Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Turkey at a Crossroad

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Turkey at a Crossroad

Article excerpt

"As the country faces a new century, the ideological, cultural, political and economic debates that are flourishing in all sections of society directly question the centrality of state institutions and practices and promise to take Turkey in a different direction."

Beginning in the fall of 1999, many of the institutions, policies and practices that characterized Turkey during the 20th century started to unravel, paving the way for a future that is full of uncertainty for the country and its people. In the closing years of the 20th century, the slow transformation that had been going on for some time culminated in a period of accelerated change that is likely to affect all aspects of life in the country This period of uncertainty, which causes many people to be apprehensive and downright fearful, also inspires hope and optimism among some. Rahmi Koc, one of the most influential industrialists in Turkey put it this way: "We are surfing on the crest of a terrific wave ... a series of events have [sic] cleared our way to the future. We have passed a highly significant turning point."(1) While the particular interpretation of these changes depends on the vantage point from which they are observed or experienced, few people would disagree that over the past year Turkey has moved to a new phase in its history.

There are at least three areas in which the Turkey of the 21st century is likely to be profoundly different from that of the 20th. The first of these areas pertains to Turkish identity. When the modern Republic of Turkey was established, it was assumed that ethnic and linguistic differences would eventually disappear and a homogenous community of Turks would form the core of the new state. Today; it is no longer possible to ignore or minimize the ethnic fault lines that divide the people of Turkey and assume that these are residual divisions that are bound to disappear over time. The second area of change relates to the growing power and assertiveness of Islamist groups in Turkish politics. This also constitutes a significant departure from the early years of the Republic, when Islam was considered the most significant threat to the new state. Today; the Islamist Virtue Party is one of the five largest political parties in the Turkish parliament and is accepted as one of the key players in mainstream Turkish politics. The third area relates to the changes that have accompanied Turkey's growing participation in the new international economy and post-Cold War diplomacy As the world economy becomes integrated with unprecedented speed and intensity, countries such as Turkey are finding that they have little choice but to adapt their economies and policies based on the imperatives of this new global system. After years of hesitation, Turkey has finally started to take steps in this direction. It has eliminated some of its state-centered economic policies, taken steps to bring its domestic political structure in line with international norms and started to practice a more active and effective foreign policy, both in the Middle East and beyond.

In this essay, we first examine the changes that are taking place in these three areas. We then identify the earthquake of 1999 as the factor that jolted not only the physical terrain of Turkey but also the institutions of society and pushed the changes in these three areas beyond their respective points of no return. We end with descriptions of how these changes have combined with the legacies of Ottoman and Turkish history to create a hybrid, diverse and dynamic cultural environment.


The first way in which the Turkey of the 21st century is likely to be substantially different is how it perceives and presents its ethnic identity. When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the other leaders of the new regime embarked on a comprehensive program of creating an ethnically homogeneous community and turning it into the foundation of the new state. …

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