Turkey’s Future: One Hand to the West and One Toward Minarets

Published in fall 2005 by a Norwegian newspaper.

Written by Khari Johnson and Per Christian Selmer-Anderson.

46 years after first applying for European Union membership and three weeks after the start of a ten to fifteen year long negotiation-process the minarets in Istanbul are calling. As the sun sets and the imam concludes prayer, the poor begin to gather in lines for free Ramadan dinners and families begin their daily feast.

In the Uskudar neighbourhood, the Aladag family has just finished a large Ramadan dinner, consisting of several kebab-dishes and grilled vegetables. Over chai tea and short snacks, we start conversation about the EU.

“I hope the EU will give my children the possibilities I never had like travelling around the world,” Huseyin Aladag (28) says.

Joining the EU will create higher standards with better working hours and wages, Aladag says, more opportunities for his unborn children.

Soon he will be married but there are few pictures of his fiance in the house and the most prevalent photo is one of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister and head of the Islamist based Justice and Development Party.

After his fathers death 10 years ago he inherited the apartment where he now lives with his sister Reyhan (30) and mother Havva (48). When he marries next spring, he will move to another apartment in the neighbourhood with his wife.

The 28-year-old describes himself as a conservative person who believes in traditional religious values like covered women and attends the mosque regularly.

Being a conservative, Huseyin hopes the many state governed companies, like Turkish Airlines, will privatise in the run up to the EU. The Turkish government has taken steps towards privatization of industry in recent years, selling various government controlled industries to private firms and investors.

A smaller government with changed police laws and more respect for human rights, Aladag says, are good signs of change.

“In 10 years if the EU rejects us, democracy will continue. Economy and human rights are problems but they are solved quicker with the European Union,” Huseyin says.

Huseyin thinks the rest of Europe can learn something about family values from Turkey, like caring for the elderly and helping each other out. However there are pieces of Turkish culture he hopes will disappear in a more “European” Turkey.

“According to the old customs you are not allowed to cut your toenails in the night and not allowed to marry between festivities. In some places they still sacrifice goats,” he said.

The family appreciates the prime minister’s attempt to bring Turkey into the EU. Like the women of the Aladag family, the prime minister’s wife covered by a headscarf.

“What I hope the most is that I will be able to walk around in closed dressing. I am lucky,the bank I work in is conservative so I am allowed to wear my headscarf at work,” Reyhan says referring to the prohibition of headscarves in Turkish Universities as well as for state employees.

The whole family is pro European Union, but the mother Havva Aladag has some concerns.

She is afraid that Turkey will be too modernized and that the new generations will forget their religious roots and traditions.

“I do not agree with my mother. We will not loose our religion. This is just a part of a big development where education and human rights are in progress of getting better,” Reyhan argues.

At midnight the family goes to bed. It is just five hours until they have to get up again to eat their morning meal before sunrise.

The man who sings the morning prayer in Uskudar is imam Ali Namli of the Salami Ali mosque.

We meet him in the mosque just after the many hundreds of mosque attendees have rushed home after prayer to get ready for Ramadan meals. Dr. Namli has a PhD in Sufism.

“Europe thinks every Muslim is like Osama bin Laden,” said the imam. “Turkey there is no extremism because learned people are in the positions. Turkey will never be a Saudi Arabia or other countries.”

As part of reforms made in the first half of the 20th century state controlled seminary schools were opened called the Faculty of Divinity to “reform” Islam. Turkey, Namli says, will not be the only one to gain from EU membership.

“Europe wants to be a big community,\u201d Namli says \u201cit will accept Turkey and all other cultures but if they want to be small they can do what they want. What Turkey takes will not be as much as Turkey gives.”

Europe can learn lessons from Turkey he says on religious tolerance.

“We have experience with living with other religions. In the Ottoman Empire we lived friendly with every kind of people.”

Namli never said that Turkey is perfect though. Turkey needs reform, Namli says, regardless of if Turkey enters the EU or not.

“The EU can help but our problems will not pass only with the EU. It’s about us. We can only look our way to grow up.”

As Namli reflects on the future his ten year old son is playing with the window shades.

A stripe of sun floods in to the imam’s small office. Turkey is changing, Namli says, a fact that is evident in its young and growing population. The Turkish State Statistic Institute reports that 26 percent of Turkey’s population is 14 and under. The current workforce of 25 million will double by 2020, around the time Turkey will join the union if it is to join.

One of the young and educated is Yafes Doski, a 25-year-old studying medicine in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyabakir. Kurds, like Yafes, make up 20 percent of Turkey’s population, nearly 14 million people. Himself Kurdish, he considers his town and the land surrounding to be Kurdistan. On the wall in his room is a picture of Kurt Cobain, one of his favorite musicians. Across from the poster sits a modest bust of a Native American in headdress. He respects the Native Americans he says for how they fought bravely for their land.

He recalls when he was younger not being able to walk publicly with Turkish friends or read Kurdish books. “Before we couldn’t speak Kurdish or listen to Kurdish music. That has now changed.”

He thinks the PKK, a Kurdish paramilitary force (the largest armed opposition group in Turkey according to Amnesty International), assisted in getting Kurds human rights. The Turkish government in its endeavor to become a more open society for EU membership
eased restrictions on Kurdish people’s rights as well. Over 35, 000 people are estimated to have died during conflict between the Turkish government and PKK forces between 1984 and the late 90s. A ceasefire, which held for over six years, was called off by the PKK in June 2004.

He believes in the European Union for the changes it can make in Kurdish people’s lives in Turkey. He knows though that Turks “still don’t love Kurds”, alluding to resentment he feels from Turks.

The economy and educational system of Turkey’s southeast, where the majority of Turkey’s Kurdish population resides, is considered the worst of any of the nation’s regions.

“Now there are very bad things,” he said referring to the current situation in Turkey. “It can be worse if there is no European Union.”

Even though he thinks PKK fighters have helped Kurds gain more rights, he says he would not want to join the fighters. He would rather get an education and help better his people. However, he understands the struggle.

“When soldiers come and kill your brother or your father is killed, you may go and fight in the mountains [where the forces stay]. It is not only for terrorism but for our freedom. We are here. We are Kurds. Is this wrong?”

When asked if he found killings by PKK fighters wrong, Doski says, “War is always wrong but sometimes it is useful.”

Hootan Shambayati is following a different sort of fight. An associate professor at Bilkent University, Shambayati focuses on legal matters and court cases.

Freedom of the press may have some influence on what happens in negotiations, Shambayati says, and though things have improved he says the indictment of journalists is still evidence of flaws in the system, giving the example of an Armenian journalist Orhan Pamuk.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organization based in New York City, claim that Pamuk was indicted on the charge of “insulting and weakening Turkish identity through the media.” Pamuk will stand trial Dec 17 for a statement made to a Swiss magazine that he told, “one million Armenians were killed in Turkey.”

Discussion of issues like Pamuk’s charges, Shambayati says, is positive. If convicted, it would be bad, allowing the persecution of Turkish journalists to proceed. If acquitted however it could be very positive, perhaps setting a precedent in Turkish law to protect
journalists who write about issues their government doesn’t like.
Shambayati is for the European Union but isn’t content with the way things have been handled so far.

“Changes are being made, “he says, “but only to fulfill EU standards, not Turkish needs.”

This worries Shambayati who thinks that with the rapacity of change taking place in the Turkish system that new progress may not be wholly accepted by Turkish citizens.

The Turkish government, Shambayati says, is taking a minimalist approach to reform, meaning that they are doing the least possible to meet European standards.

“If people realized how much change there is, no one would want to join.”

“Passing reforms are easy,” Shambayati said. “Implementing those reforms is difficult.”

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