Books: Turkey carved up in slices
THE TURKISH LABYRINTH: Ataturk and the New Islam by James Pettifer Viking pounds 18 TURKEY UNVEILED: Ataturk and After by Nicole and Hugh Pope John Murray pounds 25
Sunday 08 June 1997
When Russia was the threat, Turkey was bolstered by the west as a barrier against the growth of communism. Now, with the new Great Game centred on Iran (the Middle Eastern country most likely to emerge as a regional superpower), Turkey has been co-opted in the Americans' economic fight against the spread of radical Islam. Internally, the army is at loggerheads with the Welfare Party, which has formed Turkey's first Islamic government.
The rise of Islam is the excuse for these latest books on Turkey, which reveal a country disastrously failing to live up to Ataturk's social and economic ideals, and beginning to question his legacy of pro-western policies. Despite Ataturk's reforms, Turkey is 95 per cent Muslim; since the Welfare Party seeks to spread democracy, to integrate Turkey into the Muslim world, to restore the authority of parliament and so to shift power away from the generals, it isn't likely to last very much longer.
James Pettifer's The Turkish Labyrinth offers a highly intelligent perspective on the problems of Ataturk's legacy and the sort of Islam the Welfare Party has adopted in its attempt to solve them. Pettifer is particularly good at outlining the reasons why younger Turks, especially in the cities, increasingly find themselves drawn to Islamic ideas and culture, and hostile to what they see as western exploitation. Welfare's Islam is best described as a sort of social programme, centred of course on the mosque, an institution which traditionally provides educational and medical as well as religious facilities.
The Turkish Labyrinth charts the tide of migration to the cities by those whose families for centuries lived on the land, followed by their inevitable disillusionment as they find themselves trapped in shanty towns. Among these people there is, as Pettifer puts it, "a profound yearning for the stability of Islamic rural societies", fuelled by the ruthless exploitation of workers by western multinationals. Their lot is typical not just of the poor in Turkey, but of those in all emerging industrial countries from Latin America to Eastern Europe and South-east Asia.
The difference with Turkey is that it is intent on joining the European Union. Turks are convinced that it is primarily prejudice against Muslims that has kept them out; but it is difficult, as Pettifer makes clear, to argue that there are any real benefits in letting Turkey in. What can this poor, mismanaged country give in return for what it will get? Since it is already an integral part of NATO and a keen follower of American Middle Eastern policies, as well as offering western companies plenty of incentives to exploit its cheap labour force, it seems to have left itself without a trump card. But now, the Welfare Party has announced that it is going to concentrate on building up economic and cultural ties with its Muslim neighbours, an idea made problematic by the fact that Turkey has fractured relations with all of them.
Nicole and Hugh Pope, in Turkey Unveiled, say they were motivated to write the book after experiencing the wonderful complexities of Turkish life and meeting the famously hospitable Turks during their years of living in and reporting on the country. Though Turkey Unveiled is a thorough, and thoroughly useful, history of Turkey from its origins to the present, its intention of going beyond the human-rights issues "to examine a country still grappling with a proud but traumatic history" sounds a little sentimental, particularly in light of late chapters on the Kurdish question and the three recent military coups.
Pettifer less naively insists on the importance of taking account of the complicity of ordinary Turks in their country's problems, particularly their fierce, often unthinking nationalism and their political apathy. It is very difficult to meet a Turk, for example, of whatever class, political party or faith, who will hear a good word said about the Kurds, or even entertain the idea of there being such a thing as "Kurdistan".
Both The Turkish Labyrinth and Turkey Unveiled end with chapters that envisage Turkey developing closer ties with the Muslim world and rediscovering its own Muslim roots. The cover of Pettifer's book claims that "the secular heritage of Ataturk is threatened by Islamic government", which is unforgivably inaccurate: Welfare is totally committed to keeping Turkey secular, and, in any event, is a secular dictatorship preferable to an Islamic democracy? This unfortunate comment reveals the sort of stereotypes - about Turks and Muslims - Pettifer makes it his business to challenge.
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