Turkey: what everyone needs to know

Belatedly keen to explore Turkish culture, I learned a lot from

  • Andrew Finkel, Turkey: what everyone needs to know (2012).

For all its populist Q&A format, it’s full of useful insights, constantly unpacking simplistic preconceptions while presenting a range of viewpoints both within Turkey and abroad, based on the author’s long experience as a journalist based in Istanbul.

Turkey AF

The chapters open with Historical background, summarising the legacy of the Ottoman empire—ethnic conflicts in the aftermath of World War One, the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne leading to the foundation of modern Turkey with Atatürk’s Republic. Andy ponders the mixed record of Turkey’s measures to preserve the culture of the past: typically, alongside apparently impressive legislation, archeology clashes with ideology and the pecuniary demands of tourism and development, as the Ottoman heritage is Disneyfied.

The next chapter on Economy describes “a complex economy in its own right, but one well situated to become a conduit of goods and services between Europe and the resource-rich nations of the Middle East and the former Soviet Union”. He notes the profound inequalities between regions, with the eastern provinces accounting for less than 10% of the country’s economy; the flaws of state development projects, notably hydroelectric; the steady decline of agriculture; and the culture of complicity. As often, all this reminds me of China. Andy evokes the contrast between Istanbul and Ankara, with the former’s loss of political power doing nothing to damage its status as Turkey’s cultural and commercial capital.

Turkey in the world observes Turkey’s pivotal strategic position in global politics. Many in the West understand that

the choices facing Turkey are not Manichean, a clash of civilisations between East and West, but rather are based on a nuanced calculation of where the country’s best interests lie.

Andy outlines Turkey’s response to the end of the Cold War, 9/11 followed by the invasions of Iraq, and the Arab Spring; relations with the USA, Israel, and the EU; the war in Syria, human rights, and Cyprus.

Politics… and the military covers democracy, coups, more on human rights, nationalism, religious interests, the uneasy alliance between state and government, nepotism, the slow pace of reform, and (a topic on which he has particular authority) limits on press freedom.

The Introduction has already explained how the very concept of “Turkish” and “Turk” arose from the ashes of the Ottoman empire; and how the racial and linguistic term “Turkic” (Turcoman) is used in English for tribal peoples from Central Asia (some of whom migrated to what is now Turkey!)—a distinction not made in Turkish. Society and religion opens with a discussion of the role of Islam in public life, as the secular state wrestles to reconcile its avowed secular identity with Muslim values. Checks on Turkey becoming a fundamentalist state include a de facto diversity and tolerance among the people—although this is hardly put to the test, since Turkish-born non-Muslims now comprise only 1% of the population.

For all its claims to be a melting pot of civilisations and a mosaic of different cultures, Turkey has been continuously blindsided by the problem of accommodating its own ethnic diversity.

In religion, with non-Muslim minorities having dwindled severely since 1900, the promotion of “faith tourism” is highly selective, with monuments to Anatolia’s multi-confessional past merely vestigial. While the building of mosques proliferates, within Islam there are disparate groups, such as the Alevis, whose practice distances them from the mainstream.

The situation of the Kurds is the subject of a rather extensive discussion.

Ethnic solidarity with fellow Kurds across borders is often overshadowed by the concerns and politics of the countries in which Kurds actually find themselves.

In Turkey they are based in the southeast and east of the country, but Istanbul is “almost certainly the largest Kurdish city in the world”. While discussing the Turkish state’s campaign against the PKK (boosted by wider anti-terrorist sympathies after 9/11), the book observes that

Kurdish nationalism […] does at times appear to be a distorted reflection of the Turkish nationalism it opposes.

Not only is the whole region underdeveloped, but cross-border tensions are heightened by the movements of refugees.

In 1989 Eastern and Central Europe rejected Soviet-style totalitarianism and embraced a democratic ideal. Yet Turkey, which might have been expected to reap a dividend from the end of the Cold War, became more authoritarian. It became embroiled in a costly fight to suppress Kurdish insurrection and has in some measure been corrupted by it.

With the prospect of Greater Kurdistan ever remote, the Kurds’ search for greater political and cultural rights continues.

women skip

Photo: Selahattin Giz.

This is followed by a section on gender. On one hand, Atatürk is praised for having emancipated women, and legal reforms have continued, described by one campaigning NGO as succeeding in

safeguarding women’s rights, and bodily and sexual autonomy. […] All legal references to vague patriarchal constructs such as chastity, morality, shame, public customs, or decency have been eliminated and definitions of such crimes against women brought in line with global human rights norms. […] The new code […] brings progressive definitions and higher sentences for sexual crimes, criminalises marital rape; brings measures to prevent sentence reductions granted to perpetrators of honour killings, eliminates previously existing discrimination against non-virgin and unmarried women, criminalises sexual harrassment at the workplace and considers sexual assaults by security forces to be aggravated offences.

Yet, as elsewhere, “feminists are not as grateful to their male liberators as the official history would have them feel”. The shops and restaurants of central Istanbul cannot represent the general picture. Secularists have failed to tackle obstinate patriarchal attitudes. As to the sensitive question of headscarves,

many believe it is a right and obligation for pious women to cover their heads. Others see it as a deliberate affront and a symptom of creeping fundamentalism.

Some issues are explored in Kutluğ Ataman’s Women who wear wigs (2001), “part of a warning about recklessly attributing motives and categories”. This is followed by a section on the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and LGBT people in Turkey.

Finally, the vexed arguments surrounding the Armenian genocide are cogently summarised—a topic to which I devote a separate post.

All these questions have ramifications far beyond the borders of Turkey. The Conclusion offers some signs of hope, such as the public demonstrations (below) following the 2007 assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Dink demo

Lastly, Andy provides a succinct list of further reading. Amidst the shifting picture, he’s well aware that constant updates are to be desired; but with its digestible style and thoughtful perspectives, the book makes a valuable overview.

For more on Turkey, see under Köcek in Kuzguncuk!, notably Midnight at the Pera Palace.

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