I am sending my final post on Turkey after arriving in Rome. We enjoyed a wonderful last lecture by Jim Wright. Jim and Heather have made a fantastic contribution to this leg of our journey.
Turkey—and especially Istanbul—is under stress. Erdogan is in the midst of a Putin-like move, trying to evade term limits by transferring the power from the prime minister to the presidency so he can run again when he gets term-limited in a year. Speculation focuses on whether he will succeed, and if he does, what it will mean. The longer he stays in power, the more he continues to tilt Turkey toward his Islamist priorities. This is unfortunate. Turkey has been a critical force for stability in the region and what he is putting in motion has the potential to undermine a legitimate and unique effort to build a country able to hold its own on the world stage. The most obvious example of this is the level of friendly but pointed sarcasm and cynicism you hear from Turkish nationals. It seems like Erdogan is losing his edge as a leader operating for the greater good of the country and is now perceived to be operating to preserve and extend his stay in office.
The Kurdish issue continues. Recent efforts at peace talks are proving helpful, but the history is long, dark and violent. Whatever change occurs is likely to be incremental as nobody expects wholesale change even if the best-case scenario develops. It is a huge challenge. Fully 20 percent of the Turkish population is Kurdish, living in the eastern-most part of the country and joining with Kurds from other surrounding countries to form what they claim as the autonomous region of “Kurdistan.” Can you imagine the southeastern United States fully armed, hostile and wanting to govern itself? We had our own Civil War 150 years ago, and I don’t sense that this will be Turkey’s path, but the tensions are similar, and the lingering and entrenched animosities are real.
The economy continues to do well. Now that the EU is the “sick child of Europe,“ Turkey’s ongoing efforts to join seem less crucial. Still, for an economy with a strong manufacturing base and an export surplus, they remain a real player in both the European and the global economy and would benefit even more from tariff-free access to the 27 EU countries. Turkey is also mindful of its relatively young age as a country. More than 50 percent of all Turks are under the age of 30. To encourage a strong national population, Erdogan has recently passed legislation giving extraordinary tax breaks to families who have three or more children. The most obvious place you see the challenges facing the country is in workforce employment. How will Turkey provide opportunities for full employment while negotiating the stresses of a renewed Islamist push? It is really unclear, but the solution will require a new round of innovation and entrepreneurship, which the country is capable of providing.
It’s striking to see the religious hard edge emerging in Turkey specifically and the region generally. Our conversations never stayed within the borders of Turkey. The Syrian issue is huge and present on everyone’s mind. The targeting of non-Muslim minorities is increasing, the latest round of a centuries-long struggle. We need Turkey to be successful for any number of reasons, including its role as a source of political stability, economic vitality and religious moderation. The next 10 years will see all these tensions, and no doubt many more, become even more dominant.
As I leave Istanbul for the second time, I am even more enamored with all I’ve encountered in this vast and historic country. The territory ahead is unclear. Certainly there is no clear path as Erdogan continues to erode the 90-year legacy of the republic. But the country itself is strong, and the intellectual strength and the national pride are enough to inspire confidence in its future. What a joy to have experienced yet again the mesmerizing effect of Istanbul. I am so pleased we have a semester-abroad program here and that our students and our entire Westmont family can continue to engage, enjoy and seek to understand this country through our program in Istanbul.
Gayle D. Beebe