Monday, October 11, 2010

Thoughts from a recent trip to Turkey

By Peter Henne

I've just returned from an excellent trip to Turkey, sponsored by the Rumi Forum. The trip included visits to Istanbul, Ankara, and two cities in the southeastern part of the country: Gaziantep and Şanliurfa. The trip was intended to introduce members of the DC foreign policy community to Turkey; it involved sight-seeing as well as meetings with political, business and community leaders. I study Turkey academically and have written a bit on it, but still gained great insights into the current state of Turkey's society and politics, and the important role it plays in world affairs.

I have a few thoughts now on domestic issues in Turkey (discussion of its foreign policy will be forthcoming). It is a bit of a cliché to call any country dynamic, but that is really the only word to describe Turkey. This partly involves the dramatic growth witnessed throughout the country. Increasing trade with neighboring countries, a growing domestic market, and economic support from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has led to much economic development; I saw numerous construction projects in Istanbul and Ankara as well as the southeast, which has traditionally been under-developed.

Beyond the economy, the society itself also seems to be thriving. The AKP's policies on the economy and the consolidation of Turkey's democratic process under AKP rule seems to have attracted the support of numerous elements of Turkish society, from conservative religious voters to liberal pro-democracy voices to business groups and ethnic minorities such as the Kurds. Not all Turks support the AKP--the recent Constitutional referendum passed with about 40% of the population opposing, indicating divisions remain--and one may raise legitimate concerns about AKP attitudes towards religion and politics. But the AKP is far from the secret Islamist movement some have claimed.

Another observation has to do with Turkish nationalism. Since Ataturk founded the Turkish republic in 1923, national identity has been a major concern for Turks. Fear of territorial dismantlement--as happened to the Ottoman Empire after World War I--has influenced both domestic and foreign policies, touching on issues such as Armenia, the Kurds, and Cyprus. Defending the modern secular character of the republic has also been the justification for several military coups in the country.

It was encouraging, then, to see a responsible and respectful form of nationalism in the Turks I met. They loved their country, and were very proud of its achievements, but this did not seem to translate into fear of outsiders or anti-Americanism. They had their opinions, and were not shy about expressing their thoughts on US policies, but they were also very happy to talk with Americans and seemed to greatly value the long-standing Turkish-US ties. Again, I didn't meet everyone in Turkey, and there are undoubtedly more negative feelings out there, but what I saw was heartening.

Turkey entered the 20th century as the Ottoman Empire, a major world power in decline. It has spent the time since then smoothing out its transition into a modern nation-state and working out the nature of its domestic and international affairs. As always, there is more work to do, but as we enter the 21st century, Turkish society should provide a model for other states grappling with the proper relationship between religion and politics and managing economic development.


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