Negotiating Antalya’s highways at night is a bit like streaming through high mountain rapids.
The rules of the road are suspended, as cars glide from lane to lane and the mind turns to liquid. And yet, the signs of development are everywhere evident in the quality of automobiles and the roads upon which they drive.
Turkey is becoming increasingly urbanized, increasingly developed, increasingly European, and, up until a few short years ago, increasingly democratic. And yet, it seems somehow to drift further and further away, like the lone man swimming out past the dock from which these words are written.
This is now my fourth journey to Turkey, and each time it seems to become more and more inaccessible, as if there is some window to the West that is slowly closing. Relatively strong development seems to have done little to integrate Turkey into the developed world. If anything, just the opposite seems the case.
The hotel staff seem resentful of their wealthy European and Russian patrons. And there is a palpable lack of openness to our differences. It is as if being on the margins of Europe for too long has brought about a souring. And there seems little room for a friendly smile or a few words of interest to heal the divide. Like inequality within nations, inequality between nations can be humiliating.
In contrasting the commonplace with the novelty of the unknown, travel has long been known to evoke new insights. Seeing these disparities up close makes them all the more poignant. And it sheds a new light on what many have experienced as a clash of civilization, which might just as well be a clash of modes of production. What appear to be great cultural divides are all-too-often merely developmental divides and almost completely vanish after a generation or two of sustained economic growth. But these speculations on Turkey are little more than just that, for our contact with people has been slight thus far.
Here in Antalya, they are preparing for an upcoming G-20 summit. The progress they are making on the roads is happening too fast, as if none of it is meant to last. It reminds us of the film, Risky Business, where after a weekend of partying with prostitutes, Tom Cruise dashes through his house cleaning up any signs of abnormality just before his parents get home.
They are wiping the streets clean of any sign that this may still be a poor country in which hundreds of honor killings take place each year; in which democratic rights are being eroded by an elected but nevertheless authoritarian government; in which the southeastern Kurds, which were cleansed from thousands of villages in the nineties, and comprise about 20 percent of the population, still remain poorly integrated at best. The former Ottoman Empire, of which Turkey remains but a rump, was a powerful empire that would have rivaled any European state of its day. But Turkey itself has a long way to go before it possesses the feeling of a well-ordered, European democracy.
And yet, Turkey is, if anything, a place of contrasts: East and West, rich and poor, secular and religious, democratic and authoritarian, the divisions here can be sharp. Perhaps it is these contrasts that make it one of those places continually eluding the grasp of commentators since well before the twentieth century. Being my first Islamic travel destination at age 18, where my connection with a local best friend and girlfriend ran deep, it has long held a special place in my heart. But however many books read and visits made, it still feels far away.
Turkey has long been known as the bridge between East and West. Lying in the heartland of the old Ottoman Empire, it is one of the world’s largest Islamic states. And yet, just a few short years ago it seemed poised to become one of the largest states in the European Union. Following a long phase of expansion, in which its boundaries pushed outward into former Soviet territories, the E.U. now seems due for retrenchment, though. And the potential membership of Turkey may be the greatest casualty.
Turkish membership in the E.U. would add to it another 80 million person country to rival the U.K., France, and Germany. In so doing, it would add to Europe a vast influx of young workers, who might bolster the economy as population ages. In this way, Turkish membership could maintain the tax base as an older generation of Europeans pass into retirement. Turkish membership in the E.U. might, in this way, go a long way toward saving the European welfare state.
But the real problem with Turkey joining the E.U. is Islamophobia. Europeans committed genocide against their largest minorities, the Jews and Romani, in World War II. And it can sometimes seem as if Muslims have simply been inserted in their place—another large minority, ill-integrated and problematic as before. Europe too needs to get its act together.
More Muslims in Europe will bring increasing exposure to both their similarities and differences, making the once unfamiliar familiar and breeding new fusion and possibilities for art, literature, culture, and community. This is how people have long learned to live together in peace. But it might just as easily intensify the backlash. Meanwhile, Turkey drifts between East and West, like the new cars, driving well designed roads, that cannot seem to settle on a lane. If it can find its place, it just might possibly heal the perceived divide between Islam and the West.
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Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May