A landmark moment in Turkey

The most consequential political development on the continent of Europe so far this year is the mass resignation of the top military commanders in the Turkish army last week.  Turkish politics is opaque even to its participants and the relationship between the military and the elected political leadership is like an extended shadow play with much drama taking place offstage, so this news was easy to overlook and, once found, it might be dismissed as a bureaucratic matter of little importance.  In fact, it is a landmark in modern Turkish history on the order of the founding of the Republic by Kemal Ataturk in 1923 and the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 — both events in which the Turkish military was the central player.

Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, takes a stab at explaining the implications of these resignations, focusing on the corruption of the military and its betrayal of the political values Ataturk (pictured on the flag above) enshrined it to defend.  And, in truth, until twenty years ago many people — within Turkey and without — would have pointed to the interventionist military as the principal impediment to Turkish democracy.  But that was before the secular political elite began to lose power to a poorer, more religious, more conservative movement whose political party they would ban several times until, under the name of the AK (Justice and Development) Party, the current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took office in 2003.

The AK is thought of, sometimes dismissively, as an Anatolian party — in essence, the heartland of Turkey — though Erdogan himself was previously mayor of Istanbul with his base among the many millions of Anatolian migrants who have transformed the city over the last half century.  Much fuss was made over the fact that Erdogan’s wife wears a headscarf and there were dire predictions that he would make Turkey a more Islamic country but few could honestly argue that has come to pass, though many still fear it for the future.  Because underlying this political dispute is a social class conflict that, in its simplest terms, pits the cosmopolitans of Istanbul against the peasantry of Anatolia, albeit a peasantry that may have been born and raised in the cities, gone to university, started small businesses, established itself, and is now asserting the political influence that is a logical outcome of their population numbers in a truly democratic system.  This is where the military comes in: in the minds of fearful cosmopolitans, the officers have become the last line of defense against the imposition of the Islamist plan they imagine Erdogan has hidden behind his modern, placid demeanor.  If that is indeed Erdogan’s plan he has it well hidden and is executing it with the patience of Job.  It seems more likely that Turkey has just taken one very large step closer to becoming a real democracy.


In the fall of 2009, I wrote and photographed an article for Le Monde d’Hermès in which I stopped people randomly on the streets of Istanbul and asked them to tell me a story.  Most demurred, at first, but then began to talk about themselves, their lives, and (since many were from migrant families) how they had come to be Istanbullus.  The stories were totally unexpected: a back alley psychic whose clientele is aristocratic gay men who want her to predict whether they will be beaten or killed in the streets for going to male prostitutes, a simit (which is a kind of pretzel) vendor who sees the results of that prostitution business in gang fights on his street, a young couple (he a fashion photographer and she a modern dancer) who dreamed of running away to a village by the sea because there was no audience for their art in Turkey, and so on.

That article, in abbreviated form, can be found here.  Click here to see my photographs of Turkey.



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