Postcard from…Istanbul

As the call to prayers in Istanbul gets louder – thanks to more sophisticated amplifying systems – the number and size of Turkish flags have grown in proportion. This is the fundamental conflict in Turkey today. On one side are the secularists, the heirs of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. On the other side are the Islamists, who are divided into moderate and fundamentalist factions. Since the landslide win of the moderate Islamists in the recent elections, the conflict between religion and politics has sharpened, at least at the symbolic level. In a country where women who wear headscarves are still banned from higher political office, the wife of the new president Abdullah Gul, has broken a taboo by wearing the turban. The army, the institution most committed to secular nationalism, has responded by boycotting the president’s swearing-in ceremony.

The last time the conflict between Islamists and secularists came to a head, in 1997, the army forced out the Islamist president. The new secularist government threw the popular mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in jail for reading a poem at an election rally comparing minarets to bayonets. This time around, however, Erdogan is back as the head of a party of Islamist modernizers, the Justice and Freedom Party (AKP), which has been the country’s leading political force for the last five years. The AKP firmly backs membership in the European Union. It has changed Turkey’s economy, educational system, and governing structures to meet European requirements. Much of the change has come as a result of pressure from the outside (such as the EU) and from below (such as the women’s movement). But the AKP nevertheless presents itself as reconciling the deepest contradiction in Turkish society: between the conservative, religious-oriented countryside and the liberal, secular, urban elite.

Still, as the call to prayers gets louder, some secularists fear a creeping Islamization of society. More likely is a subtle geopolitical repositioning of Turkey. The United States once relied on the Turkish army against both the Soviet Union and the Islamists within Turkey. The Soviet Union is gone. And the Islamists are in power. Turkey is now free to change its identity without resort to American definitions. Having declared its intent to join Europe, Turkey has also worked hard to cultivate closer relations with Russia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Ironically it is the United States, with its Crusades-like intervention in Iraq, that appears to be the country stuck in the past. Led by Islamic modernizers, Turkey is looking at a future of both minaret and flag.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.