Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Turkey: From Ataturk to Erdogan | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Asharq Al-Awsat, Istanbul – Turkey is one state yet it is home to numerous identities as the people of Istanbul, Ankara, Konya, Izmir, Diyarbakir, Mardin, Bursa and Izmit differ. Each city and region in this geographically and historically complicated state has its own character and identity and everyone is very proud of the idiosyncrasies. Not only are the Turks proud of their Islam, civilization, architecture, history, art, economy, democracy, cultural and social openness, or orientation towards Europe; they are proud of all these things without giving preference to any of them. Istanbul is the heart of Turkey and its historical capital as the capital of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922). Prior to that, it was called Constantinople, which was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Currently, it is the capital of economy, media, cinema, art, music and architecture. The Turks take great pride in this capital, which lies in both Asia and Europe and is divided by the Bosphorus, which separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Marmara.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who is the founder and spiritual father of Turkey, decided to protect Istanbul – out of love and concern for it – from the attempts of the superpowers to control it, so he selected Ankara to be the capital instead. If Istanbul is the “heart” then Ankara has been the “mind” where the ministries and governmental institutions are based. As for Diyarbakir, it has transformed from a mere town in south-eastern Turkey into the international “political centre for the Kurds”. In the north, there lies the city of Tunceli, which was bombarded the Turkish military in 1938 in order to suppress the rebellion. Since then, this city has become a stronghold for the Turkish Left, from which the whole spectrum of Leftist movements and the most prominent writers in Turkey have emerged.

On the other side, there is the city of Izmir, which is a symbol of secularism, Western lifestyle and modernization. If there is one city that reflects “conservative Islam”, it is the city of Konya, the people of which are known to be religious. The city itself is well-known as a stronghold for Muslim parties and movements. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city was the stronghold of the movement of Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) and the first Muslim Prime Minister in Turkey’s history. In recent years, Konya has once again proved that it is a stronghold for conservatives, since 65% of its population voted for the Justice and Development Party [AKP] in the parliamentary elections last July. It is the city of Mawlana Jalal al Din al Rumi, who formed the Mawlawi School from his Sufi ideology, one of the most important Sufi religious schools in Turkey. He had a matchless influence upon the Turkish understanding of Islam as one will always find verses of his poetry hanging in homes, shops and private institutions of Turkey. The most popular line of his poetry is that which summarizes his philosophy as a whole with respect to tolerance, the acceptance of others and the welcoming of diversity, which reads “Come…come…whoever you are”. Many Turks would tell you that without Rumi, Turkey could not coexist harmoniously with all these races, sects and religions.

Due to the fact that the Ottoman state stretched across three continents, Turkey’s ethnic groups vary between the Turks who constitute approximately 70% of the population, the Kurds who make up 20% of the population, Armenians, Turkomans, Assyrians, Greeks, Albanians, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Georgians, Circassians, Chechens, Arabs and others. Although each Turkish or other ethnic city has its own identity, everyone is Turkish in the end. But when the Turks talk about themselves, they do not say that they are Turks but that they are the “people of Anatolia”. Anatolia is the mountainous peninsula of western Asia, which constitutes most of the territories of Turkey. It is known as Asia Minor, to which the Turkish ancestors migrated and established their state. Throughout history, Turkey’s complex and rich geographical make-up has been a factor that has brought the state both wealth and ruin. The country lies between Asia and Europe (97% of its territory is in Asia and 3% in Europe). In the south, there lies Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean Sea. In the west, there lies the Aegean Sea, Greece and Bulgaria. In the East, there’s Georgia, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the north, there is the Black Sea. Turkey shares its borders with eight countries; each country has its strategic influence on Turkey according to the interests and relations. In addition, it is surrounded by three seas, from which both enemies and friends can emerge.

Turkey dealt with the characteristic of identity between Europe on the one hand and Islam and the East on the other. But the Republic of Turkey that emerged from war and international conflict became accustomed to crises. Therefore, it was not disastrous that Turkey was open to dispute between secularists and Islamists about the identity of the Republic over the past few months, including proposals about the wearing of the headscarf and setting aside areas to pray in governmental institutions, for example. In addition, there has been open confrontation with the Kurds on a domestic level and with the United States, Iraq and the international community on a foreign level because of plans to enter northern Iraq to quell the stronghold of the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK]. These internal and external crises have thrown Turkey into the eye of the storm in the Middle East, Europe, the US and Asia. However, the Turks do not fear confrontation as they are aware of the magnitude of their influence. When it comes to Turkish national interests, the Turks do not wait to hear about the preferences of the US or any other regional and international powers. Today, the disposition in Turkey is that of challenge and confrontation. There is a feeling that Turkey is in a difficult domestic, regional and international situation. However, it will not sit and wait whilst there is a possibility that Iraqi Kurds might secede for example or allow for the bases of the PKK to continue to exist in northern Iraq without any American or Iraqi military intervention in confronting them.

The Turks do not fear the US. “We are not worried about the United States. If we decided to enter northern Iraq in the interest of Turkey, we would do so. The Turks are indifferent to America’s resentment,” said Akram Domanli, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish ‘Zaman’ newspaper. In this regional atmosphere, which is susceptible to all possibilities, including Iran’s transformation into a superpower in the region if it develops nuclear weapons, the Turks fear that “Turkey will be amongst the big losers in this case if not the biggest loser,” Serhat Arkamin, a researcher at the Turkish Assam Institute for Strategic Research, told Asharq Al-Awsat. In the midst of these regional and international developments, the Turks contemplate history and pay particular attention to the extraordinary method with which progress was made as a nation and a state. In this regard, Turkish intellectual Mardin Sharif told Asharq Al-Awsat: “When one looks at Turkey, he should think about the past that formed Turkey and makes it an exception to those around it.” For example, the concept of the state had existed amongst the Ottomans since the thirteenth century as it was called the “Sublime Ottoman State” and its motto was the “Eternal State”. Consequently, if the Turks felt that their interests were endangered, they did not feel any threat to their existence since their history protects them. The origins of the Turks today go back to the Turkish Ghazi race. They are the ancestors of South Western Turks, including the Turks of Turkey, Cyprus, the Balkans, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkmenistan and Iran. The Oghuz Turks are considered the founders of large empires such as the Seljuk, Ottoman and Safavid dynasties.

The Ottoman state regarded itself as an extension of the Roman Byzantine Empire. When Mehmed II (known as el Fatih) conquered Constantinople on May 29, 1453 and the Roman Empire fell, he considered the Ottoman state, its culture and traditions a mix of Islamic and the Roman culture. As a result, the Ottoman state was characterized by considerable ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity since its inception and by giving the religious and ethnic minorities the freedom to organize their affairs away from central interventions. The Ottoman Empire was shared culturally, politically and economically between the East and West for six centuries. While the Arabs were only in contact with the West as imperialists, the Turks ruled the West for six centuries and this fills the Turks with a sense of pride. They know that their role and influence in the Middle East is very important to the West, US and the countries of the region. Furthermore, the Turks know the level of the pressure on them, “Turkey is an important country to the West and America. If they lose Turkey, they will lose everything,” Necmettin Erbakan, who is the father of Turkish political Islam, told Asharq Al-Awsat. Therefore, regional and international powers have turned their faces towards Turkey today. As for the Turkish resolutions, these are determined in the two cities that share power and influence: the political decisions are issued from the official capital Ankara while the economic decisions are made in Istanbul.

Istanbul overlooks Taksim Square, which was established in 1928 in order to celebrate the founding of the Turkish Republic, and the historical Galatasaray Lisesi (Galata Palace Imperial School), which is the elite school from the Ottoman Empire, still stands today. Hence, it is the city of economic, informational and cultural forces.

In the centre of the historical city there are the mosques of Fetih Sultan Mehmed, Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. The Turks love Istanbul and any Turk that was born in Istanbul will say immediately, with pride, that that is where he is from. Istanbul is the modern-day Babel; on Istiqlal Street, the city’s largest street, one would hear phrases in Arabic, Hebrew, English, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Turkish and Persian at the same time.

Taksim Square is considered Istanbul’s Champs ةlysées. There are shops, libraries, cafes, restaurants and hotels. Loud music is played to attract tourists whilst many youngsters, who may be unemployed, play the guitar and flute, and dance. It is for this atmosphere that artists, writers, journalists, musicians and painters flock to Istanbul. “This is a beautiful Bohemian city. There is no place like it that plays so many different types of music at the same time,” said Adiba Susan, a member of the AKP in Turkish parliament. She added, “Istanbul is the city that represents Turkey where openness and history proceed side by side.”

Istanbul is marked by its Byzantine walls and churches, which date back to the Roman Empire, Ottoman mosques, sultan palaces, and modern skyscrapers. In this city, different ages coexist. Alongside the skyscrapers, one will frequently see beggars, stray dogs and cats in the streets.

The ancient mosques give Istanbul a unique flavour as an Islamic capital. In fact, no big mosques have been built in Istanbul since World War II. There are 2,500 mosques in Istanbul, equivalent to one per four thousand people. There are numerous Orthodox churches because of the Greek and Armenian presence, which has decreased over the past decades. As for the Turks, Istanbul is an example to the rest of the population to the extent that the term “Istanbul” is used to describe anything that is good and of a superior level.

The population of Istanbul, which is the largest city in Turkey, is over 14 million people. This number might not increase significantly over the next few years, as industries have begun to move out to other cities, such as Izmir. It is the capital of cinema, art, theatre, music, writing, the elite and popular cultural production and the capital of tourism and economy. It includes 13% of the population of Turkey, 21% of the urban population, 11% of the manpower, 30% of the industrial investments, 40% of the volume of trade and 21% of the Turkish gross national product [GNP]. Despite the natural beauty characterizing Istanbul, it is a harsh city in which life is difficult for the poor and the middle-classes and is four-times more expensive than Ankara and it is home to a number of ghettos.

There have been complaints from the people of Istanbul that Ankara has overshadowed Istanbul financially because of the concentration of bureaucracy and various ministries there. This is the reason behind poverty in the local districts and slums, many of which still exist even today despite all the attempts to tackle them. When Ankara was approved as a capital in 1923, Istanbul was in poor condition and its infrastructure was exhausted as a result of the war. During the reign of Ataturk and because of engaging in the independence war and then in building the modern Turkish state, a residential area in Istanbul was built nearby to where Ataturk lived. The city with its entire infrastructure remained as it was built by Ottomans. The situation remained so during the 1940s, because of World War II and nothing was spent on the infrastructure. The city’s conditions only changed in the 1950s when more and more Turks were migrating to Istanbul. The level of building, reconstruction and slums created by immigrants expanded and these slums were called “Jishcondo”, which translates as “built in the night” because immigrants had to put ceilings on their slums within 48 hours, otherwise the local authorities has the right to remove them without a court order.

Because politicians were keen to gain the votes of immigrants, they refrained from demolishing these buildings. Instead, they supplied them with water and electricity. Those who were seizing land that was owned by the state and selling it to immigrants contributed to the spread of slums. In Turkey, many governments have tried to give Istanbul the appropriate attention. It was frequently stated that the former Mayor of Istanbul and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that serving the city and its dwellers is a “kind of worship”. But the city is the Turkey’s “Achilles’ heel” where slums have caused many political and social problems in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, hard-line Islamists and more moderate individuals such as Erdogan have emerged from these slums; however, it has remained a sensitive issue. In 1960, the number of the city’s population increased to one million and a half. Adnan Menderes made the first major improvements in Istanbul where the first bridge on the Bosphorus was built and completed in 1973.

At that time, Leftist parties described the construction of the bridge as a waste of public money. However, the truth is that the bridge has led to the development of the Asian part of Istanbul, in which a third of the city’s population is living. This part was neglected and poor in comparison to the European side. In Istanbul, the transformations, which were initiated by Menderes, gained momentum during the tenure of Turgut Ozal, who was elected Prime Minister in 1983. The city’s active mayor then Bedrettin Dalan, removed all the workshops from the Golden Horn region on the Bosphorus and began the task of clearing the area, expanding the coast and constructing new roads on the Bosphorus. He also built a second bridge linking its two banks. Subsequent to Dalan, Nurettin Sozen was elected mayor, who launched the Metro system project. Istanbul is a polluted city because of the large number of its population, however, in the 1990s, the city was supplied with natural gas from Russia through the Balkan region, which led to an improvement in the level of cleanliness; as there are one million and a half cars and half a million buses, trucks and motorcycles in the streets everyday.

Istanbul’s economy depends on services as it is the headquarters of banks and companies. Because of this, the city is permanently a considerable hub for immigrants or regular travellers alike. The main bus terminal in Istanbul, which lies on the Golden Horn, recorded approximately 80 thousand passengers per day in 2002. Not only do the buses connect Istanbul with other cities in the country, they also take passengers to the Balkans, Russia, a number of former Soviet republics, Europe and the Middle East. For example, approximately 20 million passengers passed through Istanbul in the summer of 2002. As for the capital Ankara, there is a popular phrase that “the best thing about Ankara is leaving it” and this was originally said by the Turkish poet Yahya Kemal expressing his feelings towards Ankara when it first became the capital. At that time, there was only one good hotel, one good restaurant where the Allies’ soldiers would dine and one good nightclub.

Today’s Ankara is the home to the best five-star hotels and restaurants due to the fact that the city is where all embassies and governmental institutions are based. But there are some things that money cannot buy such as history. Billions of dollars were spent on Ankara to reconstruct it, making it a clean modern city; however, it remains a city without a long history and to many, without spirit. At the heart of Ankara, there lies what is regarded by the Turks as one of its most important historical landmarks, that is, the old parliament building that was established by Ataturk and that witnessed the declaration of the Republic in 1923. The field in which Ankara is making most progress is its universities, as it has six universities, four of which are governmental and two are private. It holds 140 thousand university students, approximately 9% of Turkey’s students. One of the best universities in Ankara is the Middle East Technical University, which teaches in English, in addition to the private Bilkent University. The presence of students led to an increase in the number of libraries, cafes and restaurants in the Kızılay and Yenisehir areas in downtown Ankara.

In 1940, a census was conducted for the first time. Ankara’s population reached 188,000. The German engineer Herman Jansen, who was selected by Ataturk himself to design Ankara as a capital, believed that the population of Ankara could rise to 300, 000 within fifty years. But the population exceeded two million by 1980. By 2000, the number of population reached three million and become the second largest city in Turkey. Ankara is depending on a transportation network of modern trains, vehicles and bridges, which facilitate the movement of traffic, in addition to the subway proceeding from east to west, the main terminal for which is located in central Ankara in Kızılay. The people of Ankara love to be described as more pleasant, calmer and more civilized than the people of Istanbul. Nonetheless, Ankara is also dull.

Turkey, which is divided on many issues, agrees on one thing; they are all “Kamalists” whether they are secularists or Islamists as everyone wants Turkey to be a member of the European Union. Turkey is a modern state that is tolerant and open to its past and present. It is an educated nation, where education is very important to the Turks; however they differ on how to achieve this.