Turkey a beacon amid Arab world’s uncertainty

Nuh YILMAZ quoted by  Washington Times in this news story
on June 11, 2011

ISTANBUL | Headscarves and miniskirts. Mosques and nightclubs. High rises and hovels.

Turkey’s booming metropolis, Istanbul, is the contradictory heart of the country and has come to be held up as a model for other Islamic countries weathering the “Arab Spring.”

With two revolutions and continuing unrest reshaping the Arab world, many view Turkey as a beacon in a sea of uncertainty: a strong democracy that on Sunday will hold another peaceful election, a booming economy and, most important, a secular Muslim government.

Observers point to Turkey’s modernization over the past decade under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the main reason why his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is expected to coast to re-election.

But the country’s ability to adapt has not come without a price. Straddling the line between two worlds as a partner to the West and the East also has stretched Turkey along political, economic and social lines.

“The Turkish people think of themselves as in the middle,” says Etyen Mahcupyan, a program officer at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) in Istanbul. “If we are going through a crisis in Turkey, it’s not really an identity problem. It’s an adaptation problem.”

While the international community has looked to Turkey to maintain stability in the Middle East, Mr. Erdogan’s government has at times sent mixed signals, such as first speaking out against Libya’s opposition fighters then calling on leader Moammar Gadhafi to step down.

Still, Turkey continues to have a positive reputation in Europe and America as well as in the Arab world.

Andre Bank of the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies in Germany says that popularity is partly the result of good public relations.

“The image-making of Turkey — and that’s very much what its foreign policy is all about — has been very successful,” Mr. Bank says. “Its [image] among Arab populations is based on a positive cliche without knowing that much about Turkey.”

Economic growth

What is known is that Turkey’s position on the global stage has been bolstered by impressive economic growth over the past decade: Its GDP this year is more than $750 billion, up from $170 billion in 2000.

Without oil wealth like its neighbors to the east, Turkey has relied on diversifying its economy and establishing close trade ties from Russia and Germany to Iran and northern Iraq.

The ruling AKP also liberalized foreign investment and instituted major reforms to Turkey’s banking sector, creating a more business-friendly environment. During the prime minister’s eight-year term, Turkey has averaged 5 percent growth a year and attracted upward of $117 billion in foreign investment.

Experts say those changes had a sociological effect as well, shifting power from established stakeholders to a flourishing new class of businessmen and nouveau riche in Turkey’s Anatolia region — the heart of Mr. Erdogan’s constituency.

“More than 10 or 20 years ago, we couldn’t get the equipment we needed from abroad to make our business more modern,” says Kamil Ol, who has run a small sign-making business on a quiet side street in Istanbul for 50 years. “Now we can get whatever we want from everywhere because of more liberal trade. Those are the fruits of democracy.”

Many attribute the changes to the European Union: Mr. Erdogan, a staunch advocate of Turkish membership in the bloc, has worked hard to closely align his country with its European partners.

And nowhere is that westward shift more evident than in Istanbul, where soaring skyscrapers and ultra-modern buildings have multiplied in recent years. The city’s new “Mashattan” neighborhood, constructed to resemble downtown New York, now looms over crumbling homes and shabby shops just a few streets away.

Critics, however, say Turkey’s economic success has remained concentrated in the hands of the few

As the country’s economy has grown, so too has unemployment, climbing steadily to 14 percent in 2009, according to the World Bank. And Mr. Erdogan has been accused of neglecting domestic policy in favor of creating a powerful image abroad.

“Large parts of the Turkish population are not directly benefiting, even though you have growth figures of more than 8 percent,” says Mr. Bank. “So there is a certain trickle down effect but overall you don’t see it much.”

Hikmet Gokker, a 61-year-old retired teacher in Istanbul, says salaries in education have remained largely static despite Turkey’s booming economy and corruption has shifted the tax burden to those who can least afford it.

“There is no middle class to carry the country anymore,” she said. “The rich or those with companies end up doing a lot to get away from paying taxes they should pay, and the poor can’t afford it so it’s mostly these civil servants who end up paying.”

Still, some experts argue that the growth of Turkey’s social welfare sector is effectively spreading the wealth.

“The school system is almost free and a general health system has been implemented,” says Nuh Yilmaz, director of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in Washington, D.C., and an authority on Turkey. “Because of that reason, I think the general wealth of the country has been distributed to the public in the form of social programs.”

Societal shifts

The more critical question for some is how Turkey’s traditionally secular government has shifted under Mr. Erdogan and the Islamic-rooted AKP. The issue of religion has driven a bitter wedge between the ruling party and Turkey’s nationalist groups. (Of Turkey’s nearly 79 million people, more than 99 percent are Muslim.)

The opposition has accused the AKP of imposing a more conservative brand of Islam on the country, alienating the secular constituency and creating a “backward” society in which Muslim mores are the norm.

Even parts of Istanbul have witnessed a shift in culture: Tucked away just north of the city’s touristy Sultanahmet district is the Fatih neighborhood, where most of the women who scurry between market stands wear traditional headscarves.

“I used to walk around in tank tops and mini-skirts,” says Ms. Gokker, the retired teacher. “I see that young women today are less inclined to wear miniskirts on a bus. Now they’re ashamed.”

Mr. Erdogan’s supporters point to the government’s headscarf ban in universities and state institutions as proof that Turkish society is still largely secular. And the prime minister himself has distanced his government from its strong Islamic-leaning associations, focusing on joining the EU.

“Turkey doesn’t have to be one or the other,” says Selima, a 19-year-old university student in Istanbul who wears a headscarf and asked that her last name not be used. “It can be religious and modern at the same time.”

For many Turks, religion and modernity have become opposite sides of the battlefield for political and social factions.

“The republic created a nation but they could not create a society in the real sense. It remains a communitarian one,” says TESEV’s Mr. Mahcupyan. “[They] are divided in the sense of lifestyles and understanding of ethics and morality.”

Uncertainty

As the political debate heats up ahead of the election, some experts say the atmosphere in Turkey is apathetic at best. Many voters will not go to the polls because they don’t believe their voices will be heard.

Tolga Salgan, a 21-year-old student working for a handicapped advocacy group, says Turkey’s young people are leaving the country in droves as college graduates and job seekers search for prosperity abroad.

“I want to go to Europe or the Arab countries, Germany, Saudi Arabia. I want to leave here,” says Mr. Salgan as he passes out pamphlets to tourists and shoppers on Istanbul’s busy Istiklal strip. “I don’t want to live here or raise a child here. I don’t believe in Turkey’s future.”

But as Turkey’s economy continues to boom, an increasing number of the country’s best and brightest are returning home. According to a 2008 study by Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 35 percent of immigrants who left Germany and returned to their home countries were Turkish.

In fact, the trend over the past few years has been that more Turks are leaving Germany than emigrating to the country. Germany has the largest population of people of Turkish heritage outside of Turkey, numbering 3.5 million.

Kemal Ozdogru, a 26-year-old sociology student in Istanbul, decided to stay in Turkey to take over his family business. He is now the fourth generation to run Yeni Ugur Lokum, an old-fashioned Turkish delight specialty store in Istanbul’s trendy Ortakoy neighborhood.

Despite frustrations with Turkey’s growing pains, Mr. Ozdogru says he believes its citizens are bound by a common interest to improve their country.

“I see Turkey as a united country,” he says. “Even though it may seem divided, the people themselves are one.”

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