Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds

Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds

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by Stephen Kinzer

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"A sharp, spirited appreciation of where Turkey stands now, and where it may head." —Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

In the first edition of this widely praised book, Stephen Kinzer made the convincing claim that Turkey was the country to watch—poised between Europe and Asia, between the glories of its Ottoman


"A sharp, spirited appreciation of where Turkey stands now, and where it may head." —Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

In the first edition of this widely praised book, Stephen Kinzer made the convincing claim that Turkey was the country to watch—poised between Europe and Asia, between the glories of its Ottoman past and its hopes for a democratic future, between the dominance of its army and the needs of its civilian citizens, between its secular expectations and its Muslim traditions. In this newly revised edition, he adds much important new information on the many exciting transformations in Turkey's government and politics that have kept it in the headlines, and also shows how recent developments in both American and European policies (and not only the war in Iraq) have affected this unique and perplexing nation.

Editorial Reviews
Veteran foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer takes a look at the enigma that is modern Turkey, a county both exotic and dangerous. Looking behind the myths, he shows how this now-modern state has progressed from its former status as part of the Ottoman Empire to its current embrace of democracy. Kinzer, who has spent years living and working in Turkey, is the perfect tour guide for this look at a country striving to become "the most audaciously successful nation of the twenty-first century."

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My favorite word in Turkish is istiklal. The dictionary says it means “independence,” and that alone is enough to win it a place of honor in any language. It has special resonance in Turkey because Turkey is struggling to become independent of so much. It wants to break away from its autocratic heritage, from its position outside the world’s political mainstream and from the stereotype of the terrifying Turk and the ostracism which that stereotype encourages. Most of all, it is trying to free itself from its fears—fear of freedom, fear of the outside world, fear of itself.But the real reason I love to hear the word istiklal is because it is the name of Turkey’s most fascinating boulevard. Jammed with people all day and late into the night, lined with cafés, bookstores, cinemas and shops of every description, it is the pulsating heart not only of Istanbul but of the Turkish nation. I go there every time I feel myself being overwhelmed by doubts about Turkey. Losing myself in Istiklal’s parade of faces and outfits for a few minutes, overhearing snippets of conversation and absorbing the energy that crackles along its mile and a half, is always enough to renew my confidence in Turkey’s future. Because Istanbul has attracted millions of migrants from other parts of the country—several hundred new ones still arrive every day—this street is the ultimate melting pot. The country would certainly take a huge leap forward if people could be grabbed there at random and sent to Ankara to replace the members of Parliament. Istiklal is perfectly named because its human panorama reflects Turkey’s drive to break away from claustrophobic provincialism and allow its people to express their magnificent diversity.That drive has been only partly successful. Something about the concept of diversity frightens Turkey’s ruling elite. It triggers the deep insecurity that has gripped Turkish rulers ever since the Republic was founded in 1923, an insecurity that today prevents Turkey from taking its proper place in the modern world.No nation was ever founded with greater revolutionary zeal than the Turkish Republic, nor has any undergone more sweeping change in such a short time. In a very few years after 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk transformed a shattered and bewildered nation into one obsessed with progress. His was a one-man revolution, imposed and steered from above. Atatürk knew that Turks were not ready to break violently with their past, embrace modernity and turn decisively toward the West. He also knew, however, that doing so would be the only way for them to shape a new destiny for themselves and their nation. So he forced them, often over the howling protests of the old order.The new nation that Atatürk built on the rubble of the Ottoman Empire never could have been built democratically. Probably not a single one of his sweeping reforms would have been approved in a plebiscite. The very idea of a plebiscite, of shaping a political system according to the people’s will, would have struck most Turks of that era as not simply alien but ludicrous.In the generations that have passed since then, Turkey has become an entirely different nation. It is as vigorous and as thirsty for democracy as any on earth. For years its leaders, acting to safeguard what they considered Atatürk’s legacy, fiercely resisted change. They believed that Turks could not be trusted with the fate of their nation, and that an elite should make key decisions because the people were not wise or mature enough to do so. Only at the beginning of the twenty-first century did voters find a way to rebel against this stifling order.Their rebellion is the defining episode of modern Turkish history. It marks the beginning of the end for the class that dominated Turkey for its first eighty years, and for the suffocating ideology it preaches. It is an epochal turning point not only for Turkey but for Islam. Nonetheless it fills many Turks with dread.Atatürk’s infant Turkish Republic was a very fragile creation. Sheiks and leaders of religious sects considered its commitment to secularism a direct assault on all they had held sacred for centuries. Tribal chieftains and local warlords realized that a strong centralized state would undermine their authority. Kurds who dominated eastern provinces sought to take advantage of the new state’s weakness by staging military uprisings. European powers hoped it would collapse so that they could divide its territory among themselves. The new Soviet Union actively sought to subvert it and turn it into a vassal state.In this hostile climate, Atatürk and his comrades came to think of themselves as righteous crusaders slashing their way through a world filled with enemies. They ruled by decree and with a rubber-stamp Parliament, equating criticism with treason. During their first years in power, arrest and execution were the fate of their real and imagined opponents.Nearly a century has passed since then, and in that time Turkey has changed beyond recognition. The nation that faced Atatürk when he took power was not only in ruins but truly primitive. Nearly everyone was illiterate. Life expectancy was pitifully short, epidemics were accepted as immutable facts of life and medical care was all but nonexistent. The basic skills of trade, artisanry and engineering were unknown, having vanished with the departed Greeks and Armenians. Almost every citizen was a subsistence farmer. There were only a few short stretches of paved road in a territory that extended more than a thousand miles from Iran to Greece. Most important of all, the Turkish people knew nothing but obedience. They had been taught since time immemorial that authority is something distant and irresistible, and that the role of the individual in society is submission and nothing more.If Atatürk could return to see what has become of his nation, he undoubtedly would be astonished at how far it has come. Muddy villages have become bustling cities and cow paths have become superhighways. There are universities and public hospitals in even the most remote regions. The economy is booming, and Turkish companies are making profits in every corner of the globe. Thousands of young men and women return home every year from periods of study abroad. People are educated, self-confident and eager to build a nation that embodies the ideals of democracy and human rights. This nation—the Turkey of Turks’ dreams—is now, at long last, emerging from long shadows cast by geography and history.During the last decades of the twentieth century, Turkish society was split by a steadily deepening chasm of culture and ideology—what Marxists might call a “profound contradiction.” The entrenched elite, successor to Atatürk’s clique of revolutionary officers and technocrats, was accustomed to holding ultimate power and refused to surrender it. But the society it sought to rule was hurtling toward modernity and impatient for democracy.For years the elite seemed unaware that this brash new nation had come into existence. Military commanders, police chiefs, security officers, prosecutors, judges, university rectors, narrow-minded bureaucrats, lapdog newspaper editors, state governors, nationalist politicians and other soldiers in this superannuated army remained psychologically trapped in the 1920s. They saw threats looming from across every one of Turkey’s eight borders and, most dangerously, from within the country itself. In their minds, Turkey was still a nation under siege. To protect it from mortal danger, they insisted on running it themselves. They saw the Turkish people, on whose behalf they claimed to rule, not as the embodiment of the nation but, perversely, as a profound threat to it. Caught in the grip of irrelevant experiences, they fiercely resisted pressure from Turks who wanted their country to break free of its shackles and complete its march toward the democracy that was Atatürk’s dream.As the new millennium dawned, demand for change had spread far beyond intellectual circles in Istanbul and pockets of restive ethnic nationalism. It gripped the psyche of the entire nation. Patriarchs of the old elite, true to form, refused to accommodate it. They had beaten back all other challenges to their permanent government, which Turks call “deep state,” and there seemed no reason why they could not crush this one as well. But to the delight of many, the horror of some and the astonishment of almost all, they failed.Their transcendent failure—or to put it another way, the long-delayed triumph of democracy—has produced nothing less than the re-invention of the Turkish Republic. It portends the doom of a ruling system that may have been appropriate when Turkey and Turks were backward and ignorant, but that became reactionary and repressive as “deep state” failed to change along with the people it sought to rule.This self-appointed vanguard considers itself modernity’s great and indispensable defender. It fears democracy not on principle but because it is convinced that democracy will unleash forces that will drag Turkey back toward ignorance and obscurantism. Allowing Turks to speak, debate and choose freely, it has long believed, would lead the nation to certain catastrophe. To prevent that catastrophe, it devised a ruling system that set the limits of debate and suppressed challenges wherever they appeared. For eighty years it exercised the right to limit freedom as it saw fit.The most sacred principle of this secular faith—called Kemalism, because it claims to embrace Atatürk’s principles—is the abstract idea of “nation.” Second is secularism. Democracy comes third—but only as long as it is not seen to conflict with the first two. Since 1923 it has been axiomatic that anytime democracy threatens to erode the state’s militantly secular identity, it must be crushed.For much of Turkey’s modern history, state power was directed relentlessly against the very forces in society that most fully represented Atatürk’s modernizing vision. Writers, journalists and politicians who criticized the status quo were packed off to prison for what they said and wrote. Calls for religious freedom were considered subversive attacks on the secular state. Expressions of ethnic or cultural identity were banned for fear that they would trigger separatist movements and ultimately rip the country apart. When foreigners reminded Turkey that it could never become a full member of the world community as long as its leaders behaved this way, they were denounced for harboring secret agendas whose ultimate goal was to wipe Turks off the face of history.Attitudes like these slowly turned Turkey’s ruling elite into the enemy of the ideal that gave it life. Originally dedicated to freeing a nation from dogma, it came to defend dogma. Once committed to liberating the mind, it lashed out against those whose minds led them to forbidden places. It became the “sovereign” against whom its spiritual ancestors, the Young Turks, began rebelling in the nineteenth century.“Our sovereign and our government do not want the light to enter our country,” the Young Turk theorist Abdullah Cevdet wrote in 1897. “They want all people to remain in ignorance, on the dunghill of misery and wretchedness; no touch of awakening may blaze in the hearts of our compatriots. What the government wants is for the people to remain like beasts, submissive as sheep, fawning and servile as dogs. Let them hear no word of any honest lofty idea. Instead, let them languish under the whips of ignorant gendarmes, under the aggression of shameless, boorish, oppressive officials.”The Young Turks were members of insurgent groups that defied the absolutism of Ottoman rule during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These groups built a rich tradition of dissent that shaped the intellectual and political life of the late Ottoman period and laid the foundation for Atatürk’s revolution. Their principles were admirable, but most of their leaders believed instinctively that the state, not popular will, was the instrument by which social and political change would be achieved. They bequeathed to Atatürk the conviction that Turkish reformers should seize state power and then use it ruthlessly for their own ends, not try to democratize society in ways that would weaken the centralized state.Turkey’s effort to rid itself of this authoritarian mind-set has been difficult and scarred by trauma. Not until 1950 did military commanders, the vanguard of Atatürk’s new class, allow free elections. They continued to watch politicians closely, however. Four times—in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1997—they deposed elected governments. Turks were groping toward democracy, but whenever they tried to establish the primacy of popular will, the military swatted them down.The 1980 coup, which led to three years of direct military rule, set in motion forces that would define Turkish society for the next two decades. Ruling generals decreed fierce crackdowns, ranging from torture campaigns to the mass firing of university professors. In 1982, before the generals returned to their barracks, they imposed a new constitution designed to assure their permanent power. It guaranteed Turks all civil rights, but then stipulated that the government could suspend any or all rights “with the aim of safeguarding the invisible integrity of the state with its territory and nation, national sovereignty, the Republic, national security, public order, general peace, the public interest, public morals and public health.” It allowed judges to ban any political party whose program conflicted with “the democratic and secular order.” Most perniciously, it established a new body, the National Security Council, composed of five elected officials (the president, prime minister and ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs) and five generals (the chief of staff and commanders of the army, navy, air force and gendarmerie), that was to function as the nation’s supreme decision-making body, above Parliament and insulated from the people’s will. Governments were required to give “priority consideration” to its decisions.For the next twenty years the National Security Council met once a month. Its deliberations were private, but television reporters were admitted for a few moments to film members as they took their seats. The footage perfectly conveyed the balance of power in Turkey. Government leaders sat on one side of a long table, shifting uncomfortably like guilty schoolboys. Military commanders, ribbon-bedecked and unsmiling, sat opposite, glowering at their charges as they pulled folders from their briefcases and prepared to deliver their decrees. Always they spoke with a single voice, and always it was understood that their will must be done.“It is a fundamental principle that there is one state,” former president and prime minister Süleyman Demirel wryly observed after he retired, “but in our country there are two.”The 1982 constitution and the laws passed to bolster it proved chillingly effective in preventing the flowering of Turkish democracy. It was folly, however, to believe that an essentially anti-democratic system could survive forever in a changing world. In the 1980s and 1990s Turks rebelled against it with steadily growing fervor. By the time the century ended, this conflict had come to dominate Turkish life. On one side was an inbred elite, weaker than it had once been but still accustomed to treating elected leaders like errand boys. Arrayed against it was a large and steadily growing majority of Turks.Turkey’s conundrum during this period was that although most people fervently wished for a new order that would represent their democratic aspirations, no political party or civic movement translated their aspirations into reality. Civilian politicians who claimed to represent the ideologies of left, center and right were in fact all part of the oppressive old consensus. All accepted the bedrock principle that had shaped the Turkish Republic since its birth in 1923: that military commanders and their allies should hold ultimate power because the voting public could not be trusted. The closed political system designed by framers of the 1982 constitution allowed autocratic bosses to dominate political parties, and for years this system effectively prevented the flowering of true democracy.The 1980 military coup, though, had another, unexpected result. From its wreckage emerged the most dynamic political leader Turkey had seen since Atatürk. Only today, years after his death, is it clear how profoundly he reshaped Turkey.The towns where Turgut Özal lived while he was growing up—Malatya, Mersin, Mardin and Kayseri—comprise a veritable map of the deep Anatolian heartland. In 1983 he became prime minister despite efforts by departing generals to prevent his election. Shattering taboos wherever he found them, Özal set out to re-revolutionize the Turkish state. “He threw open all the doors and windows in this place,” one American ambassador to Turkey told me with evident admiration.The nation that Özal took over in 1983 was dominated politically by generals and economically by a small class of wealthy, militantly secular and “modern” industrialists based in cosmopolitan Istanbul. The regime pampered this class with subsidies, protected it from competition through high tariffs and anti-competitive regulations and rewarded it for its loyalty with government contracts. In return, the rich backed political parties that were subservient to military power.Prime Minister Özal undermined the power of this elite by dismantling the subsidy regime, selling off state-owned companies, democratizing access to credit and relentlessly encouraging ordinary Turks to go into business. Millions did. By the 1990s they had come to comprise an entirely new class, eager not only for a more open economy but also for better relations with Europe, where they found lucrative export markets. The rise of this counter-elite was a testament to the unprecedented social mobility that Özal’s reforms had brought to the Anatolian masses. It mounted a heady challenge to the “white Turks” of the old Istanbul establishment, not just economically but also socially and culturally. Finally and inevitably, it turned to politics.Besides revolutionizing the Turkish economy, Özal also challenged political taboos. When the military chief of staff resigned after disagreeing with him about Turkey’s involvement in the 1991 Gulf War, he refused to accept the new candidate the armed forces nominated and chose his own—something no Turkish prime minister had ever dared to do. Once he showed up to review a military parade wearing shorts and a T-shirt; he explained that he had just debarked from a yacht on which he was enjoying a brief vacation, but he was also sending a message that the army must be subservient to political leaders under all circumstances. He was the first modern Turkish leader to admit that Kurds exist in Turkey and constitute a distinct ethnic group, and he even announced that he himself was partly Kurdish. He openly embraced a Sufi order, the Nakibendi, that was among those Atatürk had banned in the 1920s. Once while musing about how to improve Turkey’s relations with Armenia, he asked, “What if we recognize the genocide?”Özal challenged the old elite in such fundamental ways that when he died of a heart attack in 1993 at the age of sixty-five, more than a few Turks suspected foul play. Some still believe that, as one of the country’s most powerful politicians told me over dinner one night, “they killed him.”Natural or not, Özal’s death removed from national life the greatest threat that the ruling system had faced since the founding of the Republic. Momentum for change quickly dissipated. For a time it seemed that Özal’s outsize dreams had died with him and that Turkey would settle back into torpor and frustration.The 1990s were lost years for Turkey. Small-minded politicians devoted their energies to bickering and stealing money while the country drifted toward social and political fragmentation. Governments were weak, divided and short-lived. The military, through its National Security Council, filled the power vacuum, blocking democratization and pursuing a brutal war against Kurdish rebels. Inflation raced out of control, and the economy careened wildly from crisis to crisis. Prosecutors relentlessly indicted dissenters and freethinkers.One of those who were imprisoned during this period was no less a figure than the mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoan (pronounced AIR-doe-wan). His offense, like that of others jailed in the 1990s, was to have spoken words in public that the old elite found treasonous. They were based on the text of a century-old poem:
The mosques are our barracks, their domes are our helmets,
Minarets are our spears, the faithful are our army.
This poem was not, however, the real reason Mayor Erdogan was indicted. His true crime was establishing a political movement that openly embraced Islam and persuading millions of Turks to support it. The old elite recognized him as a potent threat and set out to crush him.Erdogan is a product not of Istanbul’s high society but of its rough-and-tumble Kasimpasa district, where he developed a reputation as a street fighter and fine soccer player. For several years he worked as a salesman for the Ülker candy company, and his work helped him develop a winning manner that led him naturally into politics. Because he prayed every day, did not smoke or drink, fasted during Ramadan and was married to a woman who wore a head scarf, he joined a religious-oriented party.Here, then, was the second outsider to challenge the Turkish establishment in the space of two decades. Like Özal, he was an observant Muslim shaped by conservative rural values, not by Istanbul’s chic modernity. His crime was helping to build a political movement rooted in Islamic values, something the elite found terrifying and intolerable.For a while I, like others in Turkey, found it difficult to imagine that “deep state” would take such a drastic step as to imprison the mayor of the country’s largest city. That, however, was exactly what happened. Mayor Erdoan was found guilty of inciting “religious hatred,” sentenced to ten months in jail and banned from public office.Many Turks were outraged by this verdict. It was yet another sign, more vivid than most, of how fiercely the old establishment was clinging to rigid dogmas of the past while society rocketed toward the future. All over Istanbul, walls sprouted posters bearing the mayor’s portrait and the vow he had made outside the courtroom after being convicted: “This Song Is Not Over Yet!” No one could imagine how true that would turn out to be.A few days after the verdict, I visited Mayor Erdoan at his city hall office. On the plaza outside, supporters sat behind tables gathering signatures on a petition of protest. From one table hung a banner proclaiming, POETRY-READING MAN, YOU DESERVE A MEDAL! A young woman wearing a head scarf sat behind it. “Everyone is crying over what happened,” she told me. “We are very angry. His only crime was to work for God.”Inside I found Erdoan, who was then forty-four years old, reflective but unrepentant. We agreed that the poetry-reading charge against him was a pretext, and I asked him what he thought was the real reason he was being punished.“My prosecution was aimed at blocking me or turning people against me,” he said. Then, after a pause, he added what sounded like a warning: “No politician can be artificially removed from the scene. The nation raises politicians up, and only the nation can bring them down.” I tried to goad him into saying more, but he demurred. “I have to be very careful about what words I use,” he explained. “It is a very strange position to be in.”Like other outsiders who came to know Erdoan during his term as mayor, I admired his achievements but doubted he could become an effective national leader. Some didn’t like his religious impulses, which he expressed in policies like a ban on the sale of alcohol at city-owned cafés, but what bothered me was that in our interviews he seemed out of his depth whenever we talked about world affairs. He had troubling, ill-defined notions about the power of Islamic politics and the shortcomings of democracy. Several times he suggested to me that Turkey might be wise to throw in its lot with its Middle Eastern neighbors rather than with faraway Europe. Once he famously compared democracy to a streetcar: you ride it until you reach your destination, then you step off.This lack of sophistication suggested to me that Erdoan would never emerge as a serious national leader and certainly not as a figure of Özal’s stature. Their backgrounds were starkly different. Özal was an engineer who had run a business, worked for the World Bank, served in demanding government posts, learned foreign languages and traveled widely. Erdogan, a former candy salesman who had never held public office before being elected mayor, was a bumpkin by comparison. When he was packed off to jail—his sentence was reduced on appeal to 120 days—I thought his political career might be over.On the morning of March 21, 1999, a caravan of two thousand automobiles followed Erdoan as he was driven along the 170-mile route from Istanbul to Kirklareli, near the Bulgarian border, where he was to serve his sentence. Supporters had paid to paint and carpet his jail cell, install a television and arrange for meals from outside to be brought in. His wife rented a house nearby. Before he reported to the warden, friends sacrificed a sheep in his honor. “I am not saying goodbye!” he promised the emotional crowd. “This is just a pause.”After serving his four-month term, Erdoan was released and returned to his home in Istanbul. Soon afterward friends of his began telling me that he seemed deeply changed. They were right. His imprisonment decisively reshaped his worldview.Mayor Erdoan had entered prison believing, as did many other pious Turks, that the country’s great failing was its refusal to respect religious belief. He also shared the classically Islamist view of the West, a one-dimensional, cartoon-like vision of a hostile and sinful place. By the time he was released, he had greatly broadened his perspective. The essential weakness of the Turkish state, he came to realize, was not its extreme secularism but something more profound: its abiding fear of free discourse. This realization, in turn, led him from contempt for the West to admiration for its pluralistic ethos.Erdogan’s jailhouse conversion formed the basis for a political movement unlike any Turkey had ever seen. He shaped it to reflect what had become his central conviction, one that directly challenged fundamental Kemalist principles. Democracy and Islamic belief were not incompatible, he began insisting. In fact, he told his comrades, the most fervent desire of most Turks was to enjoy both.Once out of jail, Erdoan plunged into the task of building a political movement that embraced both Turkey’s Muslim identity and its intensifying desire for democracy. He appealed for support from the Anatolian counter-elite that Turgut Özal had brought to life in the 1980s. Having established its economic power, this new class was looking for a political leader. It found him in Erdoan.By the time the national election of 2002 approached, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known in Turkish as Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP, had become a potent force. It turned the campaign into a confrontation sharper than any that Turkish voters had ever faced. On one side, as always, was the old elite. It insisted on its vision of an all-powerful state before which citizens were supposed to cringe; preached a rigid nationalism that denied Turkey’s rich ethnic, religious and cultural diversity; insisted on a form of secularism so militant and intrusive that it became a religion in itself; and saw demands for change and social evolution not as welcome signs of a vibrant society but as germs of a frightful epidemic to be suppressed at all costs. This elite saw Erdoan as the incarnation of its most terrifying nightmare. Some of its leading figures were convinced that his ascent to power would signal nothing less than the death of the Turkish Republic.During the 2002 campaign Erdoan preached coexistence and mutual respect among Turkey’s many groups rather than pretending that they did not exist. He called for a “normalization” of politics, which in Turkey is a radical idea because it means that election results must always be respected, elected leaders must have full authority and generals must stop trying to run the country. Yet he insisted he was no ideologue. As mayor of Istanbul he had shown a diligence and honesty that were rare in Turkish politics. Streets were paved, garbage was picked up and water mains were repaired more quickly and efficiently than ever before. The AKP, its leaders said time and again, was devoted to providing services, not imposing ideology.“My story is the story of this nation!” Erdoan proclaimed in one of his final campaign speeches. “Either this nation is going to win and come to power, or the arrogant and oppressive minority group, which looks at Anatolia with contempt and rejects Anatolian realities, will continue to remain in power. The nation has the power to decide. Enough! Sovereignty belongs to the nation!”As I listened to Erdogan’s campaign rhetoric, I sensed that he had truly transcended his background in Islamic politics. He ran on three pledges: to energize Turkey’s economy, to consolidate its democracy and to bring it into the European Union. When asked to define his political orientation, he said he was a “conservative democrat.” Others called him “post-Islamist.”But was he really?Millions of modern, worldly Turks had been losing hope that they would ever find a political leader who combined national popularity with democratic principles. When Erdoan emerged, they embraced him. Some in the intellectual class, however, were more hesitant, even to the point of hostility. They wanted Turkey to go where Erdoan promised to take it, but because of his Islamist background, they deeply mistrusted him.In Turkey, as elsewhere, it has long been a truism that Islamic-oriented politicians scorn democracy and secular ones defend it. By the time of the 2002 election, though, these roles had been reversed in a deliciously subversive way. One candidate was an Islamic-oriented democrat; the others were secularists who feared democracy.All during the 1990s, democrats in Turkey had looked eagerly for a secular leader who would adopt their agenda. To their intense frustration, every leading secular politician of that era had turned out to be venal, corrupt or a willing servant of “deep state.” In desperation they turned to Erdoan. He was not the horse they had hoped to ride toward liberation, but he was the only one galloping in the right direction, so they bet on him.At every stop on the campaign trail, Erdoan insisted that he was as much a democrat as he was a Muslim. Not true and a dangerous lie, howled his opponents. Beneath Erdogan’s democratic rhetoric they saw a sinister plot to use democracy as a way to roll back Atatürk’s reforms and transform Turkey into an Islamic state. But these warnings did not scare voters. In the most pivotal election ever held in Turkey, they gave the AKP a historic victory. It won only 34 percent of the vote, but because of divisions among other parties and quirks of the Turkish electoral system, that was sufficient for a majority of seats in Parliament and allowed it to establish a one-party government—the first Turkey had known in nearly twenty years.Erdogan could not become prime minister immediately because of the political ban that had been imposed on him, but in short order Parliament lifted it and he was able to claim his prize. The day of his inauguration marked a decisive defeat for the old Kemalist elite and a breathtaking victory for the emerging counter-elite, with its new-found belief in Islamic democracy or democratic Islam. In modern Turkish history, only Atatürk’s seizure of power in 1923 was a more profound turning point. Erdogan won by attracting two great voting blocs that had traditionally considered each other enemies: religious believers and democrats. In a larger sense, he succeeded because he was expressing a new Turkey that had been taking shape for years. Since 1923 the country had been ruled by a self-perpetuating elite shaped above all by paralyzing fear of the people. Now it is ruled by elected leaders.Liberating as this breakthrough is, however, it carries within itself a great uncertainty. The new regime’s commitment to democracy was boundlessly admirable in its rhetoric but less so in its concrete actions. It did not move decisively to wipe away the crippling restrictions on free speech that have defined the Turkish Republic since its founding. Its efforts to resolve the festering Kurdish challenge were weak and tentative, and despite its insistence that it would forever respect the rights of secular Turks, many remained profoundly worried about whether that was true.Women were especially concerned. The Muslim head scarf became more visible in Turkey, including on the streets of Istanbul and other big cities, than ever in modern history. If this is simply a sign that devout Muslim women are taking the chance offered to them by flowering democracy and finally living as they choose, that is fine. More than a few Turks, however, fear that it is the beginning of a wave of social pressure that will roll back the spectacular progress Turkish women have made since the time of Atatürk.All these concerns relate directly or indirectly to the rise in militant ethno-nationalism that has been the most disturbing aspect of Turkish life in the years after the new regime came to power in 2002. The principal targets of this increasingly violent movement have been those who defended the rights of Kurds, Christians and other minorities. Fomented by supremely irresponsible politicians and journalists, fueled by an undeveloped educational system that turned out narrow-minded chauvinists, and encouraged by the authorities’ failure to find or prosecute the true authors of nationalist crimes, it has spread a disturbing shadow over a land that was once a world center of tolerance. “Nationalist obsession mixed with religious intolerance may be the greatest problem this country has ever faced,” the newspaper columnist Yusuf Kanh wrote after a young man stabbed a Catholic priest in the Aegean city of Izmir at the end of 2007. “If our security forces and judicial system are satisfied with arresting and prosecuting the teenagers involved in these crimes, if they do not pursue the masterminds behind them, and if they fail to bring to justice elements in the police and gendarmerie that are apparently involved in this mess, the country will be forced to live through new episodes of the same tragedy every couple of months.”Turkey has entered a period of unprecedented change. The new regime’s central challenge is to democratize the country without releasing atavistic forces that will pull it away from the traditions that have brought it so much success.

For generations Turkish leaders sought to bind their people together by creating a concept called devlet. Over the years this became my least favorite Turkish word. The dictionary says it means “state,” but it also means something uglier. Devlet is an omnipresent entity that for decades stood above every citizen and every institution. Loyalty to it was held to be the Turk’s supreme obligation, and questioning it was considered treasonous. No one ever defined what it meant, but everyone was supposed to know. In the mind of the country’s self-perpetuating elite, serving devlet was a responsibility so transcendent and sublime that not even law was allowed to obstruct it. Devlet, much more than an abstract concept and much more than a focal point for national unity, was Turkey’s apocalyptic swordsman, the repressive mentality that overwhelmed, constricted and suffocated the citizenry.No two words in Turkish are as fundamentally contradictory as istiklal and devlet. The first stands not just for national independence but for the freedom and progress that independent thought brings to any society that encourages it. The second is a reactionary force that represents fear, mistrust and arrogance, a force that long kept Turkey in chains.The hurricane of political, social, economic and cultural change that began sweeping across Turkey soon after the beginning of the new century might be called Hurricane Istiklal. Not even devlet could resist it. No aspect of Turkish life has remained untouched by its power. It may even be strong enough to make Turkey the most audaciously successful nation of the twenty-first century.The first friends I made in Turkey told me that if I really wanted to understand their country, I would have to drink a lot of raki. These were wise people, so I took their advice. Every year the annual level of raki consumption in Turkey rises by slightly more than one million liters, and my contribution to the increase has not been inconsiderable.In the bottle raki is absolutely clear, but it is rarely consumed that way. Instead it is mixed with water, which turns it translucent. Drinking it has the same effect on one’s perception of Turkey. After a glass or two, what at first seemed clear becomes obscure. By the time the bottle is empty, everything appears murky and confused. Yet through this evocative haze, truths about Turkey may be most profoundly understood.Many countries have national drinks, but raki is much more than that because it embodies the very concept of Turkey. The mere fact that a Muslim land would fall under the spell of a powerful distilled drink is enough to suggest this nation’s unexpected and tantalizing appeal. Do not speak to a Turk about ouzo or other anise-based drinks supposed to reflect the characters of other lands. The careful mix of natural ingredients in raki and the loving process by which it is distilled, they believe, make it gloriously unique.History books say that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died from the effects of overindulgence in raki. That is only partly true. In fact he died from an overdose of Turkey. His involvement with Turkey, like his involvement with raki, was so passionate and so intense that it ultimately consumed him.The same almost happened to me. I had admired Turkey from afar, but it was only after long nights drinking raki with friends that I came to understand the true audacity of the Turkish idea. Its grandeur and beauty filled me with awe. My excitement rose with each glass as I realized how much Turkey has to share with the world, to give the world, to teach the world.I should have stopped there, but you never do with raki. That is its blessing and its curse. As months and years passed, raki began to work subtly on my mind. Slowly the delight I had found in discovering Turkey became mixed with other, more ambiguous emotions. No longer did my evenings end with the exhilarating sensation that I had found a jewel of a country poised on the brink of greatness. Raki led me inexorably toward frustration and doubt. It never shook my conviction that Turkey is a nation of unlimited potential, but it did lead me to wonder why so much of its potential remains unrealized. Turkey is undoubtedly the country of the future, but will it always be? Can it ever become what it hopes to be, or is it condemned to remain an unfulfilled dream, an exquisite fantasy that contains within it the seeds of its own failure?There are as yet no answers to those questions, and therein lies the Turkish conundrum. This nation is still very much a work in progress, a dazzling kaleidoscope of competing images and ideas. Born of trauma and upheaval, it remains deeply insecure, shrouded in old fears and uncertain which direction it should take.This identity crisis led to a near-collapse of the raki tradition in the 1960s and 1970s. Turkey was opening itself to the world, and a class of educated and sophisticated Turks was emerging. These people considered raki anathema because it symbolized the primitive mentality of rural peasants. If illiterate hillbillies wanted to drink it in their broken-down shacks, that was one thing, but no modern Turk would do so; much better to sip wine, cognac or some other drink with a European pedigree.Fortunately, those days are past. Turks no longer feel embarrassed to embrace their heritage and identity. Drinking raki is an ideal way to do so while at the same time enjoying a sublime pleasure.Raki is the key to Turkey, not because of the drink itself but because of the circumstances in which one consumes it. This is not a drink like whiskey, useful for solitary reflection; not like beer, good for drinking in a noisy bar while munching on pretzels; and not like gin or vodka, lubricants for cocktail-party chatter. Bars and cocktail parties are, in fact, mortal enemies of the Turkish drinking tradition. Resistance to these pernicious influences is centered around the meyhane, a sort of bistro created especially for raki drinking. The meyhane is a temple of Turkish cuisine, but it is also a place where people meet, talk, debate, embrace and lament. Turkey’s diversity is most tangible at the meyhane because it is spread out on tables for all to see.An evening at a meyhane is centered around raki, but raki never stands alone. It is only one component, albeit the essential one, of a highly stylized ritual. With raki always come meze, small plates of food that appear stealthily, a few at a time. Theoretically, meze are appetizers leading to a main course, but often the main course, like Turkey’s supposedly great destiny, never materializes. No one complains about that because eating meze while sipping raki is such a supreme pleasure in itself. The path is so blissful that the idea of a destination seems somehow sacrilegious.Meze usually come in waves. The first will include salad, thick slabs of white cheese, smoked eggplant purée and honeydew melon. What comes next depends on the chef’s whim. There might be a selection of cooked, cooled vegetables in olive oil, each presented on its own miniature platter, or small dolma, which are peppers stuffed with rice, currants and pine nuts, and their close cousins, sarma, made from grape or cabbage leaves. After the next pause might come spicy red lentil balls, mussels on the half shell, mashed beans with lemon sauce, puréed fish roe, yogurt seasoned with garlic and dill, raw tuna fillets, poached mackerel with hazelnut paste or an explosively flavorful dish made of baby eggplants stuffed with garlic cloves, tomatoes, sliced onion and parsley. This last is called Imam Bayildi, meaning “the Imam fainted.”After these come piping-hot börek, delicate pastries filled with feta cheese and sometimes also spinach, diced chicken, ground lamb or veal, pistachios, walnuts or whatever else is lying around the kitchen. Some are layered, others triangular and still others cylindrical or crescent-shaped. Often they are served with squid rings fried in a light batter, which are to be dipped in a white sauce made from wine vinegar, olive oil and garlic.Turkey’s ethnic vitality shines through as the evening proceeds. Kebabs and other meze made from meat recall the Central Asian steppes from which nomadic Turkic tribes migrated to Asia Minor, now called Anatolia, a thousand years ago. With them come hummus from Arabia, shredded chicken with walnuts from the Caucasus, diced liver from Albania and cooked cheese thickened with corn flour from coastal villages along the Black Sea. Then comes the crowning glory, the seafood, a gift from the Greeks, who for millennia did all the cooking along what is now Turkey’s Aegean coast. Raki sharpens the taste of all food, but its magic works best with fish. An old proverb calls raki the pimp that brings fish and men together for acts of love.The variety of fish in Turkey seems endless. It changes according to what body of water is nearest and also according to the season. Always the fish is very fresh, and always it is prepared very simply, grilled or pan-fried and served with no sauce, only a lemon wedge and perhaps a slice of onion or sprig of parsley.Such a meal is a microcosm of Turkey. It is an astonishingly rich experience but yields its secrets slowly. Patrons at a meyhane, like all Turks, confront an ever-changing mosaic, endless variations on a theme. Each meze tastes different, has its own color, aroma, texture and character. The full effect is comparable to that of a symphony, complete with melodies, different rhythms, pacing and flashes of virtuosity, all contained within an overarching structure.Meze make a feast, but drinking raki with them raises the experience to a truly transcendent level. “All the senses are involved,” my friend Aydin Boysan, an architect and bon vivant who had been drinking raki for more than sixty years when I met him, told me during a long night we spent at a meyhane overlooking the Bosphorus. “First you watch the water being poured into the glass and mixing with the raki. Then you pick up the glass and inhale the aroma. When you drink it, you take a small sip, feel the pleasure of it flowing down your throat, take another small sip, then put the glass down.”Aydin demonstrated this ritual to me, seeming to enjoy it every bit as much as he might have half a century earlier, and then closed his eyes for a moment. “The best part is feeling it go down your throat,” he said lovingly. “A giraffe—that’s an animal ideally made to appreciate raki.”The meyhane culture tells a great deal about Turkey. Like the country, it offers almost infinite possibilities because it blends the heritage of so many different peoples. It encourages discourse and deepens friendship, but because the food is brought unbidden by a waiter instead of ordered from a menu, it does not require any action, any decision, any act of choice other than turning away dishes that do not strike one’s fancy. Raki can evoke either determination or resignation, a desire to rebel or an acceptance of the inevitability of submission.At a meyhane, the world can be either invited in or shut out. Turks have not yet decided which is the wisest path. By the time they drain their final glasses and step out into the darkness, they have often concluded that their country is either the “golden nation” destined to shape world history or a hopeless mess certain to remain mired in wretched mediocrity.Copyright © 2001, 2008 by Stephen Kinzer

Meet the Author

Stephen Kinzer was Istanbul bureau chief for The New York Times from 1996 to 2000. He is the author of many books, including All the Shah's Men and Overthrow. He lives in Chicago.

Stephen Kinzer is the author of Reset, Overthrow, All the Shah's Men, and numerous other books. An award-winning foreign correspondent, he served as the New York Times's bureau chief in Turkey, Germany, and Nicaragua and as the Boston Globe's Latin America correspondent. He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, contributes to The New York Review of Books, and writes a column on world affairs for The Guardian. He lives in Boston.

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Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
LoveHistoryVA More than 1 year ago
No country in the world could hold the key to successful relationships for the US with the Middle East and East Asia than Turkey. Stephen Kinzer helps readers sort out the challenges, failures and successes of Turkey's modern history and helps to untangle the paradox of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the modernist Islamist and perhaps the most important figure in Turkey since Ataturk.
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KeikoHP More than 1 year ago
I liked the book, which gives an awful lot of information on modern Turkey. However, it seems to me that the author doesn't question received wisdom as much as he should. Our world currently lauds Ataturk for bringing his people out of the medieval darkness that Turkey was suppposed to have been in before his takeover. However, no one asks if it was really good for Ataturk to unilaterally impose not only changes in the Turkish script but also changes to things as basic and personal as the clothes people were allowed to wear. To me, Ataturk was a dictator pure and simple, and the fact that he imposed some good things on Turkey and also saved his country's territorial integrity, doesn't change that. The author of this book seems to have a habit of admiring other questionable people as well, if I remember correctly; it seems to me that he has a book out which extols President Kagame of Rwanda. I sincerely hope that President Kagame is a good man, but he's recently been attacked for showing dictatorial tendencies himself. However, in the main this is a good book, and the author does admit that Ataturk did some things wrong, though in general he describes him as a great hero. In any case, it would be a shame for people to refuse to read this book just because its author may have one somewhat objectionable political position. Turkey has been so little written about in the English-speaking press that any books on it at all are highly welcome.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Crescent & Star is ok for starters; if you have a pretty good background information on Turkey your time and money are probably better spent on another book. Even starter books are often very good, providing perspectives, profiles and vignettes not found elsewhere; but this one fails here. For a man who lived in Turkey Kinzer delivers surprisingly little in this regard. The most frustrating part for me was Kinzer¿s lapses into a repetitive preaching which seemed meant to fill up pages. His editor could have done better there. Still, it isn¿t bad at all for starters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the best I've ever read. It tells how Turkey was formed and how it has come to our day. It shows in detail the troubles and problems Turkey has and has to overcome and also the good and positive parts of Turkey. It tells of the recent past of Turkey and gives an idea of where it may head in the future. It shows that Turkey is a country to be watched. It also shows how the people of Turkey can overcome their troubles. The author of this book tells the reader about daily life in diffrent parts of Turkey. This is definitely a great book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book gives a good overview of the historical roots of modern Turkey. Today's Turkey was formed from remnants of the Ottoman Empire shortly after it's defeat in World War I. A group of military officers led by Kamel Ataturk (the Father of Modern Turkey) took control of what was left of the Empire and put in place a military stewardship that has tried to slowly bring Turkey into the modern world in the mold of a European nation, not an Asian nation. Several civilian governments have taken control in past decades, but they drifted from the ideal established by Ataturk and the military stepped in to reestablish moderation. The military has fought liberals as well as radicals and has kept the government secular, supervising and picking acceptable ministers and controlling elections. Turkey has been beset with many internal problems. They have a diverse population and have just finished a long and bloody war with the Kurds that populate their easter provinces. (The Kurds were backed, armed, and financed by Syria just to bring Turkey down a notch). The author aptly explains why Turkey is at a crossroad where it can achieve greatness or sink into obscurity. The Turkish people are a good people. Most of the population is not Arabic. The predominant religion is Islam. The country stands between Europe and Asia and is surrounded by potential danger. The Turks are still waiting and hoping to gain complete freedom in their country. In addition to the historical and political background, the author gives insight about the country and it's people from experience gained by wide travel throughout the country and close contact with many of the diverse people that live there.