We happened to be in Turkey during the 2007 re-election of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We traveled all over the country, and we were so enamored with the city of Istanbul that we decided to return this spring. However, when we told people that we planned a second visit to Turkey, we received a chorus of negative reactions based, I believe, on the perception of the changes made in the last few years by Erdogan’s government.
Istanbul is one of the most intriguing cities on the planet. While it is not the capital of Turkey, it remains the heart and soul of the country and is one of the largest cities in the world. Just as the Bosphorus divides the city – with one side in Europe and the other in Asia – Istanbul is a mixture of the modern era and of years gone by. One sees Ferraris race past ancient push carts.
As a visitor, your impression of the city’s atmosphere depends upon where you stay. We selected a hotel near the Topkapi Palace, which was made famous in the 1964 movie starring Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov and Maximilian Schell. In this portion of the city, you breathe a sense of history – but spending a day at the Grand Bazaar quickly convinces you that the people of Turkey are 21st-century capitalists. Though you hear calls for prayer wailing from the minarets, none of the merchants budge from haggling with the shoppers. This country does not mince words when they say they want your business. Any commercial establishment in the city will take Turkish Liras, but they will gladly also accept American dollars or Euros. They don’t particularly care how you pay – they just want you to buy, eat, and enjoy.
We crossed the Bosphorus to meet some government officials at an upscale shopping center that could easily have been mistaken for a mall in suburban America. Both sides of the street were lined with tall office buildings, including a Trump Tower. It’s no surprise that our taxi driver told us that we were entering the “Manhattan of Istanbul.”
As we pulled into the center, we were confronted with Turkish reality. We were subjected to a security inspection comparable to an embassy – and totally unlike the casual environment at American malls. When we asked our lunch guests why security was so tight, we were told that it was normal and that the PKK (Kurdish Separatists) had recently exploded a bomb not far from where we were dining. They informed us that this was a fairly regular occurrence, which is something we don’t hear much about in the United States.
We started discussing the current state of the Turkish government and its move toward becoming more of a Muslim nation. Interestingly, we were told that while some laws were changed in the second Erdogan term, there is little difference in the daily life of the typical Turk. Our concerns regarding recent Turkish actions toward Israel were countered by the fact that the volume of trade between the two countries remains constant, and that Israelis continue to comprise a major part of the Turkish IT industry. When we mentioned that many Israelis now feel uncomfortable traveling to Turkey, our hosts acknowledged that several Mediterranean resorts, economically harmed by the absence of Israeli tourists, were pressuring the government to improve relations with the Jewish state. Again, we were reminded that Turks are capitalists, and that it is economics and trade that drives most government policy. Finally, we asked if Mr. Erdogan had ever heard of George Washington, and how he had walked away after two terms. Mr. Erdogan, who most likely was elected to his third term as Prime Minister yesterday, has promised that it is his last. But, like many Americans in the Jewish community, we would much prefer a Washingtonian assurance of leadership change.
We left our meeting feeling better about the future of Turkey as a free, independent and secular state. This country is above all Turkish and capitalist – and it is very little like Saudi Arabia, Iran or Syria. These people are focused on making a living, and have a high level of commitment to modern technology. Even the women who walk around in traditional garb carry a cell phone, and you have to wonder how they’re going to keep the kids down on the farm after they’ve seen Lady Gaga.
Turkey remains a bellwether country that demonstrates a path to modern Islam. The forces that Erdogan has turned loose must be kept in check, but ultimately it is the Turks who need to make a choice between the contemporary society that they are or the ignorance and barbarity of radical Islam. Having been there twice, I believe the Turks want to be part of the modern world.