Turkey is a proud nation and a land of paradoxes — and both for the same reasons. For despite 99 per cent of its population being Muslim, the country has secular credentials; despite society, much like India, being collectivistic and traditional, cities are Westernised and modern, and despite being located near war-torn Iraq and Syria, Turkey is a relatively peaceful bridge between Europe and Asia.
Everywhere we go, Istanbul, Safranbolu or Ankara, the Turks are always ready with a joke or a Bollywood reference when we tell them that we are from India — or what they call “Hindistan.”
“The Turks seem a happy lot,” we tell a cheerful looking tea shop owner in Cappadocia. “Not at all,” he shrugs as he offers us hot salep. “We have lots of problems. And they are only growing.”
The sentiment seems to be shared by other Turks too. Concerns regarding the erosion of secular values by a pro-Islamist government and the inability to fully adjust to modernity can be found in some pockets of the country.
Over the past two months, Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an, Turkey’s 12th President, has, true to his style, courted more trouble with some controversial statements that point towards a vision far flung from Kemalism — more than ever before.
Controversial statements
First Mr. Erdog˘an chose what could only be called the most inappropriate platform, a summit in Istanbul on justice for women, to preach to his country that women are not equal to men. “Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women: motherhood,” he said to an audience that included his daughter. “You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.”
The President didn’t stop there, but proceeded to provide an explanation for this: it’s simply “natural.” He opined that “the laws of nature” prevent equality and the “delicate” frame of women obstructs them from working like men.
Mr. Erdog˘an’s remarks come exactly a month after a Hürriyet Daily News report stated that “287 women were killed in the first ten months of 2014 alone,” a fact that sought to provide context to the gender equality report released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development just the previous day. According to the OECD report, Turkish women are treated the worst in Europe and the Central Asia region, which includes 46 countries. That a report on this finding ran across four columns of the front page of the newspaper, sidelining even reports on advancements by Islamic State militants in Kobane and details on the mine disaster in Karaman province, is of great significance.
“Turkey is becoming a terrible place for women,” a restaurant owner said to us one evening in Istanbul. “It’s worst in rural areas. Can you believe a woman is not even allowed to smile at her father?”
This is in stark contrast to the Turkey that Ataturk had envisioned for women. There is widespread consensus that women under Ataturk’s rule had enjoyed a better place in society: a secular civil code replaced Sharia law, polygamy was replaced with monogamy, and unequal rights regarding divorce, ownership of property, custody of children, etc. were replaced with equal legal rights. Women were not represented in politics earlier; Ataturk granted them full suffrage.
Mr. Erdog˘an also sparked outrage among historians last month. He stressed at a conference that “Muslim seafarers” had discovered America — a good 300 years before Christopher Columbus had set foot there — and that “Islam had developed and spread on the continent even before Columbus had arrived.” He claimed that Columbus himself had recalled “seeing a mosque at the top of a hill [on] the shores of Cuba.” He added that if permission was granted, “a mosque would be fitting for that hill today.”
And on December 9, he again stirred up a hornet’s nest when he proposed that lessons in Ottoman, an old form of Turkish that uses a version of Arabic script and that was replaced by Ataturk with the Latin alphabet, be made mandatory in high schools.
But Mr. Erdog˘an’s contentious statements, often laced with religious overtones, are far from new. On several occasions he has proposed that more mosques be built in Turkey. Under his rule, secular schools have been converted to religious ones, public offices are seeing more headscarves than ever before, and Turkey’s long-standing problem with its Kurdish minority could be solved, he once said, by appealing to “common Islamic values.”
It’s not just his conservatism but also his autocratic tendencies that are earning him brickbats. His defence of the gargantuan presidential palace in Ankara, reportedly bigger than the White House, the Palace of Versailles and the Buckingham Palace, bears testimony to this. The lavish structure, which sprawls across 50 acres of forest land and which reportedly costs a whopping $615 million, was once Ataturk’s private estate. Surveys show that more than 60 per cent of Turks consider the self-indulgence (though he claims it “belongs to the people”) a waste of money. “This palace amply testifies to Erdog˘an’s megalomania, his lust for rank and opulence and his yearning to revive the ancient Ottoman imperial wealth and glory, with himself on the sultan’s throne,” Sayed Abdel-Meguid wrote in Cairo-based Al-Ahram . But the President is undeterred by all the negative reportage in both national and international press. “You don’t cut corners when it comes to prestige,” he said in Istanbul. “Let me tell you, it [the palace] has 1,150 rooms, not 1,000 as people say.”
Economic reforms
Yet Turkey’s belief in Mr. Erdog˘an’s abilities as a leader is staunch. The country has placed faith in him repeatedly since he founded the Justice and Development Party in 2001. This is not entirely surprising given his vision for a “new Turkey,” one that is under way. Ever since he came to power the first time on the heels of a banking and currency crisis, economic growth has averaged 5.5 per cent, GDP has tripled, exports have quadrupled, living standards have improved and it is believed that he has worked much harder than his predecessors to bring Turkey under the European Union’s fold. By 2023, the President has promised, Turkey will secure a spot in the world’s top ten economies.
But economic growth often comes with a cost: Mr. Erdog˘an attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to “ban twitter,” journalists are increasingly being censored, civilian protests have been stymied through police force, attempts have been made to suppress the Army — considered the bulwark of secularism— and the government is slowly trying to gain control over the judiciary.
“This is not Ataturk’s Turkey,” the restaurant owner shook his head. “We find this new government scary and we fear for our children’s future.”
This authoritarian and Islamist rule indicates a reversal of the secular state structure that Ataturk had succeeded in ushering in. But is that really the primary concern of Turks today, given that the majority of them, as polls show, find Mr. Erdog˘an’s conservative values appealing? Are they really proud of the paradoxes? With mounting criticism has also come growing praise for his vision to place Turkey prominently on the global map. So we won’t know till the next election. But what is abundantly clear is this: by keeping secularists at bay and riding on his popularity in Turkey’s heartland, Mr. Erdog˘an is trying his best to shake off Ataturk’s long shadow.