Is Turkey the new Tuscany?

It straddles Asia and Europe – and is the holiday choice of the chattering classes. As David Cameron joins them, John Walsh explains why Turkey is having its moment in the sun

Next week, David Cameron is off to Turkey for his summer holidays. Boris Johnson has just come back from there; he posed on a boat in fetching red, floral, shorts. Boris, of course, has a family connection with the place: his ancestor, Ali Kemal, a Turkish journalist, served in the government of Ahmed Tevfik Pasha, Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. But Cameron? What is it about the place that has brought the two most powerful Conservative politicians in the UK, two Old Etonian members of the Bullingdon Club, to a country of 70 million Muslim people with a dubious human rights record and no access to a decent bottle of Château Pétrus 1985?

It could simply be that other places are just less appealing to the modern politician. Australia is too far away; Africa is too volatile; and visiting America would seem like sucking up to President Bush when everyone is the world is preparing to say good riddance. Mauritius is too keen on the modern slavery of indentured labour. Spain is too contemptuous about British holidaymakers. Holidaying in France without a personal invitation from Met Mme Sarkozy seems low-rent. Italy is too familiar – didn't MPs stop going to Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche at the end of the millennium? The Greek islands have been too overrun by British students and clubbers since the mid-1970s.

It may, of course, be the heat. Turkey is scorching in August. You can guarantee that, every single morning, up to 40 degrees of incinerating rays will attack your flesh like a six-foot steam-iron. Mr Cameron has been photographed splashing around a Cornwall beach in a black Peak vest and with a body-board; he'll need all the covering he can get.

A more sophisticated reason for visiting Turkey is to inspect its unique status as the hinge between East and West – not just Asia and Europe, but between Islam and Christianity, fundamentalism and enlightenment, spiritual zealotry and decadent consumerism. Turkey is, for a Tory mindset, the nearest bit of Asia you can visit while still feeling safely in Europe. It's Asia-lite. It's a 98-per-cent Muslim country without the scary bits: the fatwa, the jihad, the suicide bombers. And within its boundaries, a modern East-West-style struggle for the upper hand is taking place every day.

It was known to the Romans as Asia Minor, and in its northwest region, the border of Europe and Asia is a daisy-chain of waterways – the Dardanelles strait, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus that leads to the north coast, thereby connecting the pleasure steamers and pedalos of the Aegean with the scary Russian tankers of the Black Sea. The western end of the Dardanelles is the location of Troy, which every schoolboy knows as the setting of Homer's Iliad. On the north shore of the Sea of Marmara, the ancient Greeks founded a city called Byzantium, which, renamed Constantinople, became the centre of the Greek-speaking Roman Empire. The Ottoman Empire nabbed it in 1453, and made it Europe's largest, richest and most glamorous city in the Middle Ages. Its name changed again to Stamboul, and was finally resolved into Istanbul in 1930, during the reformsof Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ataturk's name, 70 years after his death in 1938, remains crucial in the debate about modern Turkey. He was the commander of the Ottoman forces in the First World War who wiped out the invading British and Australian forces at Gallipoli, and became the key figure in the nationalist movement that wrested control of Turkey back from the French, Italians, Greeks and Russian-supported Armenians who had controlled its regions for too long.

He was a pragmatic, pro-Western visionary who pulled Turkey out of its dark ages through a mixture of democratic initiatives and authoritarian diktats. He insisted Turks spoke Turkish (not Arabic,) banned the fez (too Ottoman and, as it were, old-hat), he insisted on the Western Gregorian calendar rather than the Middle Eastern, he abandoned Arabic script for Roman letters, insisted Turkish citizens took surnames, banned the old Sultanish harem practice of polygamy, championed Turkish culture and gave everyone the vote. He also separated church from state, and banned religion from having any influence on politics. He gave the country a new sense of its post-Ottoman identity, as a nation state rather than a mix of random nationalities. And he insisted that the state should be entirely Turkish (which meant, shockingly to modern eyes, shipping all Greek speakers off to Greece and dispossessing the Kurds.)

This did wonders for national pride. Statues of the great man, dressed in a sensible Western suit or astride a horse, can be found in every one-mosque town across the nation, while his name or face appears on stamps, currency notes, airports, and bridges. It gave the Turkish people a self-consciousness and hostility towards both religion and non-Turks that sustains to this day.

This may account for the feeling, common to every traveller, that Turkey is a Janus-faced, mildly schizophrenic land of old and new. In the west, around Bodrum and Izmir, where tourists flock every summer to drink raki, hit the beaches and dive off boats, local women go out to work, live as they please, drink and flirt in a very non-Muslim way; the girls dress as if they were in Camden Town.

In the less touristy interior – in Kayseri, for instance, the manufacturing city in the heart of Cappadocia, or further east towards the Black Sea coast, things are more strait-laced: all the factories have prayer-rooms for their workers, and the city is dominated by a huge mosque. Women are required to preserve their modesty on pain of death by "honour killings" (of which they were 2000 in the first six years of this century.) Even on the south coast, in the popular Bay of Antalya, local women still wear slave pants, bake pancakes in the open air and perform feats of clairvoyance as they did 300 years ago. The muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the towers of mosques may occasionally be drowned out by the throb of Turkish techno, but he's still around.

This is a country where, to modern urban voters, "secularism" is synonymous with democracy. The majority of Turks want another Ataturk in power – someone who will steer them towards the West than the East, so there can be more "Anatolian Tigers," benefiting from the economic freedoms of the 1980s, under Turgut Ozal's Motherland Party.

"We need to protect our modern lifestyle. We don't want very religious or conservative people to govern us," a club owner called Ali Korur told the BBC last year, "Some people worry that Ataturk's revolution is in danger, but I think people who are used to modern life will never return to the age of ignorance."

The chief emblem of "ignorance" is the turban, or headscarf, worn by religious women. It has become the centre of a noisy debate. Since 1997, when the army authorities booted out a government for being too "Islamist," Turkish women have been banned by law from wearing headscarves in "public offices." This can mean universities and schools and, as two-thirds of the female population habitually cover their heads, millions of women missed the chance to attend college. The wearers were and are seldom dangerous radicals or fundamentalists, but merely conservative-minded Muslims who take seriously their religion's stipulations about modesty.

The issue was tackled this February, when the Turkish parliament passed an amendment that said: "No-one can be denied his or her right to a higher education," and grudgingly allowed traditional scarves to be worn on campus. Hostile voices complained it was the beginning of a process which would impose religious beliefs on the population.

This is why Turkey is so fascinating to foreign intellectuals: it's an upside-down world where left-wingers yell at scarf-wearing girls in the street, where modern Muslims worship secularism and dread expressions of piety, and where the libertarian reforms of 80 years ago are invoked, in the 2000s, to quell free expression.

The spirit of Ataturk lies behind Article 301, in the modern penal code, which bans people from "insulting Turkishness." When Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureate, talked about the Armenian massacres by Ottoman Turks in 1915, he was arrested and tried (the charges were dropped, but the world took notice). A woman journalist called Perihan Magden wrote in favour of conscientious objection and was tried for "turning people against military service". The prime minister, Recep Erdogan, sued caricature artists for painting him as an animal, and won. No wonder Turkey's application for full membership of the EU has been temporarily delayed.

David Cameron would be advised not to mention the Armenian events to his hosts, or the fate of the Kurds, or the excellence of Midnight Express, Alan Parker's movie which offered a rather negative picture of the Turkish prison system. Cameron should also avoid mentioning Cyprus, or wearing a fez in public, or asking for tickets to the camel wrestling (it was all over in January.) But he will surely be intrigued by a nation on whose vital eight borders, from Iran and Georgia to Bulgaria and Greece, such tumultuous history was fought down the centuries, and where a lot more history seems destined to happen, soon; a country with one foot in Islam and the other in Western capitalism, stuck in the Ataturk past, puzzled by the changing present and slightly paranoid about where its cultural future lies.