Istanbul, Turkey — “The day this country becomes a part of the EU, I will give up my British citizenship!” exclaimed my English friend. And stepping back on the Lufthansa plane bound to Frankfurt, he concluded: “Back to civilization –“
But the message that a 12-member Yale delegation at this year’s Harvard World Model United Nations was supposed to get was entirely different. The message from our host Koc University to students from six different continents — including schools such as Oxford, Heidelberg, MIT and West Point — was: “Experience Istanbul! Experience Turkey! And realize that we too belong to the West.”
Did I buy this message? Absolutely.
While being shuttled between the newly built Ataturk International Airport, the luxurious Tarabya Grand Hotel on the Bosphorus, the touristy Taxim Square and the grandiose Koc University campus, no one could resist the conclusion that there is absolutely nothing to distinguish Istanbul from any other Western metropolis. Well, there was the extra color and style. But there was nothing to speak of Istanbul as a backward, non-European city.
But when it comes to the Turkish state, many agree that serious problems remain.
Welcoming the students to this conference, the chair of the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s Foreign Relations Commission found it appropriate to criticize the European Union for its pressure on Turkey to improve its human rights record. Then, he went on to praise the Turkish military, stating that democracy cannot exist without a strong military to protect it and urging European NATO allies to start spending more on defense.
An international worker from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees was not the only person in the audience surprised by the highly nationalistic speech. After the speech, she told me about interviewing Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers in Ankara.
In its race to join the West, Turkey has closed its borders to the East, refusing to grant asylum to non-European refugees. But the highly discriminatory policy did show some improvement, she added, when the government promised not to arrest and prosecute Kurds returning to their original homes in Turkey from northern Iraq.
Turkish government still has a long way to go to improve the freedom of the press and the rights of minorities, strengthen its constitutional democracy and improve the treatment of prisoners. Economically, Turkey still has to recover from the most recent shock that drastically devalued its currency and now threatens the survival of the national banking system. These are all challenges that the Turkish people have already resolved themselves to face and overcome.
The EU National Programme, presented last week by the Turkish government, was another landmark step by Turks towards modernizing their state and integrating their society into the European community of nations.
In the document, the government commits itself to fight against torture, lift the state of emergency in the remaining four provinces, redefine the role of the National Security Council, consider the elimination of the death penalty, and incorporate the rights and freedoms provided by the EU into Turkish legislation.
In his now infamous book “The Clash Between Civilizations,” Samuel Huntington of Harvard University prophesized that the sphere of world peace that now binds liberal democracies might not be able to bridge the fissures between the world’s civilizations. Large-scale war might be inevitable, Huntington wrote, as the world’s civilizations collide in face of increasing globalization and interdependence. Fortunately, Istanbul is an illustration that his prophecy will continue to prove wrong.
The struggle that defines the modern age is not between civilizations but within our common civilization. The forces that define the Turkish struggle for modernity are the same forces that define the European immigration policies. They are the forces that were at standoff this weekend in front of the residence of Slobodan Milosevic, who now awaits life in prison for crimes against his nation and humanity.
I am talking about the ideological conflict between progress and tradition that is at the core of our common history and that will ultimately determine the outcome of this current surge of globalization and peace we assume to be irreversible.
The sight of the Asian and European continents approaching each other at sundown, in the shadows of Aya Sofya and the Sultanahmet Mosque, is more than breathtaking. To me, it is the end of the lesson that the sun in Istanbul no longer rises in “the East” and sets in “the West.” It is not about letting Istanbul hold the 2008 Olympics or accepting Turkey into the European Union. The conflict that awaits us will be one about the core definitions of freedom, democracy and progress — not between civilizations but within our civilization.
Milan Milenkovic is a senior in Trumbull College. His regular column appears on alternate Thursdays.