Dichotomy of a country looking both east and west


TURKEY: Nicholas Birch in Istanbul profiles a divided Turkey which continues to be much misunderstood.

It's difficult to know what to think of a country where Genghis and Atilla are popular names for new-born boys. Small wonder the West has had a tendency to view Turkey with ambivalence and small wonder it has used no end of clichés to describe it.

Political correctness and history obliging, talk of the "terrible Turk" and the "sick man of Europe" are now things of the past.

But as Turkey braces itself to hear the European Union's decision today or tomorrow as to whether it can join the club whose membership it has coveted for decades, much of the debate shows the same tendency to drift off into polarised abstraction.

For the sceptics, exemplified by the French right, Muslim Turkey simply isn't European and never will be. For the supporters of Ankara's bid, it's a bridge between two civilizations, its accession the only way to patch up the growing incomprehension between Islam and the West.

The real Turkey, unsurprisingly, is more complicated than that. Perched on a vast spit of land, the country's greatest poet compared to the head of a vast horse galloping in from Central Asia, its 71 million people live in a society of great variety and rapid change.

Since its creation in 1923, this is a country which has had an obsession with the West. Rescuing it from partition at the hands of Britain and France and from Greek invasion, its founder, Kemal Ataturk, was convinced European civilization offered the only model worth following and Islam the root of all his people's backwardness.

The process of radical secularisation he set in motion still deeply marks Turkish society. The model he chose was not of a free church in a free state, but of a church controlled by the state.

Every one of its 70,000 imams, or clerics, is trained and vetted by a state-controlled directorate of Religious Affairs. Though an estimated 70 per cent of Turkish women cover their head, veils are strictly forbidden in government buildings: Bulent Arinc, the conservative leader of Turkey's present parliament caused a scandal last year by inviting his head-scarfed wife to the law-givers' annual drinks party.

Since then, he and other members of the socially conservative Justice and Development Party which has ruled Turkey since November 2002 have drunk their orange juice alone.

The commotion was emblematic of one of the deepest divisions in Turkish society. For the old elite, strongly attached to Ataturk's authoritarian republicanism, any departure from his secular model would open the door to an Iranian-style theocracy.

For others, particularly the provincial middle class empowered by the economic liberalisation of the 1980s, such rules represent an obstruction to free expression.

Though the trappings of Islam are undoubtedly more visible now than they were 30 years ago, the vast majority of Turks remain resolutely moderate, seeing little contradiction between fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and drinking alcohol.

Where Turkey's centralised religious model is beginning seriously to fray at the edges, however, is in its treatment of the country's religious minorities.

Most Turks are Sunni Muslims, but an estimated 20 per cent of the population belong to a group whose beliefs have their roots in the religious practices of central Asian nomads. Like the Shias of neighbouring Iran, the Alevis venerate Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohamed. In other senses, they could not be more different.

Their interpretation of Islam is based around music and dance and rejects discrimination between men and women. They are also seen as heretics by more conservative Sunnis.

According to the Turkish constitution, which allows for the allocation of state funds for religion, they should receive the same government support as their Sunni brothers. In reality, the Directorate of Religious Affairs is a Sunni organisation. Sunni imams receive a state salary, their mosques are built and maintained with tax money.

Alevi dedes, as the sect's religious leaders are called, receive nothing.

It is this same tendency to impose homogeneity on a deeply varied society that is at the root of Turkey's problems with its Kurds.

Today estimated to number between 12 and 15 million, the Kurds were only too willing - back in the early 20th century - to fight alongside Turks to repel invaders. But Kemal Ataturk went back on his promises of a country based on an equal partnership between the two peoples, replacing them with an insistence of Turkishness.

Turks point out, rightly, that at least two presidents and several chiefs of staff have been, at least partially, of Kurdish origin.

The motto carved on hillsides from the Greek border all the way to Iran - "How happy is he who can say 'I am a Turk' " - is in one sense an admirable statement of identity for a new country in search of a strong identity.

For an unassimilated Kurd, though, forbidden from speaking his language or naming his children as he pleases, the phrase seems little better than racism.

It's been five years since Turkey captured Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the separatist Kurdish group which had been fighting the Kurdish state since 1984. There have been many improvements since.

Kurdish courses are now permitted. Villagers expelled from about 3,000 villages emptied during the war are slowly beginning to return. Little better than a ghost town a decade ago, the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir now looks little different from any other provincial Turkish town. In time, Turkey will probably solve its Kurdish issue.

But there is one problem which has grown in significance in recent years and looks set to get bigger: social inequality and the divide between rural and urban Turkey.

Fifty years ago, this was a rural country, with 82 per cent of people living in villages. Today, more than 65 per cent of Turks live in cities - Istanbul alone has grown from 1 million inhabitants in 1960 to an estimated 15 million today.

The reasons for the migration are clear. Statistics from 2002 show that 30 per cent of Turks live on less than $4 a day. In rural areas, that figure rises to 39 per cent. Families flee to the cities to escape poverty.

European accession is likely to aggravate the problem. There are between 7 and 8 million farmers working in Turkey today, compared to 6.3 million in the rest of the European Union put together.

Heavily subsidised and inefficient, the agricultural sector will have to be radically altered if it is to be integrated into Europe's costly Common Agricultural Policy. For that to happen, Turkish economists say, agricultural workers will have to be reduced by a further 4 to 5 million.

Another major wave of migration to the cities, it seems, is on the way, whether or not Turkey succeeds in persuading the Europeans it is one of them.