Turkey Without Europe

It’s like an unrequited relationship. If one is fond of someone for a long time and he or she remains uninterested but doesn’t say so, it ends badly. After half a century of “flattery,” Turkey is losing patience with Europe, to which it wanted to belong. What will we lose when this happens? What do Turks think about the European Union today?

There are people selling roast chestnuts, corn, and sesame pretzels on every corner. And cats – cats everywhere. Begging children sit on the pavement and play plastic clarinets. Bookshops show off Orhan Pamuk novels like trophies for tourists. In a restaurant on a small street behind the Blue Mosque, kebab meat is turning on a spit, echoed by a dervish dancing in a circle. You can watch older women preparing food in huge display windows as the jiggling tram takes you from Topkapi Palace to the Grand Bazaar and Hagia Sophia, a former Byzantine church turned into a mosque and then into the religiously “neutral” museum of today. Cruise ships in the Bosphorus Strait float between Europe and Asia. Here, the Orient meets the West.

Istanbul is the only metropolis that spreads over two continents. It is Muslim yet secular, an ancient and at once modern city. Built 2,700 years ago by the Greeks, it has survived earthquakes and invasions. Istanbul was the center of two empires, Byzantine and Ottoman, both among the strongest in history. It is a universe of its own, with hundreds of names – Constantinople and Byzantium, “Door to Happiness” or “Second Rome.”


Villagers of KARDESLER : “We want European technology, not Christian hegemony.”


The Father of the Turks

Gabriel Pirický, a Slovak scholar of Oriental and Turkish studies, arrived 20 years ago to a very different Istanbul. After completing degrees in Arabic and Oriental studies in Prague and in Islamic societies and culture in London, he took a half-year course at Istanbul University in 1992. He had just done brief stints as a media analyst and at the then-Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry.

“Czechoslovakia was dividing that winter and I did not want to witness it,” Pirický recalls as we sip the traditionally strong tea at a famous cafe in the Grand Bazaar. It is getting dark, and the merchants are packing up. “Istanbul then was the stench of coal and exhaust from Ikarus buses. But at the same time it was a town full of colors, smells, and brightness, while plain gray ruled in Czechoslovakia. Black marketers, mostly from Poland, exported textile goods from Istanbul – from the worst to the highest quality.”

In contrast to the Arab world, Pirický says, he does not feel like a foreigner in Istanbul. Children did not shout at him in the streets. Istanbul is a typical European city by the sea with a rolling terrain, atypically cold for its southern location – it does not snow in winter, but palm trees no not grow. With its concentration of sights, Istanbul can compete with Rome. At the same time, skyscrapers have grown here and global brands shout at you everywhere.

In its latter days, the Ottoman Empire tried to rebound from decline by steering toward the West, mainly France. Even today, 89 years after he founded the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk  is still called “The Chosen One and the Perfect Father of the Turks.” He turned the modernization efforts into an axis of radical change – and he was deadly serious about it.

Kardesler village in Zonguldak: tea rooms reflected in a portrait of the Father of Turks, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The first secular state in the Muslim world ended the caliphate reign in Istanbul and moved the capital to Ankara. Atatürk ’s reforms came into effect authoritatively, as their “father” had opposed traditional Islam since his childhood; like the Soviet Communists, he considered religion a source of evil. At a grueling pace, he managed to transform all aspects of Turkish life. He forbade men, under threat of death, to wear the fez, the traditional red, conic hat. Headgear of a European cut replaced it. Kemalist ideology abolished religion and religious marriages. Europeanization continued via the introduction of the calendar and a radical emancipation of women. Atatürk  set the example; one of his adoptive daughters became a professor of history, another a military pilot.

At a high-speed rate, the Father of the Turks dissolved the ranks of mystics and modernized everything possible, from the family to the state. But language remained his favorite theme until his death in 1938. He replaced the Arabic alphabet with a form of the Latin and introduced the new Turkish – which the nation, himself included, did not really understand. Atatürk ’s weakness was volubility, as demonstrated by the famous 36-hour speech he gave over the course of several days to the national assembly.

Kemalism, like other types of social engineering, did not take consequences into account. Pirický highlights specific examples of how secularism is applied locally. There is no disestablishment; on the contrary, state institutions control what happens and what is said in mosques, and they approve imams. The sense of another, different Istanbul dawns upon entering the Fatih-Çarşamba quarter, sometimes called Istanbul’s Mecca. People are alert to visitors. Women are wrapped in black from head to toe. Men greet each other in the street not with the traditional Turkish “merhaba” but with the Islamic salutation “salam Alekum.” There is a large network of Koran schools.

The Ismaili Shia sect is considered the most conservative wing of Naqshbandi Sufism in Turkey. Its members are characterized by their “Islami” style of dress, which according to them dates to the time of the prophet Muhammad. Walking in this quarter – which in some ways resembles the Orthodox Jewish Mea Shearim area of Jerusalem – it is impossible not to notice Turkey’s biggest Koran school and its immediate neighborhood. The school is situated near the Ismaili Aga mosque; a few dozen meters away stands a grandiose, 19th-century Greek Orthodox school. The Turkish sociologist Müfit Yüksel sees in this territorial juxtaposition a battle for visual and historical dominance over the quarters of Fatih and Fener; Pirický extends that to the entire city.

“Yüksel points out that by granting permission to build a Koran school in the area, the state indirectly created a counterbalance to the historically significant presence of Greeks,” he says. “ It is a reaction to the historically important Byzantine identity of the region – an Orthodox patriarchy reigns over the Fener quarter, and there is also a Bulgarian church – which manifests who really governs in Istanbul.”


Street life in Istanbul.

Is Half a Century Enough?

A hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire was considered the sick man of Europe. This is changing rapidly. Speaking in Germany in late October, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated flatly that Turkey is only willing to join the EU through 2023 – no later. The reasons for the country’s growing self-esteem are evident. Its economy has grown continually at 6 to 7 percent a year, even through the crisis – numbers Europe, drowning in its problems, can only dream of. Then there are the differences in demographic trends. This is a stumbling block: the Germans and French can only dimly imagine a European Union in which Turkey is the most populous country, with 78 million inhabitants whose average age is 29. But they don’t say that to Turkey.

Ankara became an affiliate member of the European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor, in 1963 and has been debating with Brussels about full membership since 1987. When Erdogan became prime minister in 2002, he set one clear goal: the safe anchoring of Turkey in the West. But the discussions are dragging on, despite progress in the most criticized aspects of Turkish society, human rights and the standing of national minorities. This naturally has bred feelings of betrayal and disdain. In 2004 73 percent of Turks supported EU entry; last year the figure was a mere 38 percent. Nobody says out loud that they are done with Europe, but in business circles there is talk of orientation toward the East.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), with its Islamic roots, easily won last year’s elections – its third straight victory – with more than half the votes. The aging prime minister, perhaps dreaming that a sultan-like role would suit him better than leading a parliamentary democracy, is thinking about introducing the presidential system. Then, as did Putin and Medvedev in Russia, he would switch seats with current President Abdullah Gül (who does not want to take part in this kind of a chess game). The conservative prime minister has also solidified his power over the one-time state within the state – the army. Generals have tried to overthrow the government before. But after dismissing four top officers and having criminal charges brought against them, Erdogan now chairs the Supreme Military Council, securing his authority.

He is well aware, however, that one thing could threaten the popularity of his APT: an open military conflict with the Assad regime in Syria. He has mobilized, but wants to avoid a battle. There are already hundreds of thousands of refugees on the border, and Turkish villages are being bombarded from the Syrian side.


A carpet shop in Istanbul


A Full-Fledged Candidate but Not a Member

Andrew Finkel was born in Philadelphia, to which his parents emigrated from Europe after escaping Nazism. In 1967, when Andrew was 14, his father’s job with a coffee company took the family to Turkey. Istanbul, with its 1.2 million inhabitants was then a town on the brim of the Balkans, a black curtain between the Orient and the rest of the world.

“I remember there was no bridge over the Bosphorus then, and no toilet paper because they didn’t import it yet,” Finkel says with a laugh as we talk over a cup of Turkish coffee at his home on the Asian side of town. His wife, a well-regarded Scottish historian and a recognized specialist on the Ottoman Empire, has just returned home after an hour of shopping.

Finkel returned to Turkey as an adult in the early ’80s to complete research for his doctorate in history. Turkey was poor, still receiving help from the Marshall Plan. “Istanbul had 5 millions inhabitants; today it is 15 million – it has doubled during each decade of my life. It’s a magnet that generates 40 percent of the Turkish economy,” he says. Istanbul, he adds, is more like a country than a town, and he thinks of it as home. It has more people and a higher GDP than, for example, Hungary.

But the mythic city of his childhood is gone forever. Resembling the old professor from Ingmar Bergman’s movie Wild Strawberries, Finkel has returned to a place he hardly recognizes. “Istanbul is an enemy of history. Everything changes so rapidly here,” he says. Finkel has been writing for major Turkish and foreign media since 1989; he has a column in The New York Times and also contributes to The Economist. He talks mostly about Turkish politics. He points out that Turkey has been, since 1995, a member of Europe’s Customs Union. But Europe is changing significantly, becoming more of a political union – and there, Turkey does not yet belong.

Thanks to its European aspirations, Ankara annually receives 1 billion euros a year in foreign direct investment. “I used to tell a joke in 2000 that Ankara actually did not want to be a full member as it was more convenient to remain a candidate country for EU membership,” Finkel says. “In contrast with Central European countries after 1989, Istanbul is not a returning to a Europe where it already once belonged but is taking on a brand new historic project. But Turkey is too big and too Muslim for the Europeans. Before it was too poor, but this is no longer the case.”

He says that if the EU were to divide into a northern core and a poorer south, Turkey will integrate much more easily – into the latter. “I know Turkish elites for whom the EU remains an inspiring project,” he concludes. “They talk about a guarantee of liberal freedom and prosperity, laughing at the same time that it’s like in that American movie where a character points out that he would never join a club that would have him as a member.”

Carsamba neighbourhood in Istanbul’s District of Faith.



The Breaking Point

Dutch historian Joost Lagendijk was a Green Left member of the European Parliament from 1998 to 2009. He focused on foreign politics, with a close eye on the Balkans, and chaired the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, a group of Turkish lawmakers and MEPs that meets regularly to consider Turkey-Europe relations. Like Andrew Finkel’s, the story of his life is intertwined with Turkey: he married a Turkish journalist in 2006 and since then has lived happily in Istanbul. Lagendijk initially taught at a private university, and now he writes a twice-a-week column Zaman, the biggest Turkish daily with sales of 1 million.

“Turkish EU membership was just a fantastic dream up until 1999, because neither Europe nor Turkey was ready. Then the country needed five years to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria. Erdogan’s government has been working on fulfilling the full list and implementing reforms since 2002. Enthusiasm was in the air; four-fifths of Turks were for the EU. The official talks started in 2005 and since then it’s all gone in the wrong direction,” Lagendijk says. “Europe fell into internal problems. Sarkozy and Merkel firmly stand against Turkey’s EU ambitions.”

Lagendijk clarifies the breaking point, which also arose on the Turkish side. “The Economy was thriving; democracy was getting better. But the suddenly panic washed over and the Turks asked, ‘What is happening? We started accession talks, we are doing everything you required, and you are not interested? No matter what we do, you will not let us in.’ …

“I do not agree with the view that Europe is a Christian club where Muslim Turkey does not belong,” Lagendijk continues. This argument has also emerged in the debate within Turkey, unleashing a back-and-forth between extremes that poisoned mutual ties. “Even those Turks who wanted to join the EU saw how big the resistance was on the other side.” He believes it will take a few years for Europe to acknowledge that it is not a Christian but a secular club. “The same goes here: all are Muslims, but only a quarter of Turks go to the mosque. There is a Turkish wine boom now, so after Ramadan everyone drinks – mostly the middle class. For that, Arabs do not like Turks. They label them ‘Muslim lite.’ ” Lagendijk favors Turkish EU entry, but sees it as being eight to 10 years away, at least.

Istanbul’s downtown resembles any western metropolis.



More Against It Than For It

Zaman regional reporter Abdullah Kalabacak’s little car climbs up a hill. Zonguldak – a city of 100,000 near the Dead Sea, 300 kilometers from Istanbul – recedes in the distance. In Turkey, “Z like Zonguldak” is a common phrase when spelling out words. It’s a remote corner, but, if you want to know what Turks think about the world and the EU outside the cosmopolitan metropolis, easier to reach than the poor village in southeastern Anatolia.

So how is the last letter of the alphabet doing? Because of a new gas pipeline, we have to contend with dug-up roads and detour around a reservoir. A bit further along, the local branch of the ruling AKP built a place designed for sheep sacrifices, but it doesn’t get much credit; Zonguldak and the surrounding area is a bastion of republicans from Kemalist CHP, the oldest party in Turkey. We also pass a hazelnut plantation. Three-quarters of the world’s hazelnut production comes from Turkey. Turkish Airlines, proud to have received, for the second time, the designation of best airline in Europe, offers passengers a handful of hazelnuts before takeoff, instead of candy.

Kalabacak admits that he does not visit these mountains; if he has time, the Black Sea is where he takes his family on holiday. After a 15-minute drive, we get to the village of Kardeşler. What we see is the empty square surrounded by tumbledown buildings and three men smoking near the teahouse. They invite us in. One of them explains that Kardeşler has about 200 inhabitants in the summer, just 40 in winter, when families with children migrate down to Zonguldak, where the closest school is. Reportedly, the average age here is 65 years. Our hosts laughed when I asked when a child was last born here, and when Kardeşler last saw a wedding. “A child was born here on the hill five years ago, and there was a wedding last month.”

The men say they used to go to Germany in the 1960s and ‘70s in search of work. Nowadays young people do not need to hunt after jobs in Europe; they find employment in Turkish towns. When I ask about EU accession, a short silence set in. One of the men, an imam who declined to introduce himself, is the one to speak: “We are for European technologies, as they are beneficial to us. But regarding the cultural and religious differences, we do reject Europe,” he says, before leaving for the mosque and Friday prayers. The other two nod in agreement. If there was a referendum on EU entry, the con arguments would outweigh the pro.


The Limits of Europe

Kalabacak, the Zaman journalist, is a dynamic 33-year-old with a mobile phone in one hand and a police radio in the other, even during dinner. He never seems to have free time; at the moment he is going over a small, fortunately victimless mining accident with a colleague in the newsroom.

“I wanted to teach religion once, but I did not get into the school of religious studies. Military forces dethroned the Erkaban government in a so called postmodern overthrow in 1997, and the number of students of religious studies was quickly slashed,” he says. “Then I completed journalism studies. I have grown to like this profession because it allows me to help some people. A miner once stayed trapped in a mine for four days. His relatives were already preparing his grave, as the mine management was not willing to do anything about it. But I wrote an article about it, the state started to act, and the miner was saved on the fifth day.”

It is mining that determined the character of Zonguldak. It was a minor village in Ottoman times. Even when coal was discovered in 1848, not much changed. It was only after the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 that Zonguldak became the country’s most important mining center, with 50,000 workers digging at its peak. But as the Kemalist and proletarian fort started to crumble, Turkey began to import cheaper coal from abroad – later replaced by by gas, also imported. Unhappy miners went on strike in the ‘90s but Ankara balked at their demands. About 10,000 work in the mines today.

Still, Kalabacak thinks the country benefited from Erdogan’s rule. AKP’s control is firm; unlike in the past, there are no battles among coalition partners on the political scene. Kalabacak has not been to Europe yet, but he has ambitions to visit Britain or Germany. Living standards and interpersonal relations in Europe interest him, and way it modernized so much faster than Turkey, emerging from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. “We do not want to adapt to Christianity and your culture,” the journalist says. But to your technologies, yes.”

Andrej Ban is a freelancer reporter and photographer in Bratislava. This article was produced for the Next in Line project, co-financed by the European Union. Transitions is entirely responsible for its content, which does not necessarily reflect the view of the EU.  Translated by Lenka Handzusova.



“We are fighting with the military machinery”

An interview with Abdülhamit Bilici, head of the Cihan News Agency and a columnist for Turkish daily Zaman.


Are you for Turkey’s entry into the EU?

I am still for it. We need political and economic reform, and we still do not have a civil constitution. We’ve achieved a lot in the past 10 years, but in comparison with other democracies, a lot is still missing.


But support for accession among Turks is receding.

Yes, that has been the tendency since 2006. The biggest reason is the conflict in Cyprus – Turkey did what it could to get an agreement, but on the other side Greece is blocking everything. And the outcome? The Greek part [of Cyprus] is in the EU and we are punished. Then the EU blocks eight chapters of the accession talks. People see this and they are disgusted. It is a shock for Erdogan’s government – Turkey sacrificed a lot, and what we reap is rejection by Merkel and Sarkozy. What do they want, a privileged partnership or our full-fledged membership? Our economy, by the way, is in better shape than Europe’s. More than half of Turkey’s foreign trade is with European countries, and 5 million Turks live in the EU.


What are the conditions for journalism in a country that is criticized for imprisoning many journalists?

If you compare today’s standards for discussing taboo issues and freedom of opinion in Turkey with those of 10 years ago, there’s been remarkable progress. Yes, many of those who talked about cultural rights for Kurds are still in prison. But one of the TV channels broadcasts in Kurdish. Turkish media are now able to discuss a topic as sensitive as Kurdish autonomy. The media protects the interests of citizens in a normal democratic country, but unfortunately in Turkey the media are a part of the establishment. We went through five military interventions in the past 60 years and the media played a key anti-democratic role. Some of the imprisoned journalists are connected with terrorists, mostly from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK]. The law clearly states that supporting the PKK is a terrorist act. I would say that among the 90 jailed journalists, 75 to 80 are intertwined with the PKK. The other category is journalists who collaborated with the army in preparing am attempt to overthrow the government.



They played a role in the conflict between the ruling AKP, the civil government, and the military in 2002 and 2003. Some problems with the jailed journalists are not related to the freedom of speech but with the structure of the media – many outlets are owned by businessmen who protect their interests. For example, they write about Erdogan in a very critical way, and he usually asks the publisher why that journalist was set against him. The country is undergoing a battle between the government and the state.


What exactly do you mean?

“The state” means the old, bureaucratic military structures. There was an attempted military overthrow in 2008. Government is a guarantee of democracy and sometimes a victim of the state-like media, so for that reason we support it. But we are critical towards AKP leaders and Erdogan. The Ergenekon case, which was an attempted coup organized by military officials, was investigated in 2011. Our reporters who wrote about it had to face more than 500 accusations as well as intimidation. This is not mentioned in [discussions of] media freedom. Our reporters, as a punishment, were not allowed to observe military operations – they did not get accreditation, although this changed three months ago in connection with Syria. We are fighting with the anti-democratic military machinery.



Talking about taboos healed Turkey

An interview with Silvia Tiryaki, a Slovak native and now a political and civil analyst at Istanbul Kültür University.


What do you do?

I have been lecturing on international law and human rights for 10 years. Before that I was teaching the history of political philosophy. I am a vice chair of the International Relations Department and deputy director of the Global Political Trends Center [at Istanbul Kültür University], which I founded with a colleague.


How did you get to Turkey?

My husband is Turkish. I was married here 13 years ago, when it was easy to get Turkish citizenship. Today it is almost harder than in Slovakia – five years of residence, tests, history, and the national anthem.


Do you know the national anthem?

[Laughs] No.


How has Turkey changed in the time you’ve been here?

A lot. Economic growth is notable in everything. Istanbul had 12 million inhabitants, now it has 17 [million]. Some people are upset that we have skyscrapers going up here, but where I first arrived there were just slums everywhere and an old town for tourists.


How has the society changed?

After AKP came to power in 2002, everybody feared the Iranization of Turkey. About five years ago we had passionate discussions about whether women could attend university wearing a headscarves. Before it was strictly forbidden, even in civil administration. I experienced it during my lectures. Students who believed that it was a sin to show hair wore hats or wigs. I was an advocate of covering the head but not of wearing wigs.


Were they emotional discussions?

On a political level and in the media, yes. The ruling “White Turks” were scared of “Dark Turks.” It is not about the skin color but about the fundamental secularity versus religiosity. Today students’ head can be covered; they do not need to wear wigs or sit at home.


Are there any taboo topics that are still not being discussed?

Not really anymore. The biggest were not headscarves but Kemalism and the Armenian genocide. [Overcoming] those healed Turkish society and brought it back to life. When I came here it was taboo to say anything about Atatürk. It very much reminded me of Leninism, in not being able to voice any criticism. I really had enough of our socialism in Slovakia, but there was another golden bust on a dark red baldachin here. Do you still keep it here? I asked. “Be careful what you say, this is our Ata, our Father,” they replied. Ditto the Armenian tragedy. Now it is a matter of discussion whether it was genocide, but before it was impossible even to mention it. Incredible advancement.


Do you see any valid arguments why Turkey should not be in the EU?

No wise ones. Here there is much greater democratic self-control than in the Balkans. Certainly, I understand Europeans’ fear. Nobody says that Turkey should be a member tomorrow, or in five years.


When, then?

Say, in 10 or 12 years.