Founding Member
Turkey facing identity crisis

By Sabrina Tavernise
The New York Times
Monday, December 4, 2006

For every stereotype of a Muslim country, Turkey has a fact to break it.

It has Islamic feminists (a few), and Israeli tourists (many). Reality dating shows have had the highest ratings on television and Islamic fashion sashays down Turkish runways.

For decades in Turkey, the competing forces of the religious and secular, Christian and Muslim, east and west, were muted, as authorities scrubbed the country of differences while they built a modern state. But Turkey has become more democratic in recent years and those forces have burst into full view, creating a sort of modern-day identity crisis.

"We have started to think very differently about our history," said Leyla Neyzi, an anthropologist at Sabanci University, one of Turkey's first private colleges. "The past is being re-thought in terms of the demands of the present."

Nowhere is that questioning more apparent than in Istanbul, the lively port city that is the cultural and intellectual center of the country.

Aynur Dogan is a Kurdish singer with a powerful voice who grew up in war. Turkish forces and Kurdish separatists were fighting in the southern part of the country where she lived, and where talking her native Kurdish was illegal. Tapes of Kurdish music were buried in the yard when government forces entered her village. Her family fled to Istanbul in 1992 to escape fighting by Kurdish guerrillas that was being brutally suppressed by the Turkish state.

She took an interest in Kurdish music, but in the late 1990s the only audiences were underground. In Turkish society, Kurdish was a bad word.

"It looked impossible," she said, smoking a Winston Light in a dark café lined with murals.

By 2004, she was appearing on mainstream Turkish television singing in Kurdish. That year, she released her first album, "Kurdish Girl." It was temporarily banned by the government, but not before it sold large numbers of copies and its sale was again permitted. Now, two years later, she performs frequently in Europe, and a film about Istanbul's music scene has featured her singing.

There are still limits in Turkey. Sponsors of Kurdish musical events are hard to find and it is difficult to get a venue, but young Turks in the music shops eagerly recommend her album.

"I felt there was this new group of people emerging," she said.

Many forces helped release the river of memory. One has been a steady series of reforms Turkey has enacted to gain entry to the European Union.

The push to join, led by the pro-Islamic government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, elected in 2002, has recently faltered, souring Turks on the process. But the reforms, which have opened Turkey's society and economy, have stuck.

Another factor has been the changing international landscape. The Muslim world has grown angry at the West, particularly the United States, for what Muslim countries say is behavior that singles out Muslims and creates a backlash against Islamic identity. Turkey is no exception.

But Turkey has also matured. The young professionals who walk along Istanbul's central avenues at a New York pace clutching cellphones and BlackBerry devices are only a few generations away from the time when Turkey became a state in 1923. Yet they are far enough away from the secular revolution of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, to start to question it.

There has been a flurry of films, books and oral histories about Turkey's past in recent years, and it feels more democratic than at any time in its short history, Neyzi said.

Turkish Jews now have a museum. Turkey last year held a conference on the Armenian killings of World War I, described as genocide by many in the West but not by the Turkish state. (Estimates of deaths given by the allies at the end of the war ranged from 600,000 to 800,000.)

It is a painful process. When Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish novelist who has spoken out on the Armenian question, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the president of Turkey did not congratulate him. That is because Pamuk is seen as a tool of anti-Turkish forces, whose views of the country can be critical, instead of being seen as a writer who made the Turkish novel universal, Neyzi said.

"All the skeletons in the closet are spilling out," said Neyzi, who chose to return to Turkey after earning a doctorate from Cornell University. "It's creating a lot of conflict in society."

The danger, Turks said, is that too abrupt a process would sharpen nationalist and Islamist sentiments and possibly lead to another coup by the army, a traditional safeguard of the country's secularism. There have been three in Turkey's short history.

That, in turn, would set back reforms, roll back debate and could seriously damage the significant economic gains Turkey has made in the past six years.

To prevent that, intellectuals like Nazan Olcer, an art museum director, are bringing up the past in small bits. Shortly after the 2002 opening of the museum, it arranged to show a collection of an Armenian from Ottoman times.

"It was a hot iron," said Olcer, sitting on a gilded love seat in her office near the museum, funded, like Neyzi's university, by the Sabanci family, the Turkish equivalent of the Rockefellers. "Everyone warned us not to do it."

In the end, people came. By the time they left, they understood a little more about the collector and were questioning some of their own assumptions, she said. "You remind people to think twice," she said.

In 2005, the museum brought the first Picasso to Turkey, and this year held an exhibition of Rodin sculptures. The nude figures did not seem to bother the Turks, many of whom are devout, Olcer said.

On Tuesday, in another dip into the past, the museum will open an exhibition of Genghis Khan, including some of the earliest Turkic writing and inscriptions. "A very important dialogue is beginning," Olcer said. "I want to tell them the history. Not with a heroic approach. Not with strongly accented nationalism. What they were missing was the knowledge."

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Istanbul.


Turkey facing identity crisis
Very interesting article, Mushtaq. Serves as a reminder that when we moan that relatively unimportant issues in Turkey are not all that we would wish for we tend to forget the great strides that have been made by such a young Republic. The more I read about Turkey the more I realise how little I know about it and the more I admire the Turks.


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