About 200 miles separate the Greek border from Istanbul. I knew before I reached them that I planned to ride quickly and get back to some of the comforts of a settled life. In Greece and Croatia I would regularly talk EU with those I met… it’s topical, comes up in conversation. I knew before I got to Turkey that I wouldn’t mention it once, and neither would anyone else. Perhaps when I lived here four years ago it might’ve been different, but even then approval for accession was faltering… nowadays the matter has become completely irrelevant. On too many occasions the EU exposed the reality of its supposed inclusivity. We had Sarkozy openly opposing Turkish accession, Austrian politicians at least have the clumsy decency to be honest and admit they see the EU as a Christian affair, Germany finds it easier to welcome Turks as workers than as citizens. A year ago I asked a Turkish friend if she thought Turkey still wanted to join the EU. She laughed… “I think that soon the EU will ask to join Turkey.” Turkey is not at a crossroads. This may come as a disappointment to cliche enthusiasts all over the world. People love the “east meets west”… Istanbul as a city straddling two continents… Europe and Asia. All that hokum is the lifeblood of tourism here, but the reality is that Istanbul is no more a meeting point of cultures than Bradford, Leicester, or the Edgware Road… and as a city it’s much less diverse than London or Paris. Turkish politics is charged, it always is… but it doesn’t involve the EU, not anymore.
For some time Turkish horizons have been broadening, looking as much to the south and east as to the west. The Turkish economy is dominated by a handful of enormous holding companies enjoying significant control of media outlets, not to mention relationships with government that are far too close. From this domestic stronghold Turkish construction in particular has spread outwards, $20bn worth of Turkish projects were interrupted when Libya went into civil war, everything from airports to roads and ice rinks are being constructed by Turkish firms in central Asia. The economic push has its cultural counterpart, a Turkic brand of Islam is taught by Turkish-backed schools known as the Gülen Movement, the schools are not without controversy, but nonetheless have seen a Turkic vision of Islam being taken to nations such as Pakistan. In 2009 I was cycling through Kazakhstan, where oligarchs who emerged from a falling Soviet Union have holidays in the south of Turkey and send their children to be educated in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey exports soap operas all over the Caucasus, now and then I would be with families in the middle of the Kazakh steppe, amazed to find teenagers in particular glued to images from Ortaköy and the Bosphorus. In the Caucasus, Istanbul has developed the same sort of prestige a European might lend to New York.
How does all that convert to the streets of Istanbul? Outside, the world media depicts Turkey as a rapidly developing economy… a story of boom every bit as simplified as the Greek story of bust. The Economist, who should really write children’s stories rather than news articles about Turkey, have spoken of the country as Europe’s China, and yet domestically people still talk more about high unemployment and inflation. In the Galata district, south of Taksim, I talk to a graduate student of Bilgi University. She tells me the once renowned state institution has been sold to the American Laureate Education Inc, one of the world’s biggest retailers for private education. She tells the same story as others I know at private schools in poor countries… ‘most students don’t want to learn… always tapping at iphones… but because their parents pay such high fees it’s almost impossible for teachers to fail them.’ Nobody told the UK’s coalition government how education works when you make money its central component.
Looking for optimism, we talk instead about the quality of Turkish fruit and vegetables. In response I hear of the urban migration underway in Turkey, with villages sucked dry to provide workers for overcrowded cities. I listen to the story of the Turkish banana… “always grew really well in southern Turkey… but now Turkey has started importing more bananas from South America. People say they’re better quality, which isn’t true… and part of the reason for the change is the economy here is doing well, and there’s employment for farmers in the textile factories…” she places her hands on the table… “the problem is when the currency goes down, or the textile factories move somewhere with cheaper labour… then there’s nobody left growing food, and we’ll have no money to buy any.”
If that’s the outlook for rural poor, urban middle classes look to be having a better time of things. In the affluent district of Levent I cycle by the newest of the city’s shopping centres, still as busy as when I first saw it two years ago, and me still just as amazed that you can see Harvey Nichols in Istanbul. Inside you find Wagamama waiting to be joined by Carluccio’s, and outside a security guard tells you there is a policy of no bicycles on the forecourt… the whole arrangement a nice tribute to the fact that Turks do privatised control of public space as well as any Briton, and Muslims know how to worship consumer gods as ardently as any Christian. I wonder if I’m looking at the future of humanity… with core economies holding cultural and economic control of the entire world, whilst the third world – be it Africa gobbled up by the Chinese or the Caucasus by Turks – is left as scraps for the second world, and middle classes everywhere are given Harvey Nichols and katsu curry to make it through seven disempowered decades on the planet. In each of these countries – from Britain to Kazakhstan – the world’s poor sink below the radar, drop out the bottom.
I meet Turkish friends who seem little more positive about the future of their society. People are sad about the rise of gated communities, the inequality, exclusion and ugly portrayal of affluence this belies. Turks are amongst the world’s top users of Facebook, and my friends lament that this is the medium through which the middle classes now live. They reproach themselves… “of course I could go to a protest… I care… I care so much… but I don’t want to be hit with a policeman’s gun.” I tell them that although for the most part less brutal, kettling protesters has the same effect on activism in Britain.
The hesitations might be the same, but the protests are different. The Turkish protest movement is levelled almost exclusively against an Islamic government. Since the 2002 election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s secular and republican middle classes have felt increasingly threatened. There is no disputing that AKP were democratically elected, the concern is that democracy has allowed Islam retake a central place in Turkish society, but that once that position has been consolidated, Islam will never extend democracy the same courtesy. The fears seem justified, and even though The Economist maintain a strict code whereby it’s impossible to read the name AKP without the prefix ‘moderately Islamist’… both the New York Times and The Guardian have begun to talk about the erosion of democracy, with Turkey now the world leader for journalist arrests, and the government having acquired the power to appoint judges in the constitutional court. The electoral strength of AKP helped Turkey move away from a dark history when democratic governments were intimidated and toppled by military coups. The concern now is that the AKP are weakening that same democratic process in the name of their own power.
You have to wonder what took the outside world so long to start cottoning on. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once expressed regret at having played football in his youth because shorts were immodest. In a recent blunder, a low ranking minister said that a woman without a headscarf is like a house without curtains, either for sale or rent… and yet such comments have leaked from the party ever since their 2002 election. The party’s keynote Islamic policy, lifting the ban on headscarves in universities and other state buildings, has been used by foreign media to represent the party line, when in reality it’s more like the tip of an iceberg. By far the most troubling factor, which has again gone unnoticed, is that the headscarf ban was lifted more in the name of Islam than in the name of freedom and equality of expression. It’ll be interesting to see how The Economist reconciles its ‘moderately Islamist‘ with a proposed outlawing of abortions .
Worse is what the tone of religious rhetoric has done to relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially women. Secular friends talk of being looked at with disdain by covered women in cafes where everyone once would have sat unconcerned by theology. In retort I’ve heard it said that women in full, black niqabs look like cockroaches… I’m assured it’s a joke, but joke or otherwise it shows the low ebb to which relations have fallen. Most distressing is the incidence of domestic violence, specifically honour killings of a woman or teenage girl who resists her family’s marital decisions. Although statistics are haphazard, there is general agreement that the practise has increased during the ten years of AKP power, particularly amongst Kurdish communities. Ironically enough, the last decade has also seen an improvement in legislation to protect Turkish women… apparently words on paper don’t go very far when the government helps to create a culture in which the greatest abuses and misuses of Islam are committed.
Across the last four years I’ve spent the best part of eighteen months living in Turkey. I can still wax lyrical about the flavour of the tomatoes and peaches, the grilled meat and fish, the richness of the language and the fact that Turkish has a word for the reflection of moonlight on water. I love the respect for the universe that is implicit to the culture here, a spirituality thanks in no small part to the holism of Sufi Islam. I still love the way that Turkey remains broadly uninfected by the west’s evil, media-infused culture of fear… the way strangers will talk to one another, that a man will pick up someone else’s child and ruffle his hair without any thought that such an innocent act could ever be the precursor to something sinister. On a crowded Istanbul bus, when someone gets on at the middle door, they sometimes pass their akbil, the equivalent of their oyster card, through the crowd towards the front of the bus. Complete with the owner’s keys, the akbil will make its way through the strangers to the front of the bus, where a stranger swipes it and sends it back through the strangers to the original owner. Turkey will always be a special place to me, but any idiot can wave a flag… if you really care about a country, it’s no less important to criticise it.