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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 March, 2005, 12:05 GMT
A Turkish lesson in nation building

By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC News, Turkey

In its campaign to spread democracy, Washington reckons one of the key players should be Turkey, which it holds up as an example of how a successful democracy can flourish within an Islamic society. But some Turks are wary of this close relationship.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Condoleezza Rice recently visited Turkey to help smooth relations

Rain splattered on the dusty ground of the central Turkish hill town of Beypazari.

Huseyin Yulmaz, five years retired from the coal mines, withdrew money from a high street cash machine and headed down an alley, past the fire and the banging from a metal forge, to a café where we had agreed to go.

It was a place of thick cigarette smoke and gloomy colours, dark winter clothing, hard wood tables and rich brews of Turkish tea.

Huseyin and his friends were playing cards at the tables.

When viewed from Washington they are pretty much an example of what the US believes it is beginning to create in this part of world.

It cites Iraqi and Palestinian elections, people power in Beirut, changes in Egypt, an argument that societies can be both Islamic and democratic, the dream ticket that will put an end to terrorism.

Had this been Iraq, Iran or Syria, the sentiment would not have been so surprising

And Turkey, it says, knows how to do it.

Except, the last thing Huseyin Yulmaz wants is to be held up as an example America can use. The prospect was met with disdain and shaking heads.

"What America wants to do is divide us into small weak countries so that we can be controlled from the Pentagon," said Huseyin.

While his huge hands gently cupped a match to light a cigarette, his friend Yinasi Ertugal agreed.

"America's trying to set a trap for us, wanting us to think that we, too, will become like Iraq if we don't do what it says."

American ally

Had this been Iraq, Iran or Syria, the sentiment would not have been so surprising.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was declared Turkey's president in 1923

But these people are in the heartland of Turkey, a long-standing American ally.

They remember the Cold War, when Turkey and America stood shoulder to shoulder against the Soviet Union.

Their grandparents, great grandparents and beyond would have formed the backbone of the Ottoman Empire, which stretched from the Gulf to North Africa and the Balkans.

They have been raised on the doctrine of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who carried out the sort of reforms the White House envisions for the rest of the Islamic world.

He banned Sharia Law and Islamic schools and marriage, switched the weekly holiday from Friday to Sunday, adopted the Western calendar, and gave women the right to vote.

All achieved in 13 years from 1922 to 1935, roughly the same period that the Middle East has foundered between the first Gulf War and now. 

Little wonder, Washington would like Turkey to take a lead.

So why won't it, and also why is there the anti-American venom? Not only in the heartland, but also in the cosmopolitan café society in Istanbul.


"America should learn about democracy itself," said a designer, clad totally in black, taking off his shades to make sure I got the point.

Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul marks the meeting point of Islamic and Western culture

"America is now a threat to the whole world," agreed a television presenter, walking two huge, but finely behaved and coiffured dogs.

And it went on like that, one after the other.

I found the intricate explanation at the political science department of Ankara University. It turned out that where America is now heading, Turkey feels it has been before.

It does not like it and it knows what might happen.

"The nation state building in the Middle East is based on an anti-Turkish sentiment," said Dr Cagri Erhan.

"Because of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Syria, other countries, accuse Turkey of keeping their lives underdeveloped for five centuries. So Turkey now has to balance its policies. We're not a Pacific island. We have troublesome areas around us."

Historically, Turkey has been a frontier or meeting point of Islam and Christianity.

The Arab countries said they never expected this to come from Turkey. They thought we were Washington's pawns
Dr Sukrum Elekdag


As US politics are taking a lead from its deeply conservative and Christian heartlands, so Turkey is beginning to follow its own grass roots sentiment.

The first real sign was two years ago, just before the Iraq invasion, the Turkish parliament voted to ban US troops from going into northern Iraq through Turkey.

"This absolutely changed our image in the region," explained Dr Sukrum Elekdag, an elegant and urbane member of parliament, and former Turkish Ambassador to Washington.

"The Arab countries said they never expected this to come from Turkey. They thought we were Washington's pawns."

So, democracy in the Middle East?

"Well," he said, "first there must be peace in Iraq and secondly there's got to be a way to solve the Palestinian Israeli problem, so unfortunately, the present circumstances do not allow the US to implement its vision for the region successfully."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 19 March, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Turkey
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