We like to prepare for our trips by doing a little reading, and our Turkish adventure set for September will take us into one of the more challenging environments we’ve set out for. Lying as it does on the cusp of Europe and Asia, Turkey has an important place in the histories of both continents and has been caught in the pincers of conflicts between empires from both continents. If they weren’t looking out for Russia, they had to stay on guard for the Romans. In recent times, they’ve had their own empire. A 300-plus-year gig for the Ottomans, whose depleted empire was carved up by the allies after WWI, a cutting job whose effects we and they still feel today, having bequeathed us the country of Iraq and the apportionment of Kurdish peoples among at least four different countries. Bit of a mess.
Andrew Mango has created a no-nonsense look at Turkey’s recent history and current place in the world’s political, cultural, and economic map. A country a third bigger than Texas in Area with a population twice that of California and a collection of people ranging from secular intellectuals to Islamic terrorists, it faces great challenges trying to join the modern world. By all statistics, Turkey belongs to the third world. By all aspirations and even common sense, it belongs in the European Union. Europe seems to think its poverty will drain resources from the other countries and wants it to make further economic strides before it gets membership in the club. They also point to human rights abuses and the treatment of women. Mainly, however, they’re leery of the Islamic nature of the population, despite the country’s solid secular government tradition since the great Attaturk’s ascension to power in 1923.
Mango compares Turkey’s position to that of Greece, a poor country recently admitted to the Union, and contributing mightily to the club. Of course, Greece is Christian. The rub. Still, Mango, declares that Turkey does have some criteria to meet. But he thinks that’s where the country is headed.
For myself, I find it fascinating that Turkey has a history of military government takeovers–one a decade 1960-1980, but they’ve never been bloody and never resulted in military dictatorships. The generals step in when parliament seems unmanageable, straighten things out–often by imprisoning or even hanging a few offending politicians–then handing power back to parliament. It’s also the army–a separate institution with no civilian overseer–which has been responsible for guarding the secular nature of the government.
Also fascinating is the story of Attaturk, whose biography is next on my list of Turkey reading. Here’s a guy who singlehandedly transformed a country from an Arabic Islamic dictatorship into a secular, westward looking republic. He wasn’t a dictator, but he wasn’t exactly a total democrat either. Looking forward to seeing how that worked. Another unique aspect of this history.