Why Istanbul Matters

While foreign policy was once thought to have taken a backseat in this election cycle, the reactions in the Muslim world to an incendiary film about the Prophet Mohammed have refocused attention on the nettlesome politics of the Middle East. Whoever occupies the White House come January will be faced with an altogether new dynamic—and not just in the obvious cases of a bloody Syrian civil war and a tottering post-Mubarak Egypt, but also with the political awakening of Muslims around the globe. Turkey, with its dual European and Asian heritage, is emerging as a key pivot in the region between the long-dominant influences of the West and an increasingly self-actualized East--just this week, it played host to negotiations hoping to slow Iran's uranium enrichment projects. The country, ruled by the Islamist-leaning Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) since 2002 has become an anchor of democratic stability and a harbinger of what is to come in a 21st century that’s beginning to take on the look of the multipolar world of past centuries. A brief glance over the shoulder at the country's history tells us that it’s no surprise Turkey stands apart.

When Hillary Clinton visited Turkey a few weeks ago, her destination was not Ankara, the country’s official seat of government, but Istanbul. The choice to hold the conference in an opulent former palace of the Ottomans rather than in the anodyne halls of Turkey’s official capitol was one filled with potent symbolism. Many observers rightfully talk about the transformation of Turkish foreign policy from the Cold War tradition of hewing close to the United States and NATO to the "neo-Ottoman" approach of the AKP, which attempts to balance Turkey’s long-standing orientation to the West against an older tradition of straddling Europe and the Islamic world. The AKP’s conscious decision to tout Istanbul as Turkey’s real center is only the latest reminder of the shift back toward the East.

Political life in modern Turkey was long dominated by elites whose lineage lay more in Europe than in Asia. What the rise of the AKP has brought to the fore is the long-standing tension within Turkish society that has accelerated as the country has grown wealthier and more mobile. It is as much a consequence of Turkey’s successful exploitation of globalization as anything else, which has narrowed the gulf dividing the more economically developed coastal areas of Istanbul and the Mediterranean and the less developed hinterlands of Central and Eastern Anatolia. Not surprisingly, the traditionally poorer parts of Turkey, which have also been more culturally conservative and more Islamic, have seen their influence grow as the country changes economically. Istanbul has become one of globalization’s great megalopolises, bursting at the seams with more than 16 million inhabitants and providing a center stage for the battle between the secular old guard and the religious nouveau riche.  

Once the capital of a sprawling Ottoman Empire, Istanbul has long been a cosmopolitan center of intrigue. When the Turks conquered the old Byzantine city of Constantinople in 1453, it not only became a symbol of power of the Ottoman sultans, who came to rule over as many Christians as Muslims, but also a functional seat of government, where enclaves of Christians and Jews became the backbone of economic development. But by the beginning of the 20th century, most Turkish nationalists regarded the multiethnic, multi-religious Ottoman state as a failure, and Istanbul’s proximity to the Mediterranean meant that it was an easy target for a foreign power to either occupy or starve into submission. It was one of the reasons why the founders of modern Turkey moved the new government to the obscure, dusty town of Ankara in the interior of Asia Minor when the empire collapsed after World War I.  

But many Turks were never quite able to shake the habit of regarding Istanbul as the true center of Turkish life. It is hard to miss the past richness of everyday life as you walk down the city streets. Mosques, churches, and synagogues sit in juxtaposition, delineating the old neighborhoods of the Ottoman era. British, French, German, and American schools from the 19th century populate the more affluent neighborhoods. Less obvious but equally important traces of the past can be found in the food, which is a subtle melding of Persian, Arabic, Balkan, and Mediterranean influences.  

While this is largely a shell of a past era, and not a portent of pluralistic renewal (Turkey is 99 percent Muslim), there is a fluency to Turkish culture that is hard to dismiss. Most people think that Turks today are of one ethnicity, but it’s more complicated than that. What defined a subject of the Ottoman Empire was religion, not language or ethnic group, and the Ottoman state proved adept at integrating anyone willing to convert to Islam. After the Russian czar brutally squashed a Polish revolt in the 1860s, hundreds of Polish noblemen left for Istanbul and Ottoman military service, establishing their own villages on the outskirts of town. By the 1870s, the city had become a well-known refuge for the intellectuals of failed revolutions from all over Central Europe. (Although rare, there are blond-haired Turks, especially in and around Istanbul.) The Balkan region was the heartland of the Ottoman Empire, and the process of colonization and conversion turned many ethnic Europeans into “Turks.” Have a look at leading Ottoman statesmen from the 16th century onward, and you will see biographies that stretch across southeastern Europe, from Belgrade to the Bosporus. The blue-eyed founder and longtime leader of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was himself born in what is now Greece to an Albanian mother.

Historians of modern Turkey often stress Atatürk’s efforts to establish a secular and linguistically homogenous state out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire (usually regarded as "Kemalism"), but the word "secular" is misleading. As a successful army general, who famously pushed back British advances during World War I, Atatürk also helped forge the Republic of Turkey as an explicitly Muslim state, as a place for all Ottoman Muslims seeking refuge and protection. Simply by looking at that ultimate symbol of nationalism, the Turkish flag, with its great white crescent and star, demonstrates a clear expression of Islamic identity. It just so happened that many of these Muslims came from southeastern Europe, where decidedly "un-Islamic" practices like gambling and alcohol consumption were simply a part of life.

It is often said that figures like Atatürk grafted "Western" institutions onto Turkish life, from his insistence that the state control religious institutions to his love of frock coats, drink, and the barbered mustache. But this is misleading. Atatürk didn’t wear Western suits because he was consciously trying to be European—he was European. Today, a clash of culture is unfolding as new faces enter Turkish politics. Kemalist intellectuals never had a problem with peasant women from the countryside wearing traditional symbols of religious piety such as headscarves, so long as they were menial workers cleaning apartments or working on farms. But as more religious conservatives enter the upper echelons of education, business, and politics, there has been a loud struggle over Turkish identity. These struggles have also laid bare the shortcomings of Kemalism, such as the legacy of military coups, widespread corruption within government, lack of accountability, dysfunctional political parties, and a tendency toward statist economic policies. Indeed, two central planks of the AKP’s program is fighting corruption and enacting market reforms that have helped the Turkish economy prosper.

Kemalists counter that reforms are a Trojan horse for the Islamification of Turkish society and that the AKP’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy is a ruse for cozying up to Iran. But that has so far failed to happen. The country has remained democratic and stable, even as neighbors like Greece implode financially, and Syria politically. Turkey has reached out more to its Arab neighbors in the south as well as its Persian neighbors to the east, that is true, but this is more a consequence of economic growth and the explosion of inter-border trade over the last ten years. It is mostly a pragmatic engagement to manage Turkey’s increasing economic clout.

A cursory glance at Turkey’s Ottoman Empire past underscores that throughout history, it had two main geopolitical rivals, the Persians and the Russians. While some radical Turkish imams may look at the Iranian revolution with envy, most Turks, especially religious conservatives, would be hard-pressed to follow Iran on anything as they have a contentious ideological relationship with Shia Iranians. They share similar grievances toward Israeli treatment of Palestinians, but Turkey has never questioned the right of Israel to exist. The Turkish government does not want to see its economic gains jeopardized by war or instability. However, engagement also has its limits, as the Turkish posture toward Syria demonstrates. Turkey was once one of Bashar al Assad’s greatest champions in the region, trying to open up Syria economically and diplomatically, but since the uprising took a bloody turn this spring, Turkey has done everything short of war to slow the regime’s crackdown on the Shiite majority.  

During the Cold War, Turkey concentrated its energies on balancing Russia, hence Turkey’s NATO membership and alliance with the West. With the Cold War over and globalization transforming nations everywhere, clinging to one side is no longer the smart option. And with China and India rising, the European Union wracked by financial crisis, and a fragmented Middle East undergoing war and revolution, Turkey has done well to expand its influence beyond the West and rediscover the East. That is good for the United States, which must rebalance in a multipolar word full of emerging powers and can count on Turkey as a factor of stability. It’s not for nothing that the U.S. has worked lockstep with the Turks to manage the increasingly nasty civil war in Syria. Better to do so from a seaside palace in Istanbul than the dusty mountains of Ankara.        


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