Madisonian Turkey

Turkey | After traveling 3,700 miles by bus through almost every part of Turkey, our reporter offers lots of questions, some answers, and a hope based in The Federalist Papers

Issue: "2004 Election: Countdown," Oct. 23, 2004

ANKARA, Turkey-Will the real Turkey please stand up?" If you ask that old game-show question in this Muslim land of 70 million, an entire, diverse country stands-or else everyone remains seated.

The European Union doesn't know the answer to that question. That's why its Oct. 6 decision on Turkey's request to join the 25-member economic bloc was only "a qualified yes," according to European Commission President Romano Prodi. If EU leaders in December vote for the commission's recommendation, talks between Turkey and the EU will begin, with membership for Turkey probably still at least a decade off.

The recommendation includes multiple conditions. To join, Turkey will have to enforce statutes banning torture and improve its record on civil and religious liberty. Turkey will have to improve per capita annual income ($3,000 compared to over $20,000 in Europe) and integrate the minority Kurds into Turkish society. But behind those and many other specifics lies fear: Would Europe be ingesting an upwardly mobile country yearning for Westernization, or a poison pill that would eventually help militant Islam gain the continental prize denied it centuries ago?

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Is the real Turkey best represented by Ozlem Caglar Yilmaz, a young woman who studied politics at the University of Ankara, where she was influenced by a professor who favors free markets and a free exchange of ideas? Mrs. Yilmaz, a moderate Muslim, is general coordinator of a think tank here, the Association for Liberal Thinking. She fights for responsive government and opposes the rule that women wearing Muslim headscarves cannot work in governmental offices or enter universities.

Or is the real Turkey best represented by the women who crowd into a mosque in Sanliurfa, near the Syrian border, and show their faith not by wearing headscarves but by going all the way to only-eyes-showing black chadors? The mosque (without evidence) advertises itself as Abraham's birthplace 4,000 years ago. Many men, who enter into a separate chamber to peer through a grate into a cave that purportedly marks the birth spot, also give hostile looks to visiting Americans.

Or does friendly Istanbul journalist Mustafa Akyol, 32, represent Turkey's future? Sitting across the table from the columnist in an upscale restaurant in the modern, corporate section of Istanbul (home to Domino's and 7-11 outlets along with stores advertising fitness equipment and billboards showing fashionable cleavage), it's easy to imagine yourself in New York or Austin rather than across the river from the twisting, cobblestoned alleys of an ancient city that will soon resonate with minaret calls for evening prayer.

And does Turkey have any room for Metropolitan Saliba Ozmen and other Christians? Two years ago he returned from the United States to become head of a 12th-century Syrian Orthodox monastery in Mardin, a city of 62,000 in southeastern Turkey that was once 90 percent Christian but now has only 75 Christian families left. He points out the tomb in which centuries of metropolitans have been laid to rest, one body on top of the bones of the last, and says that one day he will be in there too-but will he be able to live out his life in peace?

One place to begin learning about Turkey is where President George W. Bush started during his visit here in Ankara on June 26. Officials on that day closed ordinary traffic on all of this capital city's main streets, three of which are named after one person. Ataturk Boulevard, Mustafa Kemal Pasha Boulevard, and Gazi Mustafa Kemal Boulevard (gazi means "victor over the infidels") all honor Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, who died in 1938 after turning Turkey from an Ottoman Muslim state into an officially secular semi-republic, semi-dictatorship. (He added on the name Ataturk, which means "father of the Turks.")

Scrunch Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt into one mountainous image and you begin to get a sense of Ataturk's importance in Turkey. His picture is on all denominations of bills from 1 million Turkish lira (worth, due to inflation, about 65 cents) to 50 million and beyond. President Bush during his visit squeezed in a trip of crucial symbolic importance to Anitkabir, the site where on most days adults and schoolchildren line up to walk past Ataturk's tomb. On one Saturday an old man with a cane painfully made his way up the 42 steps of the mausoleum.

The structure Mr. Bush saw is a secular shrine with towers that highlight Ataturk's statist and nationalist message. The mausoleum bows to the ancient history of this land by displaying 12 Hittite-style stone lions on each side of an entry promenade. It also bows to European influence by stationing helmeted soldiers like the British beefeaters, each not moving a muscle even when teenage girls vamp next to them. The tomb is huge and austere, but with a Turkish carpet-like design on the ceiling and latticework behind the tomb so that birds can fly in and out.


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