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Turkey and the Dervish’s Islam

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Balkan eye in the sky

A tale of experiences and impressions from Anatolia - a place where there are not just Arabs, and finding a symbol of the EU

As I cross the threshold into the mosque, astonishment gets the better of rational explanation, logic and comparison. I am crossing a border between worlds whose separation is merely apparent. I breathe and immerse myself in a large, defined space, filled with solemn chanting. Soft carpets caress my bare feet, the melodic hum of ancient Arabic tickles my ears with its singsong delicacy. Someone is asleep on the floor, stretched out facing the walls which are covered in sky-blue majolica. The streets of the capital Istanbul are scorching; the mosque is the only refuge from the afternoon sun. Here there is no imagery: the word rules. The Qur’an is supreme over everything: its verses and symbols are stronger than any imagery. Here I see the serene, reflective face of Islam, which has no fear of showing itself in its potent simplicity. 

I do not feel uneasy in this holy place of prayer. Nor do the faithful, silently reading the Qur’an before me. In truth, no-one is really a foreigner in the m. I feel at ease in this holy place; more so than in the chaotic streets of Sultanahmet. My being foreign does not seem to be a problem to anyone. The initial wariness of the Other quickly gives way to reciprocal curiosity. The hint of a smile from an elderly imam, finding himself face to face with a slightly bewildered foreigner, is proof enough of that.


This is a society which wants to cast off its poor peasant past

If Turkey were to enter the European Union today, it would be the youngest country on the continent, with an average population age of twenty-six. This young and dynamic social situation is evidenced by economic exuberance. This is a society which wants to cast off its poor peasant past. A past which can often be traced back to the vast rural expanse of central Anatolia. Istanbul is the symbol of this renewal. Twenty million people throng here every day, clogging the main thoroughfares. Two continental shores, united through man’s labours, create an organic whole, chaotic and ordered at the same time, with the port as its real beating heart.

Hemmed in by the two shores of the Bosporus, the city feeds and reaches beyond its natural confines. Istanbul has always been crossed by a river of oriental riches. Yesterday, it was the merchant caravans, laden with precious spices and fabrics. Today, it is the enormous oil tankers, patiently waiting for a berth in the port, waiting to be able to unload their precious cargo. The sea narrows and the land presses in, the flow is concentrated and its pressure increases today, just as in days gone by. This is Istanbul’s good fortune, bringing it fame and riches over the centuries. The city is not afraid to flaunt the state of grace in which its economy thrives: its nouveaux riches show off their luxurious German cars, pervading the glittering streets of Galatasaray, the most exclusive district of the city, from which the football team takes its name. History and geography have blessed Turkey with the role of forming a bridge between two worlds: the west and the east.

Today it is history, rather than geography, which has brought this huge nation to a crossroads. The choice which will seal its destiny and fix its strategies for tackling the challenges of the new century. Europe, on its doorstep, stands and watches anxiously, to see what the majority of the Turkish people and their government will decide. Many countries within the European Union, and the people themselves, wonder about the actual possibility that Turkey could soon join the countries in the Union. Doubt and enthusiasm have driven the debate over the years, and not just in Europe. The Turkish people themselves wonder about the real value of this opportunity for historic accession. The possibility of practical entry into the Union does indeed raise a whole raft of important questions which must be answered. The process of European enlargement to the east does indeed find Turkey to be a particular case which has to be evaluated on its own, away from the Old Continent’s political summits. Could Turkey enter membership of this community of states? Would it want to? And if it did, what obstacles and problems would the country need to face and overcome in order to join? 

Istanbul, not just Arab

The greatest mistake one can make when thinking about Turkey is to consider it to be just another Arab country: first, not all of the population of Turkey is Arab. Despite being a majority Muslim country, it has its own special characteristics as a result of its troubled past, making it a unique case among the whole panorama of Islamic countries. The Turkish route to independence has left its society, religion, language and people with some unique characteristics. Their position on the border, acting as a hinge between worlds which eye one another with suspicion and curiosity, has made the Turkish people a very heterogeneous entity. One simply cannot portray the Turkish people through a single image. Armenians, Kurds, Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbians, Iranians and many other peoples still live together in what, at one time, was the pulsating heart of the Ottoman empire, a giant with feet of clay, which collapsed under its own weight at the end of the First World War.

Mustafa Kemal, now known to history as Ataturk, the father of the Turks, was the creator of a new many-faceted creature: what we now know as the Republic of Turkey, a modern secular state. A determined, resolved, secular and positivistic military man, Ataturk seized the reins of an empire, which by the end of the First World War was breaking apart, creating a great nation in just a few years. Giving an identity to the emerging nation was Ataturk’s first duty, and after first considering the Republic of Anatolia as the name for the new country, he eventually chose the name of Turkey. He set aside the geographical definition, preferring instead to use the name of the peoples who occupied Anatolia and conquered ancient Byzantium: the Turks.

Anatolia, through its geographical extent, is virtually a subcontinent

To stop at Istanbul and think that one knows Turkey, however, would be a serious mistake. Anatolia, through its geographical extent, is virtually a subcontinent: to the west, it faces the Balkans, to the east, where the Tigris rises, it brushes up against the Mesopotamian plain. I am convinced that such diverse landscapes and situations are united by a flag and the omnipresent face of Ataturk, rather than by a common sense of belonging. The majority of the population is actually made up of ethnic minorities scattered across the whole country, right to the very heart of the inland regions, furthest away from the busy Ankara and Istanbul. Travelling eastwards, you encounter cities such as Diyarbakir, Malatya and Van. Dusty cities which give the best possible illustration of the sometimes difficult relationship of the central government with the most numerous and problematic of the minorities on its own territory: the Kurds and the Armenians. Here the streets are swarming with life, just as in any city in the Middle East. Children, traders, men and women rush to find shelter from the burning sun under the attentive eyes of the soldiers. Many, so many of them, armed with AK-47s. Their presence here is customary; the only people amazed by it are the few foreigners who venture this far.

The issue of ethnic minorities still remains wide open and controversial when it comes to Ankara’s internal relations with public opinion, and international relations with other countries. The Kurds are pressing for recognition of their own community’s ethnic identity, demanding respect for the civil rights guaranteed by the constitution, as Turkish citizens. The other burning issue in internal politics, but even more so internationally, is the lack of any official acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide. A gigantic ethnic cleansing operation perpetrated against the ethnic minority during the first world war. The first genocide of the Twentieth Century is now a recognised historical fact, but Ankara has yet to acknowledge it as such. Both of these open wounds have exposed the raw nerve of Turkish diplomatic relations, especially when dealing with the issues of human rights and the defence of ethnic minorities. 

‘Brussels: light years away’

Mardin is the last city before the Syrian border; beyond is the immense expanse of the Mesopotamian plain. ‘Brussels is light years away from this place,’ is the first thought to strike me as I leave the bus. But what amazes me even more is one very unexpected discovery. Here in this remote place I find the symbol of the EU, declaring its commitment to finance directly the restoration of the ancient Madrasah, a Qur’anic school. Europe stays watching from the sidelines for the moment, tempted as it is by the prospect of extending its trading horizons to the Black Sea, towards the Caspian and their precious traffic. Membership of the club has already been extended to Bulgaria and Romania with this in mind, but enlargement to include Turkey would represent a major leap in quality for European community policy. Turkey would be the first country to enter the European Union without having previously gone through the experience of life in the communist Soviet bloc. Moreover, as a member of NATO from back in 1952, practically from the foundation of the Atlantic Alliance, it is the principal ally of the United States in the sensitive Middle Eastern area. The way ahead for Turkey will require a delicate balance between Washington and Brussels. Ankara seems to be inclined to the latter, but without compromising its historical alliance with the Americans.

The country’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, a staunch Muslim, leader of the Justice and Development Party party which draws its inspiration from the values of Islam, is keeping the military, custodian of the secular state, and the EU on their guard. His aim is to bring together the economies of the two blocs on each side, in the hope of entering into a unique political situation in just a few years’ time. The first goodwill gestures towards the European commission and public opinion have already been seen. The death penalty has been abolished, there have been promises of greater respect for ethnic minorities, and state pressure on the mass media and journalists has been reduced. All of these signals have raised hopes, but they are still only the start of the long journey which lies ahead of the Sons of the Turks.

This is the full translated version of the original article by the winner of the European Young Journalist of Italy 2008

Translated from Terra in bilico