Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey. (Crescent Wrenched: Turkey Is America's Strongest Ally in the Islamic World. Can We Save It from Self-Destructing?)

By Mason, Whit | The Washington Monthly, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey. (Crescent Wrenched: Turkey Is America's Strongest Ally in the Islamic World. Can We Save It from Self-Destructing?)


Mason, Whit, The Washington Monthly


I WAS IN A CAB ON MY WAY TO DINNER in Istanbul recently when I heard the sound of cannon fire, the signal that the day's Ramadan fasting was over. Then came the call of the muezzins from minarets all over the city, and the sight of the Muslim faithful making their way to mosques. As usual, there were no angry protests against America, no loud chants of support for the Taliban, the kind you might see in other Islamic countries. Indeed, though opinion polls indicate that a majority of Turks oppose the U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds, any American in Turkey these days is bombarded by condolences for September 11th and expressions of solidarity coming from Turks from all walks of life. My cab driver, for instance, told me that we (Turks and Americans) had to stand together against these Arab fanatics. Later, at a hip Thai restaurant where I was having dinner with an American diplomat--the place brimming with slickly dressed customers anxious to break the Ramadan fast--the young Turkish waiter took a moment to ask what we thought about the war in Afghanistan. Apparently reading our non-committal expressions to mean that our resolve needed stiffening, the young man leaned forward, looking each of us in the eve in turn. "It's too bad some innocent people have to die," this young Muslim pronounced firmly, "but the war is absolutely necessary."

Turkey is once again showing itself to be America's strongest, most reliable ally in the Islamic world. The Turkish government has offered to send 90 commandos to join the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan. The U.S. airbase at Incirlik, in the south of Turkey, is a vital logistics hub for operations in Afghanistan--and in Iraq, if the war turns in that direction. While other Muslim countries talk about driving Israel into the sea, Turkey conducts joint training exercises with Israeli forces. When Colin Powell visited Ankara in December, it was to coordinate with a trusted ally, not to solicit support from "the Muslim world."

Modern Turkey has looked westward for over 80 years, ever since its founder, Kemal Ataturk, introduced the Latin script, bowler hats, ballroom dancing, and secular government. This tradition lives on. The big debate right now in Turkey is about how the country can make the changes required to join the European Union (Turkey became a candidate for membership two years ago). For decades, Turkey has been a member of NATO and a vital military ally. But the events of Sept. 11 underscore the increasing importance of Turkey as an economic and cultural ally as well. In addition to fighting terrorism directly, America must find ways of draining off some of the Islamic world's anti-Western fury. This will mean convincing Islamic citizens that they, too, can prosper in the modern, commercial, democratic world. In this effort, Turkey could be a beacon of hope.

But if it's going to play that role, Turkey must first save itself. The economy, already in bad shape, went critical last February after Turkey's aged and prickly Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit, had a public spat with the nation's independent-minded president, Abdul Necet Sezer. Overnight the Turkish lira lost 30% of its value and the stock market crashed. After briefly rising above $3,000, Turks' per capita income is now back to about $2,700. Though bread only costs about twenty cents a loaf, thousands now stand in lines for subsidized loaves. Inflation this year will be between 70 and 80 percent. With the economy hollowed out by corruption and the flight of hot money, a new $10 billion loan from the IMF secured this summer only allows Turkey to pay the interest on its foreign debt. Anyone young and educated enough to imagine a different life is dreaming of emigrating. Older people are simply hopeless. Almost daily, Turkish papers warn of a "social meltdown."

This is not a momentary crisis caused by a worldwide recession. Rather, like Japan's 10-year stagnation, the problem is rooted in the country's structure.

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