The U.S. is understandably distracted by the situation in the Ukraine, but the events unfolding in Turkey may be more important to the U.S.
I just returned from a week in Turkey and I am concerned about the U.S. public’s lack of interest in the events unfolding and our general ignorance about the Country … or of its immense strategic importance.
The Prime Minister, who has been taking Turkey down an increasingly authoritarian path, is near panicked about tomorrow’s municipal elections, and has even been accused of provoking war with Syria in order to gain votes.
Let address some obvious fallacies and better explain why we should be following this Sunday’s elections.
Turkey isn’t the “Middle East.”
Turkey is the literal crossroads of the East and West, but its strongest historical ties are to Europe. Turkey is not by its history or by its development a “Middle Eastern” country. Turkey is predominantly Muslim but that does not mean that Turkey has more in common with Egypt and Iraq than with Europe. A traveler will encounter far cleaner cities than are found in the U.S. or Europe. People are sophisticated. The economy is diverse and not driven by oil. Of course Istanbul is exotic and unique, but it also has the feel of other international cities, such as London, Paris and Toronto. It’s a country that mixes daily prayer calls and Ottoman history with this modern structure to create a society that is far more than the mere sum of its parts.
Consider the importance of its location.
Americans have less interest in Turkey now that it is no longer a hot spot in the old Cold War. However, Turkey’s strategic value is more important than ever. Need I point out that Turkey’s neighbors include Syria and Iraq, and that the Country’s policies affect NATO, Israel, and yes, to a lesser extent, the challenges presented by the shirtless Russian bear.
Turkey is unique, and if it changes, what will its effect be on other countries?
Turkey is a success story of a Western-friendly modern secular Muslim country. Turkey’s history is extraordinary: the Golden Age of Rome, 1000 years of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, and the sprawling Ottoman Empire. Its archaeological sites are among the best and most accessible in the world (and far better maintained than those in Italy, Greece and Egypt). And yet, none of these stories is as significant as how Mustafa Kamal Ataturk created this unique country after World War I. Do you think a less free Turkey will further embolden radicals and old style dictators? What will be the effect on Egypt as it wrestles with its competing voices?
The Prime Minister is creating an authoritarian state and turning back the legacy of Ataturk.
The prime minister seems determined to hold onto power by whatever means are necessary. Surely you are aware that as the March 30 elections approach, he first shut down Twitter and now YouTube to block well deserved criticism. Facebook is probably next. Wouldn’t you be concerned if this same story came out of France, Italy or Canada? Turkey is no different. The Prime Minister has been systematically centralizing power and attacking Turkish institutions, but the Country still has much freedom of speech.
Turkey is not Libya or Tunisia in another “Arab Spring.” If the youth must again go to the barricades to defend their freedoms, society will be going backwards. The Arab Spring ignited often-unanticipated reactions, so what would be unanticipated effects of the descent of a modern Western Country into chaos or a closed society?
Turkey has grown and modernized at a blistering speed since I last visited in the early 1980’s, and in fairness, the current administration gets some credit. However, its construction-driven economy bears worrisome similarities to the 2007 U.S. economy. Serious social unrest could bring the economy tumbling, and do not fool yourself into thinking that the US and the EU would be spared the effects of such problems.
We owe it to the youth.
I talked with so many energetic well-educated young Turkish men and woman. I would be proud to have them as adult children. They are dispirited and many wonder if they should leave Turkey. They don’t understand how things have changed so swiftly. Our generation must not stand still.
So what should we do?
I suggest that we actively reach out to our legislators with our concerns. The U.S. can and should take actions to publicize what’s going on in Turkey and to support democratic efforts.
Second, we must quit being so damned parochial and learn more about this country. We are affected by events in the Turkeys of the world. Moreover, Istanbul is recognized as one of the most exciting cities in the world. It’s modern, safe and friendly to U.S. tourists … even during the last few days, as elections have loomed. Go visit and don’t talk about the Country as if it is Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. The airports are modern and efficient and the streets are so clean that they made me jealous. And the people are fascinating! What a wonderful mix of European, Asian and Arab people, ranging from blue-eyed tall Vikings to beautiful dark eyed women. English is a second language. The sense of history is palpable. So what’s keeping you? Go visit.