BEYPAZARI, TURKEY, February 2005
Washington is hailing recent developments in the Middle East as a success for its campaign to bring democracy to the region, and it is asking its Islamic and Arab allies in to take a greater lead. One of the key players it would like to bring on board in Turkey, which it holds up as a successful and functioning democracy. HH went there to examine whether it would work.
Rain splattered on the dusty ground of the central Turkish hill town of Beypazari, and Huseyin Yulmaz, five years retired from the coal mines, withdrew money from a high street cash machine and headed down an alley, passed the fire and banging from a metal forge, to a café where we’d agreed to go.
It was place of thick cigarette smoke and gloomy colors, dark winter clothing, hard wood tables and rich brews of Turkish tea.
Huseyin and his friends, playing cards at the tables (when viewed from Washington) are pretty much an example of what the US believes it is beginning to create in this part of world. It cites Iraqi and Palestinian elections, people power in Beirut, changes in Egypt, an argument that societies can be both Islamic and democratic – the dream ticket which will put an end to terrorism.
And Turkey, it says, knows how to do it.
Except, the last thing Huseyin Yulmaz wants is to be held up as an example America can use. The prospect was met with disdain and shaking heads – and more…
‘What America wants to do is divide us into small weak countries so that we can be controlled from the Pentagon,’ said Huseyin.
While his huge hands gently cupped a match to light a cigarette, his friend Yinasi Ertugal agreed. ‘America’s trying to set a trap for us, wanting us to think that we, too, will become like Iraq if we don’t do what it says.’
Had this been Iraq, Iran, Syria, the sentiment wouldn’t have been so surprising. But these people in the Turkish heartland are a long-standing American allies.
They remember the Cold War, when Turkey and America stood shoulder to shoulder against the Soviet Union. Their grandparents, great grandparents and beyond would have formed the backbone of the Ottoman Empire which stretched from the Gulf to North Africa and the Balkans.
They have been raised on the doctrine of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who carried out the sort of reforms, the White House envisions for the rest of the Islamic world.
He banned Shariah Law and Islamic schools and marriage. Switched the weekly holiday from Friday to Sunday, adopted the Western calendar, and gave women the right to vote.
All achieved in 13 years from 1922 to 1935, roughly the same period that the Middle East has foundered between the first Gulf War and now.
Little wonder, Washington would like Turkey to take a lead. Then not only why won’t it, but also why the anti-American venom, not only in the heartland, but alos in the cosmopolitian café society in Istanbul.
‘American should learn about democracy itself,’ said a designer, clad totally in black, taking off his shades to make sure I got the point.
‘America is now a threat to the whole world,’ agreed a television presenter, walking two huge, but finely behaved and coiffured dogs.
And it went on like that – one after the other.
I found the intricate explanation at the political science department of Ankara University, where it turned out that where America is now heading, Turkey feels its been before. It doesn’t like it and it knows what might happen.
‘The nation-state building in the Middle East is based on an anti-turkish sentiment,’ said Dr Cagri Erhan. ‘Because of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Syria, other countries, accuse Turkey of keeping their lives underdeveloped for five centuries. So Turkey now has to balance its policies. We’re not a Pacific island. We have troublesome areas around us.’
Historically, Turkey has been a frontier or meeting point of Islam and Christianity. As US politics are taking a lead from its deeply conservative and Christian heartlands, so Turkey is beginning to follow its own grass roots sentiment.
The first real sign was two years ago, just before the Iraq invasion, the Turkish parliament voted to ban US troops from going into northern Iraq through Turkey.
‘This absolutely changed our image in the region,’ explained Dr Sukrum Elekdag, an elegant and urbane member of parliament and former Turkish Ambassador to Washington. ‘The Arab countries said they never expected this to come from Turkey. They thought we were a pawn on Washington’s.’ 4.10
So – democracy in the Middle East?
‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘The present circumstances do not allow the US to implement this project successfully.’