The New Crossroads of History

Ten things you didn't know about Turkey.

Burak Kara/Getty Images
Burak Kara/Getty Images

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.

4. Atatürk liberated Turkish women (but forgot to tell the men).

When Turkish women read about laws and practices in other Muslim-majority nations that discriminate against their sex or punish their sexuality, they think kindly of the founding vision of the Turkish Republic. Every schoolgirl knows that the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, freed Turkish women from the veil and polygamous marriage and replaced Quranic law and traditional custom with the European civil code. Men in white ties and women in backless frocks danced arm in arm across the floor in the Republic Day balls during the 1920s, a theatrical demonstration of the new access women enjoyed with respect to public and professional life. Women were given the franchise in 1930 and voted in municipal elections that year.

Many Turkish women, however, are beginning to wonder whether they were lured into declaring victory in a battle that has only just begun. Indeed, a 2011 World Economic Forum gender-gap study put Turkey well at the bottom of the international league of equality (122 out of 135, below Lebanon and Nigeria and just above Egypt and Iran). Turkey’s poor performance in key measures of equality such as health, educational attainment, and representation in the workforce is all the more remarkable for being so totally at odds with the Turkish public’s own perception. A raft of new legislation does give Turkish women equality and protection. But only a quarter of Turkish women are employed, and a recent study suggests some 42 percent of women over the age of 15 have suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of a husband or partner at some point in their lives.

5. Turkey has the biodiversity of a small continent.

Turkey occupies a landmass slightly larger than Texas, at just over 300,000 square miles, and is more than three times the size of the United Kingdom. In terms of the variety of terrain and particularly the diversity of its plant life, however, Turkey exhibits the characteristics of a small continent. There are, for example, some 10,000 plant species in the country (compared with some 13,000 in Europe) — one in three of which is endemic to Turkey. Indeed, there are more species in Istanbul province (2,000) than in the whole of the United Kingdom. While many people know of Turkey’s rich archaeological heritage, it possesses an equally valuable array of ecosystems — peat bogs, heathlands, steppes, and coastal plains. Turkey possesses much forest (about a quarter of the land) but, as importantly, some half of the country is semi-natural landscape that has not been entirely remodeled by man.

At the same time, there is often a callous disregard in Turkey for this natural legacy. Many habitats are endangered by urbanization, mass tourism, and the government’s mania to build a dam wherever its sees running water. Istanbul is under particular threat, due to large infrastructure projects such as a proposed car tunnel that would pump private vehicles into the historical peninsula and a third Bosphorus Bridge at the Black Sea end of the straits, which would lead to the urban development of the city’s last remaining green belt.

6. Istanbul is the world’s largest Kurdish city.

There are anywhere from 28 to 35 million Kurds inhabiting a region that straddles Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, with smaller populations elsewhere, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Lebanon. This geographic diversity suggests that Kurdish identity is shaped by a variety of competing forces, and that ethnic solidarity with fellow Kurds across borders is often overshadowed by the concerns and politics of the countries in which Kurds find themselves. In Turkey, Kurds form a majority in 15 provinces in the southeast and east of the country, with the metropolitan city of Diyarbakir serving as the unofficial capital of the Kurdish region. There is also a large diaspora both in Western Europe and in coastal Turkish cities such as Adana and Izmir. Istanbul, on the diametrically opposite side of the country from Diyarbakir, is almost certainly the largest Kurdish city in the world, similar to the way that New York City is home to the largest number of Jews in the United States.

For all its claims to be a melting pot of civilizations and a mosaic of different cultures, Turkey has been continuously blindsided by the problem of accommodating its own ethnic diversity. A principal reason lies in the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and the perceived need to impose a new national identity on a war-stricken nation. Kurds posed an obvious challenge, first because they formed a distinct and regionally concentrated linguistic group that was not Turkish and second because they were overwhelmingly Muslim and therefore not an anomalous "minority" — as defined by the Treaty of Lausanne — that could be afforded special rights.

7. Turkey’s press operates with one hand tied behind its back.

The Turkish press is vibrant, varied, and vocal, and at the same time restricted. On one hand, Turks cannot claim to be badly informed. There are some 35 national newspaper titles, though total circulation remains low for a country of its size — 4.5 million, or the equivalent of one London or New York tabloid. There are more than two dozen dedicated news channels, both terrestrial and cable. Rival cable and satellite platforms broadcast foreign news and special interest programs. Internet portals relay gossip, chat rooms hum, and many politicians, even the president (@cbabdullahgul), feel obliged to tweet.

At the same time, the Turkish media has proven a poor watchdog over its own freedoms, largely because of its unholy alliance with government. In too many cases, media ownership has been a "loss leader" — purely a means to pursue non-press financial interests. The director of the state broadcasting authority is appointed by the cabinet, and officials are not above using the threat of tax audits to discipline media barons who still prove uncooperative. Freedom House, the Washington-based think tank that hands out grades to countries according to the state of their civil liberties and political rights, describes Turkey as "an ever-shifting dichotomy between democratic progress and resistance to reform." It awards it three points (worst score seven) and labels the country "partly free."

The Turkish government has recently been criticized for the large number (around 100 by some reckonings) of journalists in prison. Officials argue that these are people who have committed offenses and just happen to be journalists. While this may be technically accurate, many of the "offenses" have to do with freedom of expression, as many of those in pre-trial detention are Kurdish activists arrested for abetting terrorism. For the most part, the government does not have to use the courts to spin the press in its own direction.

8. Fifteen percent of senior Turkish military officers are now standing trial.

The Turkish armed forces take a broad view of their mission to defend the country, and have at times appeared to be less concerned with external threats than with an enemy within — identified variously as political radicalism, reactionary religious forces, Kurdish separatism, and, on more than one occasion, the country’s own elected government. Turkey has lived through three military interregnums (1960-1961, 1971-1973, and 1980-1983) as well as what the pundits called a "post-modern" coup in 1997 in which the military put pressure on a coalition government, causing it to collapse. The current government has largely tamed its officer class by means of a large conspiracy trial known popularly as the Ergenekon affair, after the reputed codeword for the underground network. Some 15 percent of senior officers are now standing trial for plotting to overthrow the AKP, and the leaders of a 1980 coup — including the 94-year-old former president Kenan Evren — are standing trial as well.

9. Not all Islam in Turkey is the same.

Religious education is compulsory in Turkey and instructors teach the principles of Sunni Islam. But this is not to everyone’s liking. Turkey has an Alevi community that makes up at least 15 percent of the population and practices a variety of Shiite Islam. Many resent seeing their taxes go to support the establishment or a school system that teaches a variant of Islam that is very different from the one they practice at home. Unlike in Iran, where Shiism has reinforced a theocratic orthodoxy, Alevis have been part of a culture of dissent in Turkey. Their faith incorporates elements of mysticism and folk religion, and, in some cases, exhibits an indifference to many of the practices associated with mainstream Islam — including obligatory fasting during the month of Ramadan and even the pilgrimage to Mecca. Alevis are sometimes regarded as the front line in the defense of Turkish secularism inasmuch as they are treated with condescension or at best overlooked by the conservative mainstream. By the same token, many Alevis support the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Turkish Alevis may be very different from Syrian Alawites, but their presence still complicates regional loyalties. Turkey is often depicted as belonging to a Sunni alliance that courts Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria.

10. Turkey’s quest to be European dates back to the 1950s.

Although commentators sometimes speak of EU "enlargement fatigue," in the Turkish case "narcolepsy" might be more appropriate. Ankara applied for associate membership in what was popularly called the Common Market in 1959 and signed the Ankara Agreement, which envisaged eventual Turkish membership, in 1963. In 1996, Turkey entered into a Customs Union on manufactured goods that essentially gave European manufactures the same unfettered access in Turkey that Turkey already enjoyed in Europe. In 2005, Turkey finally sat down at the negotiating table with EU officials. But those talks have dragged on, with no end in sight.

As long as Turkey is not a full EU member, it remains outside decision-making councils — even those affecting the Customs Union. Ankara, for example, must implement an EU tariff regime over which it has no say, which means that its trade with countries ranging from Brazil to China is regulated in Brussels.

Turkey is already Europe’s fifth-largest export destination. Those in favor of Turkish entry into the EU are eager to stress the win-win of incorporating a fertile market for goods and financial services that is also contiguous with Europe’s boundaries. Istanbul alone has a GDP greater than that of Hungary or the Czech Republic, or indeed any of the post-2004 members of the EU save Poland.


As the Arab Spring settles into a long season of attrition, the Turkish example of a Muslim-majority nation engaged in a process of self-generating reform has acquired new potency. The Turkish economy continues to thrive on growing consumer demand, and the government is pledging to rid the country of its illiberal past by lifting the hand of the military and providing the country with a new constitution.

Yet, having conquered the bastions of the old establishment, the AKP now faces temptations of its own. Like Frodo Baggins, it knows it has to throw the ring of power back into the fire. But, for the moment, it feels comfortable keeping the ring on its own finger. Whether Turkey develops institutions that are worthy of its new status will decide the country’s future.

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