey today: embracing conservative Islam more and, under the AKP, slipping further away from the Europeanising project of Ataturk. However, the increased practice of religion is only one of the things to change recently. The other is the enormous wealth generated. As I noted last week, the city feels bubbling with money and confidence. Infrastructure has been overhauled (my entire metro line has been constructed since 2000), public spaces cleaned up, shopping malls, hotels, stadiums, hospitals and schools all look new and, for want of a better word, ‘developed’. This is a far cry from (according to Orhan Pamuk) the grey misery that characterized the city’s development in the first few decades of the republic. And, of course, the Europeanised middle class that embraced Ataturk’s project, and their children and grandchildren, have not suddenly disappeared despite the influx of a new generation of conservative migrants to the city. They have embraced and utilized the newfound wealth to project their image of Istanbul more fully. Beach clubs have sprung up along the Black Sea coast, where thousands of bikini-clad, beer-drinking Turks spend the summer weekends, listening to Ibiza-style club music (sprinkled with Turkish pop) while lounging on the sand. The new Istanbul modern art gallery in Karakoy, which has been picketed at times by Islamists for its ‘distasteful’ content, is a worthy sister of London’s Tate modern. At nights the streets of Tunel and Beyoglu are awash with young Turkish hipsters (“dickheads”), sporting the latest trends to be found in Shoreditch or Williamsburg. Yet these are no crude imitations, but a unique Turkish secular take on current ‘western’ fashion, most obviously seen in the fantastic array of live music in bar after bar that blends traditional Turkish music with contemporary rock and pop.

Istanbul side 2

Yet at the same time, there seems to be ambivalence on behalf of secular Istanbullus towards the source of this new wealth. After the 2001 economic crisis, it was the AKP’s policies that rebuilt the economy founded on the twin policies of increased European economic integration and promoting the entrepreneurialism of inner Turkey, the so-called ‘Anatolian Tigers’. One secular friend describes it as ‘Green Money’, in that both the AKP and most of the Anatolians who have driven the new economy are Islamist. Here lies the contradiction of the new, vibrant Istanbul: the Kemalists may like the material benefits that the boom has brought, allowing the city to begin to match the other European capitals for style and structure, but they don’t like the conservative Islamic practices that come with it. While I see the infrastructural developments that appear superior to Athens, Budapest or Prague, they see the growing number of hijabs, niqabs and beards and shudder.

Turkey and Syria: who wants war?

After a few rounds of interviews with think tankers, academics, newspaper columnists and members of the public, I’m beginning to get a better idea of the main subject I’m here to investigate: Syrian-Turkish relations. Despite the sabre-rattling that’s been taking place in recent weeks, with Syria downing a Turkish jet and Turkey deploying extra troops on the border while using confrontational rhetoric, it’s safe to say the idea of war is very unpopular here. A recent newspaper poll stated that 73% of Turks surveyed opposed war. Several columnists I spoke to described this as an inevitable consequence of Turkey’s new found wealth: who would want to disrupt trade and spend vast amounts of public money on war? Some opposition is more political than that, however. One middle aged Kemalist we chatted to while he sunned himself by the Black Sea, stated that he was ideologically opposed to war too. Much as he hated the violence in Syria, he saw the only beneficiaries of a Turkish intervention being the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. “Then we would be surround by Islamists on all sides, Iran, Iraq and Syria. No thanks!”

Of course, Turkish foreign policy has not traditionally taken public opinion into account as much as elsewhere, given its less-than-democratic history, so this does not necessarily mean that military action should be ruled out. However, even policy makers and opinion formers seem to think that war is unlikely. One analyst at the think tank TESEV stated that Turkey fears being seen as the aggressor in the Arab street. “If we made a move it would be seen as an invasion, and the Arabs would remember this for a long time,” she said. Of course, Turkey has infiltrated Arab territory before, temporarily invading northern Iraq in both 1995 and 2008, plus it had a military showdown with Syria in 1998, with invasion a very real possibility. Yet all three of these incidents were part of Turkey’s longstanding fight with the Kurdish separatists, the PKK, and such military moves were seen as essentially an extension of domestic policy. Any military move against Syria would be quite different. It would have next to nothing to do with the Kurds, therefore lacking the domestic legitimacy of previous incursions, and would be directly intended to topple a neighbouring regime. This would be a major departure from traditional Turkish foreign policy.

Has Bash got one of these?

Erdogan vs history?

Despite its huge military – the second largest in NATO behind the US – Turkey has always been a status quo power, with its leaders cautious above all else. Turkey was neutral in the Second World War and, though it picked sides in the Cold War, this was defensive (due to genuine Soviet aggression by Stalin at the time) rather than confrontational. Though the Cyprus issue has been the exception – one area where military force has been used – Turkey has always been particularly cautious about its former Ottoman lands, particularly the Arab world, keen not to be misinterpreted as having irredentist claims. Ataturk’s famous maxim, “peace at home, peace in the world,” is still plastered over the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s website.

Yet has the Arab Spring made current Prime Minister, Erdogan, abandon this traditional caution? While the last decade saw a more assertive Turkey under Foreign Minster Ahmet Davotoglu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ doctrine, this still allowed it to remain neutral to all sides, whether Israel, Iran, Syria or the US. However, first with his confrontation with Israel after Gaza and the Mavi Marmara, and now more blatantly with threatening Syria, Erdogan is taking sides more visibly than before. As one columnist said to me, “For the first time in the history of the Republic, you have a Turkish government openly calling for the downfall of a neighbouring regime.” Even if Erdogan was considering military action then, and it is unclear whether this is any more than just empty threats, he would be acting not just against public opinion, but against nearly 90 years of Turkish history.

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