I first visited the city when I was a teenager and was amazed by the intensity of the city. Call to prayer woke us up in the early hours of the morning, tiny trucks playing ice-cream van jingles delivered gas canisters to the apartments near our hotel and Turkish kids were practicing their wrestling moves in the street for lack of anything better to do. Even after coming from Rome the city of Istanbul felt intensely foreign and it had this amazing tendency to throw you back a few centuries whenever you turned a corner.
Going back was every bit as exciting. With Turkey there’s a few new customs to get a handle on but nothing that gets in the way of having real conversations with the people you meet. The pace of the city varies exceptionally with busy streets, markets and roadside vendors contrasting with quiet timber streets over the harbour and little cafes tucked away in the lanes. At the markets everyone seems to care about making a sale or at least convincing you of the merits of their wares. Everyone has a brother or a cousin that can get you a great deal of a carpet and busy stalls ensure that prices are always negotiable on everything from fruit to electronics. Everything seems much more personal when your city life is still built around local shops and restaurants rather than supermarket chains and fast food joints. That difference in day-to-day commerce seems to be more of a cultural imperative than an economic one and it’s one of the things that makes the city such an exciting place to explore.
Since the last time I was in Istanbul the prosperity of the city has increased exceptionally. In 2001 hyper-inflation had reached the point where the exchange rate was roughly 1,000,000 Turkish lira to the Australian dollar and Turkey was experiencing the worst economic depression in its history. Banking reforms and sweeping changes to economic policy that occurred as a result of the crisis undoubtedly helped limit the damage done to Turkey’s economy by the more recent Global Financial Crisis. On the drive into the city from Attaturk Airport I saw a whole lot of new high-rise construction and road projects and none of the outward signs of turmoil that were present in 2001. That progress has occurred in part due to a voracious government program of privatisation with road, rail, power and all sort of state-run enterprises being sold off to build capital and encourage foreign investment.
But while the last decade has seen the ruling AKP government instituting neo-liberal economic policy they’ve also been working towards making the country more socially conservative.
Independent research by a non-governmental organisation published in 2012 showed that Turkey, with a total population of 75 million, possesses 85,000 mosques, 17,000 of which were built in the past 10 years.
In comparison, the country has 67,000 schools, 1,220 hospitals, 6,300 health care centres and 1,435 public libraries. The annual budget of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is less than half of that of the Directorate General of Religious Affairs, which represents the Sunni Muslims of the country (80 percent of the population).
The head of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been pushing for the construction of new Mosques and madrassas while cutting funding for secular arts and education institutes. The government has also successfully prosecuted journalists and artists for acts that ‘insult Islam’. As part of a larger ‘culture war’ against the more secular elements of the Turkish population Erdoğan has reduced the availability of abortion through changes to the Public Health Insurance system and declared that it was the responsibility of all Turkish women to have at least three children. Laws restricting the sale of alcohol came into effect earlier this month and censorship of films, television and news media continue to be a source of friction. According to Reporters Without Borders, an international advocacy group for press freedom, Turkey imprisons more journalists than any other country- including Iran and China.
Since the Taksim Square protests in May civil strife has flared up again following the killing of a protester in Antakya in the south of the country. Support for Erdoğan and the AKP seems to have diminished slightly but Erdoğan doesn’t seem inclined to reach any sort of compromise. And, unless something catastrophic occurs before the next election, it’s likely that he wont need to. throughout all the civil unrest of the last few months polls indicate that Erdoğan has maintained support among the majority that elected him and, as he sees it, they have given him a mandate to return the country to its more traditional Islamic/Ottoman roots.
In a lot of ways the political conflicts that are evident in Turkey at the moment will be familiar to anyone in Western Europe, the US and Australia with a casual interest in their own history. Almost all ‘western’ countries took to the streets at one time or another to obtain civil rights, institute democratic reforms and counter religious conservatism. It’s easy to look at the recent turmoil in Turkey as simply a temporary setback on the inevitable march towards some democratic ideal. But the uncomfortable truth is that democracy can be employed to restrict civil rights just as easily as it can be used to establish them.
I love Turkey and the people I met there were wonderful and intelligent and rightfully proud of their national identity. But I wonder if I return in another ten years whether the Turkish people will be still fighting this cultural war with one another and what the ultimate cost of that fight will be.
The Wall Street Journal has a solid article on the reasons for the AKP’s continued support in Turkey. This article from the Telegraph concentrates on the failure of the Arab Spring in neighbouring countries but it gives a good run-down of the historical reasons for current sectarian conflicts and the ridiculously arbitrary division of the former Ottoman Empire in the treaty of Sykes-Picot.