Bob Schwartz

Tag: Istanbul

Istanbul

Istanbul Street

Above is a photo of a street in Istanbul. It is one of hundreds I’ve taken of the city.

Today’s news, a bombing at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport, might discourage visits to this city—a city that depends on its fully-deserved tourism.

Istanbul from the Terrace

Istanbul is possibly the most fascinating city in the West. Or the East. Or in the East and West, since Istanbul is literally the historic and cultural bridge between two worlds. The Christians came. The Muslims came. And then as the Muslim world tried to find its ways in the 20th century, Kemal Ataturk formed a new kind of modern Muslim nation—one that was more Western, one that had its own language instead of Arabic. Rooted in its history, reaching for the future, it has stood apart.

There’s not a lot to say right now. It can be hard for people to ignore the possibility of random terror just to experience this urban treasure. Which is a shame. Because as many special cities as there are, there is only one Istanbul.

Istanbul Cat

Duran Adam in Turkey

Duran Adam
He is “duran adam”—the standing man. On Monday, Erdem Gunduz stood still for hours in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, staring at a public portrait of Kemal Ataturk, to protest the latest ban on demonstrations. Others joined him, as the image went national and then global. Police moved in: he was able to walk away and escape arrest, others didn’t.

As pointed out in a previous post, we should pay attention to Turkey because it is so special and so different than our preconceptions of what the world is and how it works. It is certainly a democracy today, but has not always been, and not quite what we think of as a democracy. It is certainly a Muslim country, but has not always been, and not quite what we think of as a Muslim country.

Whether Prime Minister Erdogan has been too long in office, whether he is taking Turkey in directions that defy many citizens and the ideals of Ataturk, whether he is truly a democrat, are things to be determined.

It is clear that he has crossed the line between firm response and heavy-handed overreach. It is clear that he is facing the quandary of all reformers, real or putative: your practice of reform is never the only game in town, and others have very different ideas. Most of all, Erdogan, like many leaders, seems to have no idea what he is dealing with, so he is under the impression that power is always the trump card.

He is half right. Power is always the trump card, but it is hard to know exactly which kind of power you are talking about or having to deal with. Is one man standing a power? What about a thousand people, or a million? History tells us that you can jail the thousands and even kill the millions. But as long as there are witnesses, might still is forced to co-exist with right, even when might wins.

The difference between witnessing and watching is a fine line. As this spreads, we will see if the media have the courage to cover a bunch of people just standing still. The media seem to like their reality shows with a little more action. Fortunately, the people’s media, the social media, may have more tolerance and a longer attention span. If you look long enough, standing still starts looking like moving forward, and that gets people really excited. It is how for millennia, from Christian origins through Gandhi through the civil right movement and on and on, nothing seemed to turn into something—because it was always something.

It was a standing man, that would not be moved.

Istanbul Spring

Today's Zaman
O Istanbul. Crown jewel and epicenter of Turkey. Literal crossroad of the world, east and west. Beloved city of many world travelers, who find themselves immersed in a multi-millennial mix of cultures. In Istanbul, you are simultaneously located and dislocated in geography and time.

The hours of coverage of the clashes in Taksim Square will not make this quite clear. Protests against the demolition of Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in modern growing Istanbul, ripened into broader complaint about the direction of the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan.

Today in Taksim, Erdogan acted on his threatend lost patience, setting the police on occupying protestors, whom he believes to have been infiltrated by violent political activists and radicals. Tear gas, water cannons, and other dispersal techniques followed.

Turkey—and particularly its world-class city Istanbul—does not fit easily in any of the usual boxes. The anomaly is the work of a single man, a visionary autocrat who managed to give autocracy a good name, who took one of the most culturally rich but tradition-bound countries in the world and pushed/dragged it into the twentieth century.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) disrupted and redirected a country’s trajectory as few have ever done. First President of the Republic of Turkey, and still almost a god-like presence, he was determined to see Turkey regain its former glory not by looking backward but by moving forward and becoming a modern, secular, European-style democracy. Along with universal education and changing the way that people dressed (he banned the fez, for example), he literally changed the language, reformatting Turkish with a Roman alphabet.

It worked for the most part, though with sporadic gaps. The old and the new live comfortably and excitingly with each other, as a visit to Istanbul demonstrates. Turkey is thriving. Those whose image of Islam is informed by skewed sketches find one of the world’s most Muslim countries defying stereotypes.

Democracy has been an on-again, off-again phenomenon in Turkey. As the twentieth century crept into the twenty-first, the progress that Ataturk enabled led to expectations that would not be denied. The rise of Islamism and traditionalism under the current leadership, even as Erdogan pushed important reform, does not sit well with a generation—again particularly in Istanbul—that takes secularism, modern culture and principles of freedom very seriously.

That is how we get here today. Even as Prime Minister Erdogan was intent on ending the occupation of Taksim Square, dozens of lawyers joined in and were arrested at the courthouse. These tensions are nothing new for Turkey; the military has been in charge more than once, and was then turned out. What is new is how much of the world is watching.

This isn’t about whether a little city park in Istanbul should make way for a shopping center, or whether drinking alcohol should be restricted in Turkey (another issue that has seeped into the discussion). It isn’t the same as other “springs”, Prague or Arab, about moving from dictatorship to democracy. This is a democracy already, one of the most interesting in the world. We are watching the kind of challenges that twenty-first century democracies will be facing, and seeing whether purportedly enlightened leaders can find appropriate ways of meeting them. For the sake of Turkey, and especially for the sake of glorious Istanbul, let’s hope so.

Istanbul