Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 11 June 2011 12:00 UK

Modern Turkey, a delicate balance of East and West

Women in Istanbul
Traditions still run deep in modern Turkey

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Turkey

Turkish ambitions both in the Middle East and the EU have created a divided nation, as public opinion, and even politicians, appear unsure about the path Turkey should take.

Sitting at an open-air kebab cafe - which is like a big tree house with tables on platforms straddling a waterfall and some of the tables in the water - the sun shining through wide leaves on fig trees, families eating their lunch and a little girl throwing pieces of bread to some geese - Syria seems far away.

But it is not.

At the souvenir stalls by the waterfall, alongside a corny portrait of Che Guevara (in classic pose with beret), there is a corny portrait of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian border is half an hour away.

There is a no-visa agreement between Damascus and Ankara.

Syrian businessmen and tourists often visit the mountain gorge where this cafe is.

Many of the road signs in southern Turkey point to Halep, Turkish for Aleppo, the must-visit ancient city in northern Syria.

But the inscrutable and rather baby-face of Syrian terror is hardly an association Turkey wants to project to the world in election week or during EU accession talks.

The prime minister went on TV this week to reassure frightened Syrians heading across the border that it would not be closed to them.

Turkey is trying to, and has mostly succeeded in, moving away from its dark past of army coups.

After the most recent military takeover, not so long ago - in 1980 - hundreds of thousands of Turks were rounded up and jailed without trial.

And 50 were hanged.

The crackdown in Syria is an alarming disappointment to the Turkish government

The army here has always regarded itself as the custodian of Turkish secularism, as promoted by the founding father of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Now the politicians here say: "No, we are in charge."

The last elections, in 2007, were in effect a referendum on the power of the army. The generals threatened to take over if the very Muslim Abdullah Gul became president.

The Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held the 2007 election early, calling the army's bluff.

He won. They lost.

Abdullah Gul became president. There was no coup.

And the crackdown in Syria is an alarming disappointment to the Turkish government.

EU membership

Turkey's foreign policy has been described as "zero problems, maximum trade, with neighbours".

Abdullah Gul
President Abdullah Gul was elected despite warnings from the army

Through the Levant Forum, Ankara has been promoting a free trade area with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

And Turkey has a huge trade surplus with Iraq, selling fridges, air conditioners, electric fans, food, cosmetics, chemicals, construction materials, electronics, vehicles and tyres.

Turkey is still officially trying to get into the European Union.

But enthusiasm for membership is waning. Many people I have met here over the past 10 days have told me they do not want to join.

"Too many problems," said Ahmed, a market trader in the bazaar in the southern city of Antalya.

"Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland. We don't want any part of that."

Antalya is a large modern city with a jewel at its heart - its walled old quarter and a Roman harbour, and it is helping the already healthy Turkish economy.

The Antalya region has just published an astonishing statistic - three million visitors in the first five months of this year.

Protecting traditions

Ataturk once said: "I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea."

There are still suspicions in some quarters here that Prime Minister Erdogan is a closet Islamist, with unrevealed intentions to ban alcohol and make women cover their heads.

Flags of Turkey and the European Union in Istanbul
Many Turks are less keen on joining the EU with its financial woes

He says it is rubbish.

There is a great variety in dress here - men in traditional Islamic skull caps, or in T-shirts and jeans.

Women with headscarves, or in miniskirts and high-heeled shoes - often the two walking side by side and holding hands.

But there are people who really do not want to import what they regard as Western decadence, especially public drunkenness.

They would like some restrictions.

And there already are some - alcohol, the aniseed drink raki in particular, is taxed so highly it is unaffordable to many people.

And there are new rules banning alcohol from sports advertising and from events for young people.

The alcohol regulatory board say this is not ideology, but is to protect people.

And Turkey's legal drinking age, at 18, is lower than in the USA, where it is 21.

There is a deep instinct for courteous behaviour here and there is immense kindness.

I have been greeted with nothing but friendly smiles everywhere I have been - town and country.

Children seem confident, happy and well-treated.

In old neighbourhoods they play in the street.

And they are friendly to strangers, which suggests they feel safe.

That is priceless.

The AK Party, which will almost certainly be re-elected, says it simply wants to protect some of the country's cherished qualities from some of the extremes of Westernisation.

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