Hordes of mosquitoes were battening on a fox caught in a thicket when a tiger offered to clear them all. “No,” replied the fox. “These mosquitoes are already almost satiated with my blood. If you drive them away, there’ll be a fresh lot with hungry stomachs thirsting for more blood!” That ingenious explanation for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party sweeping the recent municipal polls was given to me in the ancient town of Selçuk near the classical ruins of Ephesus and a house where some believe the Virgin Mary lived and died.
Turkey is unique. No other imperial power has with such conscious ostentation abjured imperialism. No other nation has tried to deny its sustaining faith with similar flamboyance. No other country so determinedly seeks the benediction of its former colonies in the European Union. I asked the Turk in Selçuk who told me of the fox and mosquitoes why they sought EU membership and he answered simply, “Because we want to be modern.” It’s the same reason that prompted Sultan Abdülmecid I to abandon the sprawling oriental grandeur of Topkapi Palace and engage a French-Armenian architect in 1843 to create the copycat Europeanization of Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus.
Rampant Euroscepticism in some countries and crippling financial crises in others are brushed aside. Many Turks believe EU membership will transform them as miraculously as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the great modernizer, thought banning the fez and the veil and abolishing the caliphate would turn Muslim Turks into secular Europeans. “The EU will only create a slump to lower wages because it can’t compete with China and India,” a Portuguese visitor warns. He is ignored.
Things may be changing. His electoral victory has moved the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to climb new heights of rhetoric and breathe fire and brimstone against “traitors”. Some say he is planning to repeat Russia’s Putin-Medvedev act to become president in August when, for the first time, voters will directly elect the head of state. Others suspect him of preparing the ground to amend the constitution so that he can become prime minister for another five-year term. Neither course will endear him to the EU which jubilantly greeted court decisions striking down the government ban on Twitter and attempt to block YouTube. The EU considers Erdogan authoritarian and illiberal. But that may not be the main reason for dragging its feet for 15 years on admitting Turkey.
A five-minute walk from my hotel in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district reveals a more fundamental divide between Christian Europe and Muslim Turkey. A banner outside the mausoleum of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, whom the British called “Abdul the Damned”, proclaims in eccentric English “The founder of the Zionist movement Theodor Herzl offered Sultan Abdul Hamid II to buy Palestine where he gets this answer from the Sultan: ‘Palestine isn’t mine, it is the people’s. When Muslims take land they only can lose it with the same price they paid. Because this land was taken by blood and will be given by blood.’”
The claimed exchange between Abdul Hamid and Herzl may or may not have taken place. The banner may be the handiwork of a private group and not the government. But the fact that it is repeated in English and Turkish and hangs prominently in several places along Divanyolu Caddesi, the road to ancient Rome, one of Istanbul’s busiest streets with sleek trams and crowds of shoppers, proclaims a certain Islamic attitude. No Western European country takes a similar stand against Israel. But, then, in no Western European capital does the muezzin’s piercing call to namaz splinter the silence.
The domes and minarets of 3,045 mosques dominate Istanbul’s skyline. Although the magnificent basilica of St Sophia, dating back to the Emperor Constantine in 325 AD, is now a museum, the huge round discs with Quranic inscriptions mounted high on the walls leave one in no doubt about the faith of 99 per cent of Turks. The law insists that Dhimmis (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state) buildings must be smaller and more modest than their Islamic counterparts. And so we nearly missed the Most Venerable Patriarchal Church of St George, seat of the spiritual leader of all Eastern Orthodox Christians and as important for them as the Vatican is for Catholics or Mecca for Muslims. It was only beyond the plain façade that the heavy gold encrustation and icons kept alive a flickering memory of the lost majesty of the Byzantine empire.
There is no fundamentalist bigotry here. Women in décolleté dresses smoke through painted lips. Turkey produces and markets its own wines and liqueurs. But Turks are also reaffirming their conviction that Ataturk was wrong to believe Islam is irreconcilable with modernity or that modernity and Westernization are synonymous. The headscarf Erdogan’s wife wears confirms the distance Turkey has travelled since Ataturk’s revolution. Opposition politicians complain the headscarf is becoming a cachet to success.
If secularism in the conventional sense is one shattered fallacy, Turkey’s European identity is another. Only 4 per cent of the country is in Europe. The rest is Asian. In spite of flashes of blonde hair and blue eyes, the personality is Asian. When my wife left her handbag with our passports, air tickets and money in a humble roadside café beyond the tourist zone, the owner put it by carefully until her panic-stricken appearance next morning. Twice on trams and buses, strangers have insisted on buying our tickets. But individual integrity and warmth are in sharp conflict with collective and institutionalized attitudes. Possibly because of their dependence on tourism, that’s when Turks can be mendacious and mercenary. That reputation has persisted since the 16th century when the Czech Baron Wenceslas Bratislaw noted that only money “calmed” his Turkish hosts. To be fair, an Indian American we ran into on the flight to Izmir on the Aegean Sea found Jaipur’s touts and tradespeople just as unscrupulous.
EU membership is not Turkey’s only problem. Corruption and inequality present more compelling challenges. Twitter was banned after a stream of anonymous recordings connected Erdogan to a graft investigation implicating dozens of his closest allies. People are sceptical about the telecommunications ministry’s claim that YouTube was blocked in the interest of national security. Ankara refuses to come to grips with the historical facts of its treatment of Armenians. Its role in the Syrian civil war remains dubious although acceptable to the West. Its less acceptable role in Cyprus ensured that Greece saw to it that not a penny of EU aid reached Turkey for 20 years. Some years ago the Turkish deputy prime minister, Cemil Çiçek, declared that should Turkey be forced to choose between EU membership or Turkish Cypriots, the “choice will forever be to stand next to the Turkish Cypriots”.
In a sense Turkey’s rulers are still lords of the horizon, as the Ottoman emperors were called. Contemporary geopolitics reinforce history. Turkey has one of the world’s biggest and best trained and equipped armies. The United States of America regards it as a key member of Nato. Syria, Egypt, and now Ukraine and Crimea have increased Ankara’s strategic value as a military partner. Turkey controls the Black Sea where the Soviet fleet is bottled up. The appellation Fatih (Conqueror), bestowed on 21year-old Sultan Mehmet II who captured Constantinople in 1453 and destroyed the Byzantine Empire, constantly pops up in place and institution names.
Erdogan’s attitude since the municipal election is that Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. While the fox and mosquitoes tale may be apposite for the now unfolding greatest electoral show on earth, his Justice and Development Party’s popularity is not affected by transgressions.