A nation in search of an identity

Turkey appears to be moving eastwards and westwards at the same time. But is it really possible to i

On its travel posters, Turkey is the land "where east meets west". An alluring sales pitch, but what does it mean? As they contemplate Turkey's bid to join the EU, nervous westerners are very keen to know. Journalists have worked to furnish nutshell histories and thumbnail sketches of "Turkey today", but the more people read about this strange country, the less they understand it.

The central paradox is the prime minister, who is Islamist but fervently pro-Europe. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has introduced radical legal, economic and political changes to bring the country into line with European standards, but has also tried to slip in a new law that would have criminalised adultery. Can he be trusted? In this volatile age, how can a nation move both eastwards and westwards without splitting in two?

More confusing still, at least to concerned Europeans, is the consensus inside Turkey. It would be wrong to say that everyone wants to join the EU: there are Eurosceptics there who think Turkey should turn its back on Europe to build (and head) its own regional power base. But, paradoxically, this is not at present an eastern dream: the most fervent nationalists of the moment belong to the Republican People's Party, traditionally the voice of westward-looking secularism.

Meanwhile, three-quarters of the Turkish electorate are in favour of joining. No one is saying there aren't Herculean feats to be performed beforehand, or that there wouldn't be large adjustment problems afterwards. Even if it met every challenge before the deadline, Turkey would be not just the poorest and most populous nation in the EU, but the most unevenly developed, with the country's cities and western provinces far outstripping its eastern regions, long impoverished and only just recovering from the 15-year conflict between the army and the Kurdish paramilitary PKK. But when the European parliament's president, Joseph Borrell, last month met Leyla Zana (the former parliamentarian, recently released after ten years' imprisonment on charges of advocating Kurdish separatism) she pressed for membership as strenuously as Erdogan had done in the same office two weeks earlier. Certainly, her priorities were different. But the bid to join Europe has strong support not just in Ankara and the business sector, but also among human rights campaigners; not just in the country's industrialised western regions, but also in its largely Kurdish provinces in the east.

Erdogan explained in a recent speech that joining the EU bid would not (as nationalists have argued) be a departure from the republican ideals set out by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk 80 years ago; rather, he said, it would be its "natural outcome". This neat rhetorical flourish indicates the distance between our view of Turkey's EU bid and theirs. For us it's an east-west conundrum. For them it's about sovereignty, national identity, citizenship and those republican ideals.

What exactly did Ataturk have in mind all those years ago, when he conjured up a modern state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire? When he spoke of all Turkey's peoples working together as one, did he mean its non-Muslims as well as its Muslims? Its Alevis as well as its Sunnis? To become true Turks, were non-Muslims expected to shed their religions, and were Muslims compelled to give up also thinking of themselves as Kurdish, Laz, Turkmen, Azeri, Bosnian, Circassian?

Today many would say he had no such thing in mind - that it is (or ought to be) possible to be a fully-fledged Turkish citizen without suppressing one's religion or ethnic origins. But in the Turkey I knew as a child, this was literally unsayable. The Turkey I knew in the Sixties was a beautiful, sleepy backwater, valued by its Nato allies mostly (some would say only) for providing a "bulwark against Communism". The news on the radio was the news as the state wished us to view it. The state was defined less by the prime minister and the National Assembly than by the generals in the National Security Council. The military presented itself (and was largely accepted as) the guarantor of the Kemalist project.

At the same time, it was forever mindful of its prime backer, the US. The economy was closed, to protect fledgling industries; the practice of religion permitted but kept under strict surveillance. The state kept an almost perfect control over what children learned in school, and what they learned in their history books was very much in keeping with the narrow, purist nationalist project as refined by Ataturk's successors. To express difference was unpatriotic: to be different could be life-threatening, as tens of thousands of Greeks and Armenians discovered on 6 September 1955 when bands of thugs (now acknowledged to have been government-sponsored) went on a rampage throughout Istanbul, setting fire to Christian-owned businesses, raping and maiming and killing as they went. When my family first came to Istanbul five years later, it was still the multicultural city it had been throughout the Ottoman Empire. The turning point was 1964, when the Cyprus crisis prompted the state to chase most of the remaining Greeks away.

The state flexed its muscle frequently over the next three decades, meeting all challenges to its authority. There was a coup in 1971 and another in 1980; although they had various aims there was in both a serious effort to suppress the intelligentsia, and with it the basic freedoms we in the west take for granted. In 1974, there was the invasion of Cyprus. Beginning in the mid-1980s, there was the conflict with the PKK in the south-east. Running through all these stories is the long catalogue of human rights abuses.

The EU has long made it clear that these issues had to be resolved before Turkey could become a member. For almost just as long, its warnings had little effect. But over the past two and a half years, there's been a dramatic shift. The first "EU laws" were passed several months before Erdogan's Islamist Justice and Development Party came into power - in a single session, the National Assembly removed the death penalty, paved the way for teaching and broadcasting in Kurdish, and lifted restrictions on freedom of assembly. Since Erdogan took over, control of the National Security Council has been switched from generals to civilians. The penal code has been reformed and a "zero tolerance" stance adopted on human rights abuses.

The EU is dismantling the state as we used to know it and, in so doing, challenging the way the state defines "the Turk". This is ex- plosive stuff. (Just imagine if Brussels were to march in tomorrow to tell us how we were to define Englishness.) If three out of four Turks are still prepared to support these radical changes, it is because they have gone through radical changes, too. Not only has there been mass migration to the cities: millions have gone on to northern Europe as guest workers. Visit any village in Anatolia and you'll find its networks extending not just to Istanbul and Ankara but to cities in Germany, France and the Netherlands.

In the Sixties there was only a handful of universities, which, with few exceptions, were open only to the elite. Now there are more than 80. The expansion of higher education and the opening up of the economy in the late 1980s have spawned a new and formidable generation of entrepreneurs. Many have spent time studying in Europe and the US; as comfortable in these cultures as they are at home, they bring Turkey closer to Europe every time they pick up the phone.

Forty years ago, most Turks had no knowledge of the outside world and their only source of information was a highly censored press. Now millions have lived and worked and studied in Europe, and what they want is, well, a lot more European. The borders have opened - even the one with the old arch enemy, Greece. The rapprochement that began with the 1999 earthquake continues still, with hundreds of small groups (from the business world, the professions, the universities and the arts) quietly forging ties with their colleagues across the border. The cultural renaissance is multicultural, but at its core is a desire to define what it is to be Turkish in a 21st-century world.

If it's possible to be Turkish and European, is it possible to be Turkish, European and Kurdish? If non-Muslim minorities are to enjoy full cultural and political rights, shouldn't Muslim minorities receive the same consideration? In a secular state, what is the proper place of religion? Is it possible to modernise without losing one's traditional values? How to prosper in a globalised economy without becoming its slave?

These are urgent questions: no politician will get far unless he addresses them. Erdogan's answer, so puzzling when viewed from abroad, makes perfect sense to the people who voted him in. Many are (as is his family) recent urban migrants, social conservatives who wish to prosper. So what better than pro-market Islamism? Turkey's established secularist bourgeoisie remains suspicious, but Erdogan has won friends even in these quarters. "For the first time ever," one non-Muslim businessman told me recently, "we have a government that actually understands business and wants to help us." In place of the delaying and bribe-taking bureaucrats who once directed the economy is a new breed of Islamist MBAs who are there to expedite and enable and whose hands (so far) remain clean.

Where it will all lead is another matter. If George Bush invades Iran, if Saudi Arabia slides into civil war and takes the rest of the region with it, if the EU refuses Turkey's bid and American GIs continue to machine gun wounded men in mosques, we could see a Turkey torn between east and west. But right now it's a republic struggling to better itself along European lines. At the same time, it wants to remember where it comes from and what it means to bridge east and west. Therein lies its promise - not just to itself, but to us all.

This article appears in the 22 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Police state