In the wake of a woman blowing herself up in Istanbul (see previous post) and the events in Paris. I thought a lot about the words ‘safety’ and ‘security’ a lot. The response to attacks like these is very much standard at this point: Increasing police presence; heavily armed personnel and vehicles at every corner; and perhaps even helicopters flying overhead. This certainly seemed like what happened in Istanbul. However, I am not sure I felt any safer with the increased presence of police. If anything, I felt less secure. For a few days after the Istanbul attack, Taksim and other streets were not as busy as they typically are, and that contributed to the feeling (or lack thereof) of safety.
In Istanbul it did not look natural to have heavily armored cars around every corner, but things have not been ’natural’ lately as Turks report to me. There is a sense Turkey very much is a different place from what it used to be in 2011 and 2012. I spoke to a lot of people I encountered in around the town, in coffee shops, mosques, and marketplaces. They seemed to paint a picture of a Turkey that has been trying to define what it wants to be for a few years. Every time it makes a decision, the circumstances change and Turkey has to go on another self-discovery journey.
Prior to the financial crash, Turkey was trying to join the EU but has faced setback after setback. In the aftermath of the financial crisis and the unraveling of Greek, Italian and Spanish economies, it seemed that the stalling of the talks was a blessing in disguise. With the euro declining in value, joining will probably bring more bad than good, and with talks of a Greek exit from the EU, Turkey was not too eager to enter the EU. After the government used excessive force in dispersing protests in Istanbul, Europeans found another thing to dislike about Turkey and stall its potential entry into the EU.
All this back and forth between the EU and Turkey have put Turks in a delicate position. They sometimes find themselves readying to be more European as the prospect of entering the EU becomes more believable, only to go back to their natural states when the potential fades away.
Further, Turkey has seen the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a strong but controversial political figure in Middle East politics. The Islamist party leader has been at the helm of Turkish politics for more than a decade. A leading figure in an Islamist party does not strike one as very Turkish. Of all Middle Eastern Muslim countries, Turkey is by far the most liberal. Its people feel that way, too. I have spoken to a lot of Turks, and a lot of outsiders who have studied Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, and my puzzlement was shared. Turks seem to have reconciled themselves with Erdogan because he so far has delivered on key economic promises, and leapfrogged Turkey into being a regional manufacturing hub. However, his Islamists policies have not necessarily gone well with his constituents, as the Gezi Park protests showed. Turks constantly have to explain away why they continue to vote for an Islamist despite their secularity, another identity question they themselves ask.
Erdogan is by no means an embattled leader. His reign is safe so far. However, he is coming under increasing pressure due to Turkey’s central role in the Syria conflict. Turkey is a country to watch in 2015 as developments in Syria and Iraq will certainly have ramifications on Istanbul.