Turkish voters confronting clash of civilisations

APRIL 16 — The nation of Turkey is standing at a crossroads, and today its 75 million population will decide whether to continue along the same route it has followed so far this century or seek a new and perhaps unknown direction.

The country is going to the polls in a much-anticipated referendum, with the choice of deciding whether or not to adopt a new Constitution which, if passed, will significantly strengthen and widen the control of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan came to power in 2003, and since then he has implemented a frantic modernisation programme with the intention of dragging Turkey into the 21st century as a forward-looking, high-tech, well-educated, commercially-competitive, prosperous and contemporary nation.

However, serious strings are attached, because Erdogan is also a conservative Muslim who has rolled back many of the secular policies first instilled by the country’s legendary founder Kemal Ataturk nearly a century ago, thrusting Islamic thinking back into the mainstream of Turkish politics and culture.

There is clearly an enormous contradiction inherent within the path Erdogan has ploughed for his country.

On the one hand, he has transformed the skylines of Turkey’s cities with endless swathes of modern glass and steel urban developments, flattening several old traditional districts and green spaces to do so; but at the same time he has ended a ban on Islamic headscarves, removed from office or imprisoned many of his opponents and commissioned the construction of the country’s biggest mosque, with a capacity for 37,500 people.

I have visited Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city and international emblem, on five occasions in the last seven months, and it is an endlessly fascinating place, containing something of everything that humanity has to offer.

From gleaming state-of-the-art skyscrapers to narrow, dirty streets which look like a scene from the 1800s; from enormous shiny shopping malls with free wifi to bustling alleyways packed with rough and ready street markets; from upmarket trendy international restaurants to greasy one-man kebab stands you can find it all in Istanbul which is inhabited by 15 million people and feels more like a country than a city.

A ferry, with a new mosque under construction at Camlica Hill in the background, on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey April 14, 2017. — Reuters pic
A ferry, with a new mosque under construction at Camlica Hill in the background, on the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey April 14, 2017. — Reuters pic

With mosques and kebab shops on one street corner but pizza parlours and shopping malls on the next, it’s not easy to tell whether Turkey is secular and modern, or Islamic and traditional. A shrine to consumerism or a shrine to Allah? In Istanbul they are mostly right next door to each other.

This contradiction is far from new, because Turkey is probably the most delicately located country in the world.

As well as facing a metaphorical crossroads in today’s referendum, Turkey is also literally placed at a geographical crossroads. West and East; Europe and Asia; Christian and Muslim; modern and ancient: they all find their meeting point in Turkey, which is dealing with a bewildering array of conflicting and complicated geopolitical issues as a result of its location.

The country is bordered to the south by Syria and houses an estimated three million refugees, with millions more using Turkey as an escape route into the European Union.

Due to its immediate proximity with Syria, not to mention borders with Iraq and Iran, Turkey has been affected more than most by the rise of the Islamic State movement, with around 500 people killed by terrorist attacks in the last two years including high-profile attacks at Istanbul’s international airport and a Western-style nightclub on New Year’s Eve.

Not all those deaths were caused by Islamic terrorism, however, because Turkey is also confronted by violence from Kurds, a stateless people who live in the mountainous regions which border Turkey, Iraq and Syria, and who believe they have been systematically oppressed by those countries for centuries.

Then there’s Russia, which is connected directly to Turkey by the Black Sea, with the proximity of the two countries starkly emphasised last week when a Russian missile-armed warship sailed down the Bosphorus — the narrow strait which runs through the heart of Istanbul — en route from Russia to the Mediterranean.

It is through this minefield of political complexity that Erdogan is attempting to lead his country. The tension between Russia and the United States; the rise of Islamic terrorism; the expansion of the European Union and NATO; the Syrian civil war Turkey is unwittingly right in the middle of everything, and has no choice but to engage in the world’s most difficult political problems.

No wonder, then, that Erdogan has followed a “tough man” approach, using democratic methods only when it suits him and shutting down dissenting voices. There’s little room for compromise or indecision when you’re facing every international political crisis at the same time, especially when you’re simultaneously attempting to rapidly modernise the country.

But those methods are bound to be controversial, and the last few years have been marked by regular opposition to Erdogan, with a popular uprising against his anti-secular policies taking over one of Istanbul’s iconic parks in 2013 and a failed military coup launched last summer.

He survived those challenges. And now, under attack from all directions, both within and outside the country, but also boasting a huge amount of fiercely loyal support, today’s referendum is Erdogan’s game of Russian roulette, giving him a 50/50 chance of becoming even more powerful or opening himself up to serious opposition.

If he wins, Erdogan will be emboldened to continue his reconstruction of Turkey as a rapidly developing modern Muslim state at a faster pace than ever. If he loses well, nobody knows what will happen if he loses, because the opposition to him is so varied and disparate that it has not yet unified into a common voice.

But it would certainly greatly weaken him, damage his credibility as an unassailable leader and potentially open up a power vacuum for the opponents who can mobilise most quickly to fill.

Whatever today’s result, however, and whatever the fate for Erdogan, one thing is certain: the future will not be easy for Turkey to negotiate. It never is.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles

Up Next