Turkey is one of the few complicated states in the word that is difficult to classify and force into a neat cultural and political grouping. Its land is the setting of Biblical stories, the birthplace of Western Civilization, and the spread of Islam.
Turkey is far more than a bridge between Eastern and Western worlds; it is a land home to both. From an outsider’s perspective Turkey is difficult to classify. From within, Turkey struggles with a perpetual identity crisis.
With the events surrounding the Arab spring, Turkey has been developing a new political identity with a sharp contrast of focus in perspective and self-image.
For decades, it has struggled with passive-aggressive rejection from the EU. Though it can be argued that Turkey is not European, its history is anything but un-European. It has left a culture that has sought approval from the West.
Turkey has also been a strong Islamic force. The Ottoman Empire built a Vaticanesque caliphate developed as a center of Islamic power, but was opposed by most of the their conquered Muslim subjects. They’ve always sought adoration from their Arab neighbours that stems from a position of power.
These two forces have been struggling for supremacy, teetering the balance of influence back and forth for centuries.
Uncovering Turkish identity reveals layers of perspective dependent upon the era in history; much like unpeeling the layers of Hagia Sophia reveals architectural influences of that day.
In 2011, I argued that Turkey’s perspectives are growing stronger and more stubborn simultaneously. Fast track an eventful two years later, and Turkey’s political perspective is focused solely on their Eastern border’s instability, and on becoming the power in a volatile region.
Evidence of this strong stance is apparent in their international relations as of late.
Going back to the end of May 2010, the Gaza Flotilla Raid speaks of the beginning of Turkey’s new self image. During the Gaza Strip blockade, a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid was boarded by Israeli military leaving eight dead. This event was the first signal to the Arab world of their allegiance, disguising a subtle sacrifice of Turkish lives to gain martyrdom status.
The unending plight of the Kurdish people in Eastern Turkey is nothing new. However, the power and autonomy that Kurdistan in Northern Iraq has gained since US withdrawal has Turkey strong arming their minority foe like never before. Turkey has always dealt with their Kurdish population in a forceful manner, but their stance is resolute and pre-emptive.
Instead of sharing the recently gained power that Iraqi Kurds have gained in an ever-disintegrating Iraq with their people across the border, they are being silenced by economy and Turkish investment in their oil fields. Such promises of big business bring dreams of unheralded amounts of social development and infrastructure to Kurdistan at the sole expense of cooperating against their own people fighting in Turkey.
And what about the three Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members (one being a founding member) found assassinated in Paris this January 10?
Now for the big event, the one that has been progressing in time but not in resolution: Syria’s Uprising.
Can it be that Turkey was waiting for a grand opportunity, a misfire, an easy justification to intrude on Syria’s internal problems? The destruction of civil-war casts a stray bullet (bomb) across the Turkish border and kills an innocent family – a woman and her children. What more is needed to justify war, especially after Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jeta few months earlier?
Even though the Turkish parliament claims that approving military intervention with Syria is not a declaration of war, it is safe to say that the table is set and mom is calling the kids from outside to come in and eat.
Many Eurocentric political pundits will claim that Turkey is doing the West’s bidding; that after Libya, Europe cannot enter Syria without taking a beating in public opinion in the Middle East, and, well, the US is still the US of A.
It is true that Turkey will be doing them all a favour if they invade Syria; they’re all in the same boys club called NATO. After all, by the end of January 2013, NATO intends to have all six Patriot missile batteries operational in South-Eastern Turkey.
But for Turkey, it seems that all the stars are aligned. War with Syria is supported by the West, which means they’ll help finance it. But more importantly for Turkey is that they get to flex their muscle in the region. Turkey is not so far removed from being the mighty Ottoman Empire that once ruled much of the region.
The past glory of the Turks is taunting them now: a little puppet of the West? Prime Minister Erdoğan does not seem to think so, and this is why people in Istanbul are saying that the Sultan is back in town.
These international events are showcased on the world stage, and can be taken as Turkey’s perspective of interest. However, domestic events have signalled to the Turkish people that a change in self-image and internal policy has begun.
This past May, Turkish health minister Recep Akdag developed a bill making abortion illegal, citing that the government would take care of babies born out of rape.
The issue of government intervening on the rights that women have over their own bodies is an overt example of how a conservative government is forcing its own values on the lives of their citizens. The intent to reverse such rights illustrates the values the Turkish government wants its citizens to adopt: A ban on abortion in the name of nationalistic preservation. Click here and here for more on abortion rights in Turkey.
Erdoğan’s conservative government wants to change the memory of Turkey’s founding father, Ataturk. The systematic erasing of Ataturk’s cult of personality and the revolutionary values he represents. The Turkish education board was caught in a scandal by claiming that courses about Ataturk and the revolution which transformed the Ottoman empire into the present day Republic of Turkey, have no place in Turkish society.
The government has also removed Ataturk’s photo from school textbooks along with his speech to youth, which includes warnings of espionage, and the potential necessity to revolutionize once again. They have replaced his picture with that of current Prime Minister Erdoğan.
For Victory Day this past August, Turkey’s president cancelled his appearance due to an ear infection. Around the country, the police were sent to block off Ataturk monuments on which citizens wanted to place wreaths. Recent legislation has prevented citizens from honouring their holiday in the traditions they have kept for over eighty years. No mass movements are allowed, including celebratory parades.
So when Turkey ends up intervening in Syria’s civil war, analyzing their political posture demands taking into account their internal shift toward conservative values, their lust for power in the region, and the Kurdish issue. Only then does it become apparent that domestic Turkish issues extend beyond the state’s borders.
With all the uncertainty that civil war brings, Turkey wants to have some control over the outcome in Syria. Syria also has a large Kurdish population in the north. With the way in which the war in Iraq played out, the Syrian Kurds have a blueprint for gaining autonomy.
They are patiently staying out of the conflict between al-Assad and the Free Syrian Army as they wait with their strength stored for a resolution, and the post-war political opportunities. Though Turkey is dealing with Kurdistan, they are not interested in seeing two Kurdish autonomous regions on its border.
Turkey is not only facing East but has turned its back on the West. Is a more conservative society a direct consequence of the greater role Islam now plays in Turkey, or is it the other way around? Great religiosity, and conservative, outdated traditional values help to earn the respect, admiration, and justification of a leadership role in the region, and make influencing its Arab neighbours all that more attainable.
The Turks were always considered as the Other for both Europeans and Arabs. But just like their Ottoman past, they have greater strength in the East than they do in the West.