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Turkish RiotsOne of the most delightful things about foreigners and their problems is that it lets us indulge in ignorance, condescension and cheap politics all at once. Besides being good old-fashioned fun, these are the three major principles on which the West now reclines. Take the Turkish riots.

To spoil the plot, kids, this mirrors the great M. Stanton Evans on the problems that the Falklands War posed to the American Right: “on one hand we like gunboat diplomacy, but on the other we love tin-pot dictatorships.” America’s Jacobin ex-Republic adores anything that portends revolution (but not at home, my dears, that’s why there’s a police-state), and really good video footage especially if all the cute babes are on the barricades. Yet Americans believe in democracy, or say so, and even though God’s name gets slapped onto banknotes the money takes precedence.

As described, the evil Turkish Army suppresses rioters who dress as badly as we do, as a wicked fundamentalist regime (which loves Israel, oops, hates Israel, oops, loves Israel) erodes the freedoms of people cranking out economic growth about 700 percent faster than we can. It’s like Tarir Square, except it’s really like The Summer of Love, but only if collapse is not a threat to the global economy and endangers America’s (and Britain’s) support for our newfound chums, the Al Qaeda revolutionaries next door in Syria who are raping Christian girls with crucifixes. This popular and patriotic theory needs a moment’s thought.

First off, Turkey is a secular democracy and a steady one. Mr. Erdogan, their leader, ran Istanbul in the 1990s and oversaw its renaissance; modern transport, clean streets, regular water and electricity, including minimal crime and public services of which Washington, DC, can barely dream. This got him elected premier on margins for which no American pol can hope; he was even supported by my liberal urban Turkish friends. Had Erdogan been mayor of Detroit he’d be in Obama’s chair.

Next, thanks to many reforms foreign investment has surged into Turkey, whose economy has grown by more than eight percent a year; so it has doubled since Erdogan took office. Prosperity first spread to the Western, Mediterranean, region where modern agribusiness, etc., now makes it resemble Greece and even Italy. Next it moved east, even into areas which were as poor as Syria.

So lots of poor people from the hinterlands clambered into the middle-classes, and some moved to Istanbul, the queen of world cities in many regards. With them came their conservative ways; rather as if the Tea Partiers ever take Washington. They are not intrinsic meddlers, but their ladies dress the same way that my aunts did when going to Mass. Like my aunts many appreciate education; Mrs. Erdogan, a university professor, chided a foreign reporter, “Just because my head is covered, dear, I haven’t covered up my brains.” Reflecting my Michigan hometown where bars were banned, the new Istanbulus are discomfited by noisy 24-hour gin-mills and streetside drinking in Taksim Square, not to mention public displays of pan-sexual affection that would have had my formidable Aunt Irene reaching for her Edwardian hat-pin. Whatever his hankerings, this puts Erdogan in a political pickle.

turkish riotsThe Istanbulus are Byzantines, my friend Dr. Rietveld writes to me from Baghdad. Whether they were born there, or are ethnic Turks from the hinterlands or even Kurds born in Diyakbakir, they adopted the Byzantine ethos as the Ottomans did when they pitched up in mid-15th Century. In many ways the Ottomans bested their predecessors: Columbus had to make a detour around the Turkish fleet sailing to Spain to rescue the Jews and Arabs kicked out by Isabella when she “wiped the intellectual hard-drive.” I have heard little Jewish Istanbulu kids speaking Ladino, a language of medieval Spain.

The rest of Turkey is a fascinating genetic mix including whatever became of the Hittites, the Lydians and Trojans and other Asiatic Greeks, plus nomadic Turks who mostly started meandering in one thousand years back, and more recent arrivals from European Greece, Slavic Bulgaria,, Armenia and the lands of the Kurds. Generally they integrated well, although Armenia declaring war on immediately post-Ottoman and war-ravaged Turkey was ill-timed and helped lead to the horrific slaughter of many Armenian Turks almost a century ago.

turkish riotsSo the daughters of King Croesus melted into the Anatolian gene pool as did most everyone else. Today they are about as integrated as Americans in the Mid-West whether they were of Anglo-Scots, German or Italian (etc) descent. And they are as different culturally from Istanbulus as Midwesterners were from Manhattanites or San Fransiscans maybe fifty years back. Erdogan has a problem with, first, maybe 20 million people already in Istanbul which is Turkey’s greatest economic magnet; second, an internal clash of cultures and, third, his party’s need to keep their coalition together. If the American economic collapse continues and the conservative heartland moved to the coasts, the dilemma would be similar and not only on Gay Pride Week.

In comes the army, one of the toughest on earth as any US veteran of the Korean War will agree. Their army, sons of Attaturk, were formed as Turkey wished to draw closer to Europe post-1918 and secularised brutally – their history evaporated when the Arabic script was Latinised by degree, and old men still wearing the fez often had their headwear hammered into their skulls with ten-penny nails. Today they are wholly secular but suspicious of democratic party-politics, having ousted corrupt elected governments several times in the second half of the 20th Century. So they fear what Turkey’s civilian liberals also see as Erdogan pandering to conservative and religious folk; this is, or may be yet, a check on the mildly-Islamic government’s power and in support of rioters who are, let’s face it, largely an urban elite.

turkish riotsThis is not to say that Erdogan, from religious zeal or realpolitik or both, hasn’t gone overboard in pandering to his more strident rural allies. My Istanbulu friends, there and abroad, fear that he has. But as the 1960s British “party-girl” Mandy Rice-Davies said of her cabinet-politician customers who denounced her, “well they would say that, wouldn’t they.”

God created foreigners, one presumes, to give Americans an indefensible sense of superiority, and so some of our readers will only be interested in how the rioters affect US foreign policy and the price of a tank of gas. This defies easy answers.

Erdogan fears a vast regional war between Sunnis and Shia Muslims, egged on by the West and by the same Arab states that bankroll Al Qaeda, and the Israelis. Sunni Turkey has a large minority of Alawites who are Shia co-religionists to the Syrian regime. It also has anti-Turkish problems with foreign Sunni Kurds. It aspires to closer integration with Europe, remains the toughest army in NATO and its most reliable partner, and it tends overwhelmingly to support America. Moreover, ignoring the bigots from Tennessee to Tel-Aviv who say that all Muslims are equally backward and vicious, the recently urbanised Turks who crave more social conservatism are not our enemies: many, it seems from my visits, are too busy buying Western-made machines and trying to export furniture and dried fruit to America and Europe.

It is a difficult set of problems for Turkey, and there are no sure answers except that the Western media effluvia and daily warnings-cum-“helpful thoughts” from the White House do no good.

What to do? Ronald Reagan used to tell hyperactive White House staffers, “don’t just do something – stand there!” Or as Jimmy Kennedy wrote in his 1953 hit song Constantinople: “It’s nobody’s business but the Turks!”

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2 replies to this post
  1. You continue to amaze us all with the breadth of your erudition, Steve. What a remarkable analysis of the streams of humans flowing into the pool that makes up Turkey today. Guest workers from Turkey were the predominant second culture in Germany when I lived there, tolerated by most, resented by others. in a year of more than 1,000 acts of violence against foreigners, neo-Nazis firebombed a shelter killing five Turkish women and children. I went to the funeral service for them as an act of solidarity. I made a little badge that said “Ich bin Ausländerin” ( I am a foreigner) and wore it as I crossed the picket lines and police barricades outside the mosque. The Turkish men who checked my purse for weapons looked at the badge and said “You foreigner? Me too. Ees good, you go.” I was the only woman in the crowd, and almost certainly the only American. I wanted to make a quiet statement with my presence, showing respect for their dead and praying for all I was worth that the mindless violence would cease.

  2. While agreeing with Mr. Masty’s conclusion, “Its nobody’s business but the Turks”, his confidence in Mr. Erdogan’s commitment to keeping Turkey a secular democracy is not convincing. Even before the latest protest demonstrations, under Erdogan Turkey leads the world in imprisoning journalists. Yes, Turkey has placed in prison more journalists than Iran, China, any other country on earth.

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