Country at a crossroads

Turkey | The nation that straddles Europe and Asia is also torn between secular and Islamic views of government, between cultural stability and terrorist violence. The direction Turkey takes will say much about the future of both regions

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

BODRUM and ISTANBUL, Turkey--It is 10:19 pm in the bustling resort town of Bodrum on the southwestern coast of Turkey, and the call to prayer sounds from a small mosque surrounded by several couture shops. Less than 10 men-summoned for the last of the five prayers said each day by devout Muslims-are praying inside its open doors, and those on the streets pay scant attention to the beckoning loudspeaker.

A few blocks down the street, the Bodrum Marina Yacht Club begins a call of its own. Popular Turkish and American tunes draw more than a -hundred people to an outdoor stage to listen to a five-piece jazz band and a popular Turkish singer. Like other night clubs in Turkey, its music will pulse several hours past midnight. Although Bodrum lies in the Asian portion of Turkey, this town feels more a part of the West than the East.

Yet Turkey inhabits a pivotal place somewhere in the middle: It's a beacon to its Muslim neighbors struggling to find stability or sorely lacking in basic rights, but the nation has not yet been invited to join the European Union (EU). History and culture make Turkey an attractive tourist destination, but several high-profile murders during the past two years-including that of three Christians in southeast Turkey-and a recent terrorist attack in front of the American consulate in Istanbul mean some potential tourists may decide not to come.

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Turkey's secular republic is unique for a majority Muslim nation, but an underlying fear that the government could turn Islamist has led to several soft coups and the arrests of dozens of Turks suspected of plotting to overthrow the Islamist-leaning ruling party in Turkey. Yet pride and determination continue to propel this unique nation forward, and some political strategists say Turkey has the potential to be the glue that binds East to West.

East and West

Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles both Europe and Asia.

In the evenings, visitors line the European shore of the Bosphorus-the strait that divides Istanbul in two-and wait to board one of the river's small boats that shuttle hungry patrons to Istanbul's famous seafood restaurants on the Asian side of the city. The decorative lights of the Bosphorus Bridge create a soothing glow on the water, and fireworks in the distance further enhance the magical ambiance.

Travel and Leisure magazine ranked Istanbul the world's third-best city-behind Rome but ahead of Paris-in 2007, and it recently won the bid for the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture in 2010. But Turkey's tireless efforts since 2005 to gain acceptance into the EU have yet to gain real traction, and the country is increasingly distracted by unrest.

Two back-to-back bombs ripped through a working-class Istanbul neighborhood on July 27, leaving 17 dead-including five children-and more than 150 injured. The terroist attack was the worst case of violence in five years and came just hours before the Constitutional Court in Ankara narrowly decided not to ban Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for alleged Islamism.

Prime Minister Erdogan has linked the Kurdish separatist PKK group to the bombings, but several PKK leaders have denied involvement. The group has -carried out scores of terrorist bombings since 1984, but Islamist militants and ultra-nationalists have also been active in the region.

In addition to domestic troubles, Turkey is addressing tension with EU member Cyprus. Turkey must open its ports and airways to Cyprus, the EU says, before it can be considered for membership.

Clashes in 1974 between the island's Greek Orthodox and Muslim Turks resulted in the threat of Greek annexation. Turkey invaded and took control of one-third of the island, naming the territory the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This political entity is recognized by Turkey alone (the Republic of Cyprus claims sovereignty over 97 percent of the island), but Cyprus remains de facto partitioned into separate Turkish and Greek -territories with a United Nations--controlled Green Line in between.

Leaders from both territories met on July 23 to discuss a resolution, and -full-scale negotiations are expected to begin in September with the goal of -ending the division of the island by the end of 2008. The other looming task assigned to Turkey is that of bringing its laws up to European standards-a challenge that centers on improvements in free speech and minority rights.

Secularism and Islam

The population of Turkey is nominally 99 percent Muslim, but the country has no official state religion. A stark contrast from a number of other Muslim countries where Islamic law has become part and parcel of the state, Turkey has created a system that prevents just that.


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