There are few calm places in İstanbul. The waterfront bustles; Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu heave with a mass of tourists. Then, as if walking through a secret door, the city’s main post office shimmers and shines on a quiet street near the Spice Bazaar. Perhaps my memory deceives me. Still, I reminisce about the quiet that enveloped the decorative late-Ottoman era building and carried through to the whispers of the cool, imposing interior.
High above the counter is a big portrait of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. By big, I mean big. It dominates the three-storey rotunda, just as Kemal’s legacy continues to dominate the country.
Staring up at the country’s founder, he staring back whilst I waited in line, my feelings of calm and serenity suddenly vanished. It was five days into my first visit to İstanbul, a place I fell in love with easily. But Atatürk’s lofty position suddenly made me angry.
The reverence afforded to Atatürk is slightly unsettling. It reached the point where I felt constrained in what I could feel. Standing in the stillness of İstanbul’s Sirkeci post office, I realised that the veneration of Turkey’s first President compromises the country’s future.
Turkey is a country in which, at 9:05 on the morning of each November 10th, everyone stops to observe a minute’s silence in remembrance of Atatürk. It is an offence to criticise the ‘Father of the Turks’ or to question his vision for the country he founded from the skeletal remains of the Ottoman Empire.
Veneration of a powerful political figure is not dangerous. But the absence of freedom to question that veneration, and the absence of open debate over the present and future of the country will impact how Turkey changes.
The accepted view is that Kemal’s vision was perfect. Modern and progressive in the 1920s for its secularism and rejection of tradition, it has become rigid in its inherent ethnic nationalism. In 1982, the army enacted a constitution to defend Atatürk’s vision. It defines citizens only as Turks. It bans education in languages other than Turkish. It allows no place for difference. Kurds resent this, waging a war for independence from Turkey for over thirty years.
A new Constitution is being developed. Critically, it will loosen the current constitution’s ethnic basis. Kurds will be permitted to speak and teach in their own language. This has been interpreted as the crucial issue that brought about a recent ceasefire.
Replacing the constitution is dramatic by itself; that it might drive a peaceful agreement between Ankara and the Kurdish PKK, after 35,000 deaths, is cause for celebration. Yet, a worry remains.
Another proposed change is the introduction of a directly elected President. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister since 2002, is the man guiding the new constitution. Mr Erdoğan would like to be the next President, and probably will be the next President. Many worried about his roots in Islamism when he first came to power. What, they asked, would this mean for Turkey’s secularism? The result is largely symbolic change, such as the first headscarf wearing First Lady.
It is Mr Erdoğan’s personality and governing style that presents the worry for Turkey’s future. He has authoritarian desires, including seeking greater political control of the judiciary. He has sought to curtail the big and powerful military. Not bad in itself – the Chief of Staff still doesn’t answer to a civilian – but the tactics of mass arrests of generals has raised eyebrows. He is revered amongst working-class Turks. Like Atatürk, it seems as though Erdoğan wants to mould Turkey in his own image. And he does not like dissent; Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world.
Turkey’s emergence as a 21st Century economic and regional power is now accepted as a foregone conclusion. Projections from the OECD suggest that it will be the world’s seventh fastest growing economy to 2060; this is a country in which the average length of schooling in 1970 was just two years.
That Turkey is changing is passé. What it is becoming is the real question. İstanbul is, once again, a world city, bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games. Residents underline changing attitudes towards minorities. But the country’s wealth is concentrated around the city; the rest of Turkey is still largely poor and rural. It is a socially conservative place. The number of foreign born residents in the country is tiny.
I can imagine few better things than working by the Bosphorus and wandering the streets of Galata. My hope is that the future Turkey does not follow the path of the old Turkey. The new constitution must not simply be a vehicle for Mr Erdogan’s desires. It must allow people to question without fear. One man cannot dominate the country’s path for the next century.