More impressions, Istanbul

So many conversations, so many amazing meals, so much history.
One major thing that has emerged from the conversations, for me, is a much more robust sense that what we are seeing in Turkey today is not a function just of the actions and policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), but also of deeper processes within Turkey’s society and state. Which is to say, really, that even if the AKP were not the ruling party here (and there is zero indication at this point that they will lose the parliamentary elections coming up in May 2011), then most of the same policies we see today would continue to be enacted by any other party that came in.
I do think the democratization of political life that has been taking place in this country of some 72 million people is the “big” political story– and it is one that other political parties, and even to a significant extent the military hierarchy itself, have contributed to. It is never easy to get the military to step aside from exercising political power; but here in Turkey that seems finally to have occurred. And surely the current chief of the general staff, Gen. Isik Kosaner, and his top aides must have played a key role in this. The success– by 58% to 40%– of last month’s referendum on a broad range of constitutional matters was an important bench-mark in the campaign to replace military rule with democratic accountability.
(I have heard some indications that Turkey’s membership in NATO had a positive effect in helping to educate leaders of the country’s military in the need for civilian control of the military. In which case, kudos to NATO. Maybe this is one of the few really positive achievements NATO can point to in its history? We could, also, imagine other ways in which democracy-promoting countries might have spread the crucial notion of civilian control of the military to Turkey… But still, if NATO helped to do it, then well and good.)
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We had lunch the other day with a man in his early thirties whose father, back in the early 1980s, was assassinated by what the Turks helpfully refer to as the “deep state”… That is, that network of shadowy parastatal and paramilitary organizations that maintained the military’s effective (and also, until last month, often constitution-permitted) control over the country through extra-constitutional means. Our friend was two years old at the time. His mother then had to bring her two boys up alone. His father had been the editor of an Islamist journal– to which the present PM, Rejep Teyyip Erdogan– had been a contributor.
More on this, later. But of course it is important to remember the many people whose lives were blighted by the actions of the deep state.
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Yesterday, a friend took us on an excellent tour around some of Istanbul’s lesser known sites and neighborhoods. We started at the Greek Patriarchate, at the top of a hill in Carsamba. The Patriarchate and many of the Greek homes, institutions, and businesses in this neighborhood and elsewhere throughout the city were badly sacked during anti-Greek and anti-Jewish riots that took place– with some instigation from the government– in 1955. In recent years, the large administrative buildings there have all been rebuilt, in what looks like a very solid and well-financed way. The friend who was with us said there are still disagreements over whether the Patriarchate is an institution of the Turkish state, or an independent institution.
We went into the church there. (It was surprisingly small.) Over at one side of the sanctuary were two boxes made of some form of sturdy translucent plastic, each the size of a portable sewing machine lying on its side, and each elevated on four legs. Our friend told us these contained just a tiny portion of the vast haul of Orthodox ecclesiastical relics that had been looted by the crusaders when they sacked Istanbul in 1096. He said these two small boxes of stuff had been returned to the church here by the Vatican a few years ago– “But the vast majority of what the Crusaders looted, the Catholics kept. Like the four horsemen you still see till today in St. Mark’s Square, in Venice.”
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We drove along the length of the massive city walls the Byzantines built right across the hilly heights of the peninsular on whose tip their city was perched, running two miles or so from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. These walls were truly a huge feat of engineering: A double layer of them, maybe 30-40 feet high, extremely thick, and punctuated by frequent large block-house/guard-towers. Those walls, and a thinner, single set of walls along the coastline, were what they relied on for protection.
After the Ottoman dynasty had established itself in Bursa, to the southeast, the other side of the Sea of Marmara, it was able to conquer and incorporate vast swathes of land beyond Byzantium to the north and west– including, right up to Bulgaria. But they still could not take Byzantium. And the Byzantines made a heavy chain that they strung across the Golden Horn to prevent Ottoman shipping, which was able to move up and down the Bosphorus, from using the Golden Horn route to come in and take their city from its more vulnerable northern or western sides.
I guess the chain worked. Because when the young Sultan Mehmet (the Conqueror) decided to capture the city he did not try that direct naval route. Instead, starting at a point a little further north up the Bosphorus, he constructed a large slipway right over the northwestern isthmus of the city and dragged his entire attack fleet up and over the landmass to get around the chain, instead. And that worked for him. He took Byzantium in 1453.
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Friday was Independence Day. We were lucky enough to be included in a fabulous party at a sixth-floor apartment overlooking the Bosphorus, from where we had a great view of the wonderful firework show put on– presumably by the Istanbul Municipality– from barges out on the water. (Some of us remarked that staging a huge firework show like this is a sign of significant peace and prosperity. A city like Baghdad, Kabul, or Gaza could not dream of being able to “enjoy” such sounds and sights without everyone thinking it was an attack… )
Turkey’s attainment in 1923 of national independence from the yoke that WW-I’s victorious allies had sought to impose on the country was no small achievement. However, the prickly (and often very aggressive) ethnonationalism and militarism that were both part of the Kemalist package (i.e., the package of policies enacted by the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) continued to plague Turkey and its peoples until very recently.
Now, the country finally has a stable and well-performing government that is non-Kemalist. I was going to write “anti-Kemalist”, but I don’t think that’s the case. They are still Kemalists inasmuch as they accept the republican and democratic basis of the state that Ataturk pioneered, and the institutions associated with that concept of the state. They have tweaked, in an important way, the relationship between the military and the civilian government that had long been dysfunctional and harmful for the country. But the rest of the Kemalist constitutional structure still stands intact.
Where they are not Kemalist, however, is in their views of secularism and ethnonationalism. They are not the same militant secularizers that the Kemalists were. And they are certainly not the same ethnonationalists as the Kemalists.
85 years of Kemalism did, however, leave the AKP government with some terrible legacies to deal with when it came into power through the elections of 2002. Legacies of harms inflicted in the past on the country’s Kurdish, Greek, and Jewish citizens. Legacies of aggressive ethnonationalist policies pursued towards many neighbors, especially in Cyprus… The AKP’s very talented leaders, including President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, as well as Erdogan, seem to have taken numerous good steps to deal with these legacies and to build much healthier relations both inside Turkey and with neighbors outside it…
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