Monday, 30 March 2015

Ataturk's withering Istanbul?

Istanbul is one of my favorite cities. I first visited Istanbul in February 2003, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. From 2003 onwards, I have visited Istanbul regularly.

In Istanbul, one cannot take more than a few steps without running into a historical monument or place of worship. Istanbul, after all, was the home of the Ottoman Empire – the Sublime Porte. An Empire which attempted to synthesize modernity and Islam, ultimately leading to the personality of Ataturk and ideas associated with Kemalism.

A painting of Ottoman era Istanbul. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia are visible in the background. 
For me, Turkey is Ataturk's Turkey. A nation pursuing a staunch, fascist-like, secular vision believing secularist thought is a prerequisite for modernizing society. Headscarves were not permitted in government institutions. Islamist tending politicians were persona non grata in Ankara, the nation's capital. Any deviation from Ataturk's path and the military flexes its muscles to remind society of the correct way. Remember Turkey's 'post-modern' coup and the fate of Erbekan's Islamist government in 1997?

Since 2003, Istanbul's character has changed. Along with the rest of the world, Turkey has seen a resurgence of religiosity in the post 9/11 environment. Ataturk's secular ideals have withered with time. Secularism is all but dead.

A process helped on its way by three successive governments formed by the Islamically inclined Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since the AKP's first election victory in 2002, the party swept the polls again in 2007 and most recently in 2011.

Tayyip Erdogan, in his capacity as Prime Minister from 2003-2014 and from 2014 as President, has presided over many far reaching changes in Turkish society. The headscarf debate is history. His wife – as Turkey's First Lady - adorns the headscarf at state functions. The AKP's symbolic victory in the headscarf debate underscores the increasing influence of religion in Ataturk's secular Turkey.

To the AKP's credit, Turkey has seen its status and image in the world transformed. With the largest standing army within the NATO alliance, Turkey was always an important state militarily. However, Turkey is now an economic powerhouse too. At the end of 2012, Istanbul had twenty-four billionaire residents, ranking it at number seven in the list of cities with the most billionaires. According to compiled by the CIA, Turkey's economy is the seventeenth largest in the world. It's GDP per capita on a purchasing parity basis is over USD 15,000. Turkish companies are global players with large overseas investments, particularly in neighboring Central Asian and Balkan states.

Politically, Turkey now pursues a more muscular and independent foreign policy – often bringing the country into conflict with its traditional US and NATO allies. Consider Turkey's vacillations over supporting Kurdish militias in battling extremist Islamic State fighters lodged in the Syrian city of Kobani. Or Turkey's increasingly active role in regional conflict zones such as Libya and Palestine.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, seen in his military uniform (1918)
Perhaps all of these changes simply represent a maturing of Turkish society? Or maybe the shift towards Islam is a belated recognition of the European Union's non-acceptance of Turkey as an European state? (Turkey has virtually abandoned the formal process of becoming an EU member state.) More likely, it is a combination of several factors. Whatever the reasons, the changes are unlikely to stop me from visiting Istanbul again in the coming years – as often as I possibly can. It remains a charmingly, beautiful city with many hidden secrets I have yet to uncover!
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at

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