There are parallels with Morris’ description of the new Turkey, and that given by world famous Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in his last novel Snow. For example, Morris points out that farcical fact that wig shops in Istanbul are doing a booming trade in wigs that hide the Islamic veil, allowing women to navigate their way through the hostile secular public space while maintaining their own religious principles. In Pamuk’s novel a play entitled My Fatherland or My Head Scarf shows that, in the case of the head scarf, repression and enlightenment are in the eye of the beholder. For Kemalists devoted to the idea of Ataturk’s secular State the headscarf is a symbol of repression and backwardness, while to various female characters in the novel, and in reality, it is a symbol of political assertion and independence.
Pamuk has recently been charged with an infringement of article 301 of the new Turkish penal code, public denigration of Turkish identity, after giving an interview to a Swiss newspaper where he stated: “Thirty-thousand Kurds were killed here, one million Armenians as well. And almost no one talks about it. Therefore, I do"”. How significant is this prosecution? While some have suggested that it’s an anachronism, stemming from over-enthusiastic prosecutors, many see it, as Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer, put it, as “a blight on Turkey’s ambitions to a basic acceptance of European cultural standards”. How significant is Pamuk’s prosecution? "It is significant,” says Morris, “because it has focused international attention on the way freedom of expression can still be limited in Turkey. Many restrictions have been removed but Pamuk chose to challenge one of the remaining taboos: what happened to the Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. The timing of case against Pamuk is also no accident; those in the bureaucracy who oppose the EU accession process send out signals of intent like this from time to time. They would have known that a case against Turkey’s most famous novelist would create a bit of a storm abroad. They chose their target deliberately".
Speaking of signals of intent leads us to one of the traditionally strongest power blocks in Turkish society, the military. American journalist and foreign affairs analyst, Robert D. Kaplan, writing in 2000, commented: "Coups, like wars, signify limits – with beginnings and ends. In the past, when a Turkish general announced a coup, he also promised to hold elections and return the army to its barracks after a designated period. Now the military’s role is more insidious, and it is more likely to become a permanent presence in Turkish politics."[Eastward to Tartary, pg 96]. How accurate an assessment is that of the military’s role in Turkish society and government today? "It was certainly accurate five years ago, – responds Morris, – but one of the reasons I called this book The New Turkey is that some things have changed dramatically in a very short time. The military high command has withdrawn further from politics than ever before. Do the soldiers still wield influence? Of course they do, but it is far less pronounced than in the 1990s, when a succession of squabbling coalition governments meant that civilian leadership was weak. There is an intense debate within the military about what their role should be, but they understand that a country whose soldiers have a permanent presence in politics will always be held at arms length from Europe".
One of the most potent symbols of change in modern Turkey is its current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
. A radical Islamist in his youth, who, as Morris points out in his book, was arrested and convicted for inciting religious hatred in 1999, when in a speech he made in the small town of Siirt, he quoted a poem by Ziya Gökalp: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful are our soldiers". Scarcely six years later Erdoğan
is prime minister (a constitutional amendment was required, allowing for politicians with a prior conviction to take office), and held up by European leaders such as Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi as a shining example of a moderate Islam with which Europe can, and must, do business with.
He remains somewhat of an enigma though. A more than capable administrator, who as Mayor of Istanbul carried out major bureaucratic and structural reforms, rennovating both the city and its services in the process, his practical credentials for steering Turkey through the choppy accession waters seem solid. On the diplomatic level he managed to get Turkish Cypriot backing for a UN peace plan (an ambiguous victory, considering the rejection of the Greek Cypriots of the same package), and in 2004 became the first Turkish prime minister in over 16 years to visit Athens, as part of a continuing process of rapprochement with Turkey’s Agean neighbours. And yet there remains the suspicion of some that the face of ‘moderate’ Islam is just a ruse, allowing for a creeping take over of the secular State. Critics point to his support for recent legislation on adultery as a sign of his real intent. How then does Morris judge Erdoğan
, a man he has met and interviewed. How important is Erdoğan
to the whole reform process? "Tayyip Erdoğan
Morris responds, "is important to the reform process because he leads the first single party government in Turkey for more than a decade. That means he can – and has – pushed through reforms at an impressive speed. Those who have doubts about his Islamist roots and his commitment to democratic values will always have those doubts. They believe he is ‘talking takkiye‘ – saying one thing but meaning another. I think you have to judge him on his results, and so far they have been impressive in spite of a few wobbles in the last few months. It isn’t all that remarkable that he is a practicing Muslim – previous Turkish leaders like Turgut Özal have been equally devout. But Erdoðan is different because he held some fairly radical Islamist views in his youth. He challenged the system before he became Prime Minister – even serving time for it. Now I think he wants to change the system rather than overthrow it."
Column inches are devoted to the cultural issues related to Turkey’s possible membership of the EU, of the legal reforms that must take place prior to accession, of the differences between Europe and Asia between which Turkey lies. Little attention, outside perhaps of the financial pages, gets paid to the economic reforms being implemented in Turkey. Over the last number of years a stringent package of economic reforms, pushed by the IMF, have been implemented. As in countries like Argentina and Bolivia, the reforms have been far from painless. In Latin America, neo-liberal policies have led to the growth of a radical no-global movement. Is there such a movement in Turkey? "There are left wing anti-capitalist groups which have organized protests against the IMF reforms but they are not desperately strong," Morris answers. "Trades Union membership has been falling in Turkey for some years as well, and overall there has been less opposition to the reform process than might have been expected. Part of the reason for this is that just about everyone agreed that the old economic system was a mess. It had been managed atrociously for years by a cosy cartel of politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats who took what they wanted, when they wanted. So there was a huge desire for change, especially after the economic crisis in 2001 which hit all sectors of society hard. The IMF’s medicine hasn’t been easy to stomach, and unemployment remains an enormous problem, but there was a consensus that the country couldn’t let the old, discredited system continue".
Morris’ love for Turkey and all its contradictions is obvious when reading The New Turkey. It’s a sympathetic but open eyed look at a country that is at a cross roads. Looking at the whole application process that is underway for Turkey’s accession to the EU, Morris’ closing comments are interesting precisely because they differ from much of the media coverage. Media coverage that in the main has looked at Turkey as a lesser partner. As a country that needs Europe more than Europe may need it. "In sum, – he says, – there are plenty of things which could derail the process. There will be fierce debates both within Turkey and within Europe about how best to proceed. Because this is a country which is changing so rapidly, it is a very difficult process to predict. But I’m fairly optimistic about Turkey’s future – whether it joins the EU or not".