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Talking Turkey



It is one of the most important countries in the world. Strategically sandwiched between Europe’s Balkan Peninsula, the Black Sea, the Arab Middle East, and the Mediterranean, with an international waterway flowing right through the middle of its former capital, Turkey deserves far more attention that it receives. While its name recognition is high, the knowledge of this key nation is low.

Turkey the country is also known as ‘Asia Minor’ and the Anatolian Peninsula. Its central location means it was occupied by various people throughout history, indeed, until the 20th century, it was multi-ethnic. Only after World War I did it become ‘mono-ethnic,’ meaning all Turks and all Muslim (15 million Kurds are also part of this nation of 80 million and their issue is not resolved).

The ethnic Turks migrated to Asia Minor from Central Asia a thousand years ago, where at the same time they embraced Islam. Once they arrived, they consolidated into what was known as the Seljuk Empire. This was the entity that harassed European pilgrims en route to the Holy Land and spawned what became known as ‘The Crusades.’

The Seljuks were replaced by the Ottomans, who had a long-lasting imperial reign (1300-1922) that, at its height, embraced North Africa, Balkan Europe, the Black Sea region and the Middle East. When the ANZAC troops from Australia and New Zealand invaded Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, it was the Ottoman Empire they were attacking.

The Ottomans lost the war and Turkey was carved up and occupied by the victorious Allies. Only a sliver of territory was kept for the Turks. To top it off, Greece invaded a weakened Turkey. With the crumbling of their long-lived but decrepit empire, and with more war on the heals of the Great War, a man came to the scene that reversed the fortune of the Turks and saved the nation: his name was Mustafa Kemal.

A military man, Kemal was the victor of the Gallipoli campaign, the only victory Turkey received on its territory during World War I. He now was going to save Turkey from the Greek invasion and launched what became known as their War of Independence. He repelled the Greeks in Smyrna (Izmir), constituted a General National Assembly (GNA or parliament) in Ankara, negotiated the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Asia Minor, and insisted on a ‘population exchange’ where Greeks in Turkey moved to Greece and Turks in Greece were returned to Turkey. The Ottoman Empire was now replaced by the Turkish Republic, which went out of its way to repudiate its imperial past. Consider the following contrasts:

Ottoman Empire & Turkish Republic Contrasted
Ottoman Turkey                Turkish Today
Empire                                Parliamentary Republic
Multi-ethnic                        Mono-ethnic  (15m Kurds, too)
Imperialist/Militarist               Neither imperialist nor militarist
Multi-religious                       99% Sunni Muslim
Spanned 3 Continents       Primarily Asia Minor
Head of Muslim Caliphate       Secular

He believed that if Turkey stayed the way it is, it would continue to go backward. Its future must be linked to Europe, the West, and secularism. Even more startling was the rapid list of radical changes the GNA instituted, by the guiding hand of Mustafa Kemal:

1. Abolition of religious symbols (1924): in addition to the abolition of the Muslim caliphate, the GNA passed anti-theocratic laws. The male head-ware called the fez was abolished. Kemal called it a symbol of ‘ignorance, negligence, fanaticism, hatred of progress and civilisation;’

2. Change of the Calendar (1925): The Gregorian calendar replaced the Muslim lunar calendar;

3. Legal Code Secularised (1926): The old Ottoman code was replaced with the Swiss civil code. Repudiation (a Muslim man could simply say three times ‘I divorce you’ and it would be considered valid) were replaced by civil divorce. Polygamy was outlawed.

4. Penal Codes (1926): Turkish penal codes came into existence, patterned after the Italians. Islamic courts were closed.

5. Alphabet changed (1928): This was a big change. The script of the Turkish language would no longer be Arabic, but Latin, like English;

6. Day of Rest (1934): Sunday replaced Friday as the official day of rest;

7. Women suffrage (1934): Women were given the right to vote.as well as full political rights. Women had already been granted equal rights in marriage earlier in the new Turkish civil code.

8. Surname (1934): Turks were now required to adopt a surname. A grateful nation, through its parliament, gave Mustafa Kemal the surname ‘Ataturk’ (‘Father of the Turks’) and he is the only one allowed to carry this name.

In addition, the Muslim caliphate, based in Turkey since 1517, was abolished, the Ottoman Empire dissolved, and though a Muslim-majority nation, the secular constitution meant that Turks could legally change their religion or marry a non-Muslim.

Ataturk is one of the most unique and successful revolutionaries in history. Yanking a backward Turkey into the 20th century, he was able to restrain the nation’s past imperialist impulses, reduce its borders to a manageable and defensive size, and make sure that his western, secular legacy would live on long after he passed from the scene.

Today, though Turkey is ruled by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), it has not forsaken its secular roots. It has become prosperous even while the nearby eurozone is faltering. And during the midst of the ‘Arab Spring,’ where newly-liberated Arab nations are looking for a template of government, many have considered the ‘Turkish-model’ of democracy (as opposed to the Iranian version) as their role model.

From a tourist point of view, Turkey is remarkable. It is historically rich, blessed in cuisine, and relatively affordable. Istanbul, also known as Constantinople, is a jewel of a city spread across the Golden Horn and Bosphorus to embrace two continents, with unique architecture, and an increasing amount of tourists. Thanks to a high rate of migration from Anatolia, Istanbul is one of the top ten biggest cities in the world. Izmir and Kusadasi (near Ephesus) are jewels on the Aegean and Cappadocia is a well-kept secret of tourism. This region, mentioned twice in the Bible, has underground cities and cave dwellings, where people successfully hid from the frequent invasions that beset Anatolia. Try staying in a ‘cave hotel’ or take an early morning hot air balloon if you visit Cappadocia. After a long day of sightseeing, a typical Turkish meal of dips and grilled meat, wonderfully seasoned, topped off with a Turkish bath, may just hit the spot.

It the days ahead, Turkey is the nation to watch. As a secular, western-leaning, it once had strong relations with Israel, including a military alliance. This relationship has soured since 2009 and the alliance went defunct in 2011. It is increasingly being drawn into Arab politics, either by the Arab Spring or the chaos in neighbouring Syria. Turkey is building strong connection with Central Asia, where the people are related both by blood and language, and the Balkans, where some of the Europeans became Muslims thanks to the Turks. The issue with Turkish Kurds (15 million) continues to fester and Turkey’s application to join the European Union has stalled. If Europe finally rejects Turkey from joining the Union, what will it do? Will it continue to remain secular? Or will it succumb to a more theocratic government? If that ever happens, the entire world will feel the tremors.

In the days ahead, watch Turkey.

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