Turkey: East Meets West or a Third Way?

90 years after its foundation, Turkey still has the potential to reconcile the East-West divide.

Four days in Istanbul is a revelatory experience for someone used to living in Egypt. No matter how appealing the oft-described East-meets-West hybrid may be as a concept, to realize it is always going to be a more complicated process.

You can see this from the moment of arrival, in the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the ordered and the chaotic – in clean, well-constructed roads upon which maniacal drivers swerve and weave in and out of different lanes; in the ready availability of Turkish wine and raki in restaurants and cafes, which are situated right beside beautiful old mosques; and in the almost total absence of traditional dress among the city’s inhabitants, in stark contrast to its diverse architectural landscape where ancient buildings jostle for their position alongside recent developments or are appropriated for new purposes, with crumbling stone structures in the heart of the old city used as kiosks by enterprising shop owners.

Nationalism and Modernity

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, credited as the founder of the Turkish Republic on October 29, 1923, played a clever political game in equating Turkish nationalism with modernity. Turkey does not seem to be plagued with the idea that progress must take place on Western terms in the same way or to the same extent that many other countries in the region are.

While outlawing the fez and other forms of traditional dress and Latinizing the language was a cultural loss, these casualties were borne in the name of progress. Despite the political and ideological divide between secular and Islamic camps, nationalism – and fervent support for Ataturk’s ideals – is pervasive and deeply-rooted.

Living in Egypt (where nationalism is equally overt), you become accustomed to interacting with a large number of people who equate progressiveness with Westernization. English is very widely-spoken – whether a few rudimentary phrases or, in a surprisingly high number of cases, at a sophisticated level – even outside of popular tourist areas, and it feels that this is more than just a necessity for a country which has become highly dependent on the tourist industry; it is regarded as an indicator of progress and status.

In Istanbul, I felt the difference between the highly-educated, who spoke more than one language, and those who felt no need to speak English and arguably less of a need to master or demonstrate “Western” cultural values.

Perhaps this latter trait comes partly from greater economic security, for Turkey’s economy has been booming in recent years. One travel writer characterized the Turkish people he had met as “refreshingly optimistic about the future.” Here, there is something very refreshing about a country that is willing and able to carve out its own trajectory — just as it is disheartening, the number of highly-educated young professionals you encounter in Cairo who cannot find work in the areas they were trained in: taxi drivers who turn out to speak excellent English because they trained as lawyers, for example.

While the World Bank still classes Turkey as a developing country, its estimated unemployment rate in 2013 is nine percent, compared to 7.7 percent in the UK and 13 percent in Egypt (a misleading figure, as it is estimated that some 40 percent of Egypt’s population lives below the poverty line, on £2 a day, and the rate of underemployment in the country could also be as high as 40 percent). In addition, Turkey's GNI (Gross National Income) per capita is well above other upper-middle income of countries surveyed.

Turkey's thriving commercial activity is manifest evidence of this prosperity: walk down Istiklal Street in Beyoglu and you could be on a high street anywhere in northern Europe. It is only when veering off into side streets, lured by the smell of nargile, that you remember this commercial center has developed within the context of a vast history and is still enmeshed in an intricate social, cultural, and political framework.

One interesting observation that I have heard in my discussions on this subject is that, in an economic sense, the current government in Turkey is very pro-globalization and in favor of “throwing open the borders” with respect to business, which certainly breaks the stereotype of religious and social conservatism equalling a reluctance to conduct business with international partners – a stereotype which I consider to be present in prevalent attitudes to the Middle East and North Africa in the West or the Global North.

The AKP: Turkey’s Republicans?

In fact, it has been asserted that both secularists and the AKP government express, on occasion, pro-American sentiments, which are unusual considering popular movements and the current overall context within the region. It has been said of Turkey’s current government that: “Like the Republican party, [it] rests on two seemingly paradoxical pillars: the affluent commercial class and lower-income, religiously conservative voters.”

The party does not appear to dissuade comparisons with the Republicans, arguably preferring to be likened in this respect to this particular American model than to the European parties with which it is engaged in difficult conversations over Turkey’s EU status.   

Despite Ataturk’s eschewal of many Turkish traditions in favor of, for example, a political system based on the European model (adopting a constitution imitating that of France, for example), it seems that modern-day Turkey, still an advocate in so many ways of Ataturk and the reforms he implemented, refuses to conform to generalizations that many who observe alarming binary trends are used to making.

One long-term expat, resident in Turkey for several years, observed that: “[Turks nowadays] are often quite autonomous, in the literal sense of the term; they don’t feel that they need to imitate anyone.”

The attitude of Turkish people to a European living in Egypt was enlightening. Wide-eyed incredulity was quickly replaced with polite interest tempered with slight alarm in most cases. Hardly surprising, as that is how people all across the world react nowadays. But still I was a little taken aback, given the geographical proximity of the two countries, and the fact that in the eyes of many progressive Egyptians, Turkey is the model for democratic transition.

A group of Turkish fishermen had blunter views: “You could earn good money in your country. Why would you go and live in a place that is struggling, like Egypt?”

A Foreign Policy article published in early June of this year about the protests sweeping through Turkey, encompasses the desire to retain a distance from comparisons with Egypt and other “Arab Spring” countries. Firat Demir asserts: “Unlike the Egyptians demanding the most basic of rights from Mubarak the tyrant, Turks are defending their rights as citizens of a democracy. Taksim is not Tahrir.”

Cory Stockwell, a Canadian living in Ankara, remarks: “The fear among some relatively affluent Turkish secularists of the Islamification of the country can sometimes result in a casual racism directed at Arabs as being ‘dirty’ or ‘backward.’”  

Taksim and Tahrir

Yet, other Turks I spoke with clearly saw the points of comparison between Egypt and their own country: socially and politically. While Taksim Square – despite the mass protests that swept the country this summer – is not a politically charged environment in the way that Tahrir was for so many months after the initial demonstrations of January 2011, I was assured by a Turkish man who prefers to remain anonymous: “If you are Turkish, you can easily see the secret police dotted all over the place here. They don’t do anything, they don’t arrest anyone, but they are here and we all know they are here.”  

Defne Suman, a yoga teacher and writer whose blog post on what was happening in Istanbul went viral in May and June 2013, describes a scene that is absolutely reminiscent of the Egypt of the last two and a half years:

People who are marching to the center of Istanbul are demanding their right to live freely and receive justice, protection and respect from the State. They demand to be involved in the decision-making processes about the city they live in. What they have received instead is excessive force and enormous amounts of tear gas shot straight into their faces. Three people lost their eyes.

While speaking with one of the men who works at the hotel I stayed at in Istanbul, I heard the story of Berkin Elvan, a 14-year-old boy shot in the head by a police tear gas canister while on his way to a bakery during the protests earlier in the year, who has been in a coma ever since.

At some point, he was so overcome with emotion he could not speak. “This boy is a rallying point, a symbol for so many people in Turkey, reminding us of what we were speaking out against. At the same time, he is just a young boy. Children held vigils for him in their schools after it happened. If he dies, the country will go crazy with fury and grief.”

The polarization of Islamists and secularists, evoked so brilliantly in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, could well foretell the future of an Egypt in which, three months after the removal of Mohammed Morsi, the words “Muslim Brotherhood” equal “terrorist” in popular consciousness and public dialogue. And while many in Egypt look to Turkey as the model of a Muslim country that has embraced secular democracy (often fearing that the alternative would be an Iranian-style theocracy), many do not aspire to that hybrid East-West identity that I personally found captivating.

Identity, Passion, and Political Participation

Lameece Gasser, a young Egyptian NGO worker, feels that “Turkey has an identity crisis. It doesn’t know where it is or what it is.” Many might say the same thing about Egypt, as people struggle to turn their ideological demands into concrete realities that will actually preserve and maintain the freedom and security they seek, while allowing for reform and encouraging economic development.

The old clashes between West and East are not over and we have a long way to go before schisms between tradition and modernity, religion and secularism, and stability and reform can be reconciled. But to see so many of these things coexisting in Turkey offers an interesting way forward for the countries in North Africa and the Middle East currently undergoing political turmoil.

Social and political progress, even democracy, does not have to take place on Western terms. For all the continuing problems in Egypt and in Turkey — and I do not deny there are many — I have seen more passion and engagement in political participation and social activism in both of these countries than I have ever witnessed in northern Europe. We do not have the monopoly on political development.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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