The New Crossroads of History Run Through Turkey
No walls fell in Turkey at the end of the Cold War; there was no color-coded revolution. Yet, arguably, the country is in the throes of a transformation as profound as those of its neighbors. A country that once served as a lonely sentinel on NATO’s southern flank is now at the center of a new and evolving region. And a Turkish economy that for decades tried to shed the yoke of high interest rates and chronic inflation has, in the last two years, been the fastest-growing in Europe. In fact, Turkey’s GDP growth in 2011 (8.5 percent) wasn’t far behind China’s. Turkey is now in the process of rewriting its constitution and wrestling with demons that include a legacy of military intervention and a long denial of Kurdish diversity.
While it deals with its past, Turkey must also focus on the future of a youthful country where half the population is under the age of 29. It is an accession candidate to the European Union yet a player in the rough-and-tumble Middle East. Understanding Turkey, though never a luxury, is now more than ever part and parcel of understanding the modern world.
Here are 10 clues to coming to terms with this rapidly changing country:
1. Turkey is nearly as urban as France.
An important part of Turkey’s dynamism is its rapid rate of urbanization. Istanbul’s historic skyline of domes and minarets has now been supplemented by new vistas of glass and steel. Istanbul — a dynamic center for business and finance — has doubled in size three times since the post-War era, from 1.5 million people in 1955 to an estimated 12 million-plus today. It is a movement of people fueled by the search for better jobs, education, and health care — what sociologists call “lateral social mobility.” The rate of Istanbul’s expansion slowed to a mere 1.7 percent in 2009, but that still represents an influx of more than 200,000 people every year. Turkey is now 70 percent urban. In France, one of Europe’s most rural societies, that figure is 77 percent, which suggests that the population shifts in Turkey may not yet have run their course. This rapid process of urbanization is, in turn, one of the primary motors of social and political change.
2. Turkish political life is secular, but religion still has a role.
Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (better known by its Turkish acronym AKP, which means “clean” or “white” party) is the latest in a succession of parties descended from an overtly Islamic movement founded in the 1960s. But the party has adopted a reformist agenda in an attempt to capture the political middle ground. The party’s charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was once photographed sitting at the feet of the proto-Taliban Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But, then again, Ronald Reagan started political life as a Democrat. Erdogan underwent almost as profound a transformation to become the able mayor of Istanbul, a megacity larger than some European countries. The AKP describes itself as being socially conservative but rejects the notion that it is Islamic or Islamist — even the term “Islamic democrat” rankles — mindful of Turkish law that forbids the exploitation of religion for political ends.
Instead, the AKP has defined more openness about religion in public life as part of a larger struggle to make Turkey more fully democratic. At the same time, the party appears to be winking at its supporters and their conservative and religious inclinations. The body language of officials says, “Trust us, we’re on your side” (a recent, hastily conceived education reform, for example, was designed to give a lease of life to Islamic parochial-style schools). This continues to prompt suspicion that the party has a hidden Islamic agenda. The party, however, has been in power for nearly a decade and has had ample chance to show its hand.
3. It’s the economy, stupid — in Turkey, too.
The rise of the AKP has less to do with Islam than with voters’ disillusionment with other political parties. It was formed in 2001 and came to power the following year after two cataclysmic events. First, the devastating 1999 earthquake in the industrial west of the country, which killed at least 18,000 people, and shattered confidence in the post-World War II political machines that had overseen Turkey’s urbanization. The military was also criticized for being slow to join in the rescue efforts. The second blow was an economic crisis in 2001 that cut the value of Turkey’s currency in half. At one stage, overnight interest rates reached 7,000 percent on an annualized basis. In the 2002 election, as disillusionment with Turkey’s old guard mounted, no political party that had been in the 1999 parliament managed to score enough votes to win seats in the new legislature. The AKP has done better in successive general elections (34 percent of the vote in 2002, 47 percent in 2007 and 50 percent in 2011), but under Turkey’s complex system of proportional representation it has actually won fewer seats in parliament each time.