Thursday, May 24, 2007


After my last trip to Turkey in 2000 I became a big Turkish advocate. I had been very impressed by Istanbul, and by the fact that not all women wore headscarves like the Turkish women in my German textbooks. Particularly when it came to the question of Turkey joining the EU I argued that Turkey was a true and vibrant democracy with an elite comparable in values to that of Europe.

On my second trip this year I became more aware of the differences. I still love Turkey, but Turkish society is quite different from most European society: most Turkish women are very limited in terms of the opportunities they have (it is not normal for young women to live alone, certainly not with a man before they are married), Turkish society is rather authoritarian compared to 'Western' society (things like it being a crime to insult Ata-Turk, the founder of modern Turkey, or to claim that Turkey committed genocide towards the Armenians), and despite recent progress minorities in Turkey are stigmatized in a way I can only compare with Russia (the recent murder of a Turkish-Armenian journalist for example).

The issue with Turkey, though, is that these issues tear at the very political fabric of Turkey. Take the head-scarf for example. Since the time of Ata-Turk it has been a crime to wear a head-scarf in public spaces like government buildings or universities. Recently that has been relaxed, but it still prohibited in the books. The current party in power in Turkey (the AKP) has Islamic roots, and is seeking a larger role for Islam in public life (for example women being allowed to wear head-scarves at university). In Turkey that sort of a stance is highly controversial not only because the cornerstone of the Turkish state is its being secular, but because a symbol like the head-scarf is seen to show the direction Turkey is going in (with the head-scarf, for many, away from modernity).

In Turkey today, there is generally perceived to be a battle for the country's soul. Turkey has a very 'European' elite and middle class, but as a poor country it also had a very large essentially peasant class who have much more in common with Syrians or Iraqis than the French or Germans. The difference between Turkey and countries of similar development and geographic position, is that Turkey has been unrelentingly Western and European oriented over the past eighty or so years. Educated Turks see their country as Western and their country's future to be in the West. The question is whether the West equals Europe, and if Turkey can continue to be Western if it is not in the EU.

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