The city of Istanbul reflects Turkey’s transformation over the past decade. Eight years after my previous visit I am greeted by an impressive new terminal at the Atatürk International Airport and by the massive office towers and apartment complexes surrounding it. More significantly, Istanbul is now visibly a Muslim city. According to OECD, on current form Turkey may be the second-largest economy in Europe by 2050. The city’s population has grown by a half since 2003, from nine to thirteen million, making it by far the most populous megalopolis on European soil. That the street crowds are unevenly urbanized is more apparent than before, reflecting the ongoing influx from rural Anatolia and Turkey’s continuing demographic boom. Half the country’s 73 million people are under the age of 30, and even with declining fertility rates it is expected to reach 100 million by mid-century.
Istanbul is now visibly a Muslim city. The old cliché about the crossroads between the West and the Islamic world apparently still applies to the bustling cafes of Cihangir or smart boutiques of Nisantasi, but these are shrinking oases inhabited by the Kemalist elite and their offspring. The balance is tilting in favor of the teeming multitude around the Fatih mosque, which last Friday was unsurprisingly headscarved (women) and bearded (men). The same marks of Islamic piety are now present more widely and in greater numbers than at any time since Mustafa Kemal’s days. In some residential areas the hijab is by now dominant. It is ubiquitous in public places and institutions where old restrictions formally still apply but have been ignored with impunity for years.
These visible fruits of nine years’ rule by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) invoke the memory of its previous leader, Necmettin Erbakan, who announced many years ago that ”Turkey is going to change its regime towards fundamentalism—the debate is whether it is going to be with blood or without.” The change of the Turkish state and society, of its ethos and institutional culture, is less visible but profound and probably irreversible. The secularist elites see it happening, “but they are gripped by panic, paralyzed, unable to act, living just for today,” Claire Berlinski, an American-born writer and journalist who has lived in Istanbul for years, told me last Friday. She compares the atmosphere in the city to the last days of the Weimar Repuiblic in Berlin: the writing may be on the wall, but the “dread and exhilaration of the looming catastrophe” is intoxicating. Nevertheless she would not live anywhere else (and moving with her seven adopted cats could be a problem).
There may be less than meets the eye to Turkey’s economic success, Claire Berlinski warns (“Turkish statistics are the product of a combination of ineptitude and deceit”), and it is unable to absorb the young newcomers to the labor market. Nevertheless, the Western media and politicians remain infatuated with the twin myth of Turkey’s “Islamic democracy” and AKP-engineered prosperity. Sensing a mix of Western weakness and wishful thinking, Prime Minister Erdogan now asserts that the tables have been turned: in the decades ahead, Europe will need Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. “European labor markets and social-security systems are comatose,” he writes, and “European societies are near geriatric,” in contrast to Turkey which is “bursting with the vigor that the EU so badly needs”:
Our European friends should realize that Turkey-EU relations are fast approaching a turning point… Turkey is a regional player, an international actor with an expanding range of soft power and a resilient, sizable economy. And yet, the fact that it can withstand being rebuffed should not become reason for Turkey’s exclusion. Sometimes I wonder if Turkey’s power is an impediment to its accession to the Union. If so, one has to question Europe’s strategic calculations … We are no more a country that would wait at the EU’s door like a docile supplicant. Some claim that Turkey has no real alternative to Europe … However, the opposite is just as valid. Europe has no real alternative to Turkey. Especially in a global order where the balance of power is shifting, the EU needs Turkey to become an ever stronger, richer, more inclusive, and more secure Union. I hope it will not be too late before our European friends discover this fact.
Too late for what? The implied threat is that Turkey would turn against “Europe” if it is not admitted into the EU, which is in itself an eloquent argument against admission. No responsible family would unlock the door to an uninvited guest with a long criminal record who threatens unpleasantness if he is not admitted. The EU with Turkey in its ranks would be weaker, poorer, and infinitely less safe.
A generation ago various groups of ultranationalist and Islamist Turks fought each other in the streets. As columnist Burak Bekdil noted in The Hurriyet (Jan. 21), the ultranationalists killed Islamists because they highlighted their religion before their Turkishness, and, likewise, the Islamists killed ultranationalists because they highlighted their Turkishness before their faith. A historic reconciliation is now under way: Turkish ultranationalists are becoming Islamists and Islamists are becoming ultranationalists. When they join forces, under the AKP’s guidance, the game for Turkey’s secularists will be over. It is to be hoped that it will not be too late for Europe to discover the true nature of the regime on its southeastern borders.