The Changing Face of Turkey

Turks wave the national flag.

As uprisings against autocratic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya captivate the world's attention, a new slew of questions has arisen over Turkey's position in the region. To what extent Turkey will be able to influence the shape of new governments built in the wake of the Arab Spring remains unclear. Yet the pivotal role Turkey might play draws the attention of Western nations to the question of the Turkish national identity. 

The events of the past few months have thrust the long-debated and seemingly ever-evolving Turkish identity into an international spotlight. In examining this identity, the world as well as Turks themselves are attempting to better understand the country's growing geopolitical role. Work by the nation's current ruling political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to reshape the Turkish identity has changed the dynamics of the country's foreign policy and reshaped its relationship with both Western and Eastern powers. 

As U.S. influence in the Middle East continues to decline, Turkey's has grown, allowing the nation to become a more aggressive and central player in the Arab world. Over the last decade it has often served as a mediator between Western and Arab countries. Some believe that Turkey's identity as a democratic, Muslim-majority country helped to kick-start the Arab Spring.

"One of the factors that has led to the Arab Spring this year is the Turkish touch," says Dr. Sahin Alpay, assistant professor of political science at Bahçesehir University in Istanbul. "More and more Arab people have been able to rediscover Turkey, a new Turkey, which seemed to be combining Islamic values with democracy and market economy."

As one of the few democratic countries in the world with a governing Muslim party, Turkey has been presented with a unique opportunity. It can serve as an example for its neighbors, seeking democratization balanced with religious ideals.

In light of this, Western countries have been eager to nail down a more definitive answer to the question of the Turkish national identity. Some Western powers question whether Turkey is pulling away from Europe and the West as a whole in favor of a more Islamic perspective and stronger ties with the Middle East.

Identity crisis

Since its birth in 1923, the Republic of Turkey seems to have been constantly in the throws of an identity crisis. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, forcibly manufactured the early Turkish identity with a heavy lean towards Western secular democracy. Combining this with a unifying sense of Turkish nationalism has led to a tug of war today within the country's identity.

Anna Maria Beylunioglu, a political science research assistant at Bahçesehir University, argues that although Atatürk attempted to largely remove religion from the Turkish identity, he needed it as a common thread to bond Turks together because of a lacking common ethnic identity.

"Some say Turkishness is not about ethnic identity," Beylunioglu says. Instead, "religion is one of the elements of the identity. In practice, if you are not Muslim, if you are not patriotic, not secularist, you are not Turkish."         

The country's many polarizations make discussions of the national official identity complex. With an identity founded on contrasts—West versus east, modern versus traditional, secular versus religious—Turkey possesses a multi-dimensional identity, balancing both democratic European values with a conservative Eastern faith.

Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, often appears to be comprised of two separate worlds. Larger-than-life advertisements; well-known Western stores like Dolce & Gabbana, MacDonald's and Starbucks; and skimpily dressed women crowd the streets alongside majestic mosques, traditional teahouses and Muslim women in bright headscarves.

AKP building a new face of Turkey

To this day, the nation remains torn between its founding secular principles and the growing influence of Islamic ideals in state politics, largely because of the AKP. Since coming into power in 2002, the AKP has been reshaping the Turkish identity through a cultural counter-revolution. The party has successfully shed Turkey of the heavy influence on politics by the military in favor of a more liberal democracy, combining social development with Islamic conservatism.

The AKP is building "a new Turkey, which seems to be combining Islamic values with democracy and market economy," says Alpay. "The AKP declares its commitment to Islamic cultural values but at the same time to a liberal and pluralistic democracy based on a globalized, liberalized market economy."

In moving slowly towards a balance of secularism and religion in the state, the AKP is also reshaping the world's image of Turkey. Western European powers and the United States question whether the AKP has turned Turkey away from its Western allies in favor of building stronger relations with Middle Eastern countries.

In a column published by the Hurriyet Daily News on April 25, 2010, Soner Çagaptay commented, "In Turkey, the AKP has shifted Turkish foreign policy away from the West, helped catalyze a transformation of the Turkish identity towards Islamist causes."

"In 2002, many suggested that the AKP's rise to power presented Turkey with an opportunity to 'go back to the Middle East' and adopt more of an Islamic identity. The hope was that such a shift would help 'normalize' Turkey, recalibrating the secularizing and nationalist reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who turned Turkey to the West in the early 20th century," Çagaptay continued. "The outcome, however, has not been so positive. Turkey's experience with the AKP proves that Islamism may not be compatible with the West, after all."

Turkey has entered its third political term under AKP rule, and its political presence in the Middle East continues to grow under Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's leadership. As the new face of Turkey slowly emerges, eyes remain focused on the country's progress and its possible dramatic power to influence events in the region.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Morgan Brinlee.