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News from the Hill September 08, 2008 | back to index

News from Mick McCain (‘68) Spirit of the Hill Honoree (’08)

Turkey Summer 2008 * August 1, 2008

There have been several inquiries from friends and family members wondering what is going on in Turkey these days, and why, and what it means for the future…and we wonder about those things ourselves. But let me give it a stab.

At the outset, it must be said that ours is not the point of view of the whole country. We live far to the west, in economic and educational plenty, cultural sophistication and ease. Those around me are secular Turks devoted to the principles of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic and its great leader and hero. They are appalled by encroaching religious fundamentalism: personnel in a myriad of government positions have been sacked and replaced by those educated in schools run by, and for, imams. These include Turkish Airlines staffers, the directors of the museums, central bureaucracy workers, tax and property inspectors – the list goes on and on.

The murders, within the past couple of years, of prominent Christian people (Roman Catholic priests, German-Turkish missionaries, the head of Istanbul’s prominent Armenian newspaper) is unprecedented in my 40+ year history here.

The government’s interference in the academic freedom of the universities rampages on: appointments of stunning inappropriateness, by the President of Turkey, have replaced the long-time practice of university rectors being elected by their peers on the faculties.

But there are two other major things going on. They are both very hard to understand, and while under continual scrutiny from pundits, press and gossips, they still are more confusing than real. The first is the court case to close the Justice and Development (AK) Party, which has a clear majority in the parliament. It’s the party of both the prime minister and the president, though the presidency is supposed to be above politics – and has been in power for six years or so (before that it existed under a different name, with slightly different lead players). I will not argue the merits of the party or deny the progress it has enabled in Turkey, but in light of what has happened in Iran and Afghanistan in recent years, it should be pretty obvious that a move away from strict secularism that strikes at the heart of Ataturk’s reforms is not welcomed by the Turks I know and love.

Essentially, the case against the party is that it tries to bring religion into the political realm, with the ultimate goal of establishing Sheriat, or Muslim, law. The most important manifestation, and the most powerful symbol, has centered on removing the restriction against the Islamic headscarf in schools, universities and other public places. Earlier this week the Constitutional Court gave a strong and stern warning to the party but failed (by 1 vote out of 11) to close it.

This is disappointing, though the warning to the AK Party is tantamount to being put on probation and fined heavily. At least it spares us the agony of dissolving parliament and going through an election now, and it’s off the agenda.

The other big item still on the agenda is called ERGENEKON. It’s the code name for a massive investigation into a supposed plot to overthrow the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It has involved the detention of scores of intellectuals, journalists and other writers, even a university rector and some high-ranking military officers. Setting aside the massive infringement of civil rights, freedom of the press and of expression, the amazing fact that the military establishment sat idly by, without intervening on behalf of its own generals, has stunned the populace. The investigation continues.

Against these huge incidents of political unrest, the occasional and indiscriminate (but very effective) terrorist bombings are, as you would expect, effective. Law enforcement is seen to be busy with the political stuff; investigations into public crimes seem to falter, and there is widespread belief that the integrity of the police, and maybe the military, is compromised.

Turkey is as beset by the high cost of petroleum as everybody else. Americans should try to understand that we pay 3 times as much as you do at the gas pumps, in large measure because of US foreign policy, the continuing war in Iraq and other Middle Eastern struggles.

Nevertheless, tourists keep on coming. The beaches are wonderful, food is fantastic, and people are nice to other people. Istanbul is absolutely magic, despite the horrors of metropolitan driving.

We are fine. Worried, and somewhat ashamed, and unable to see where there is an alternative to the present political morass. But, we are still looking forward to welcoming you (!) to Turkey whenever your faces turn our way.

Mick and Evin McCain
Urla/Izmir Turkey
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