Monday, May 21, 2012

800 Words: The Eurasian Faultline - Part I: Istanbul

Barely a hundred miles from either side of the collection of small seas and straights that separate the Mediterranean Sea from the Black Sea lie the world’s two most important cities – the two outposts of different civilizations that forever stare at each other across the faultline and bloodily demarcate the eternal divide between Europe and Asia. On the Western side lies Athens; cradle of European Civilization and an eternal capital upon which Rome, Paris, Vienna, London, Berlin, and Washington all modeled themselves. On the Eastern side lies Istanbul, the heart of Byzantium and the Ottomans, always either the Westernmost capital of Islam or the Easternmost capital of Christendom – the city which all Central Asian empire­­s from the Caliphates to the Mughals built their cities to emulate. If Islamic empires wanted to extend their domination into Europe, they first had to capture Athens. If Christians wanted to conquer Asia, they first had to capture Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called).

Geography is as large a determiner of history as any other force, and it rarely if ever changes. The strategic importance of these two cities is as important today as it has ever been to world history. Where they go, history goes. And as ever before, Athens and Istanbul determine the our fate, our ancestor’s fates, and our descendants’ fates.

Istanbul: Much has been made of the Greece’s economic reservoir drying up, but very few people have heard that slices of Turkey are similarly dry (sorry…). Indeed, Turkey’s current deficits are no smaller than Greece’s, projected at 10% of their current GDP. Whereas emerging market currencies like Brazil and Russia soar, the Turkish lira has seemed in on the cusp of a complete free fall. Unlike Greece, Turkey controls its own currency and devalues it further and further as a means to control its deficit. But how much more can the lira be devalued before the deficit has to be paid off and their currency spirals down into a hyperinflation?

But the main difference between Greece and Turkey is that while Greece serves as a negative model for Europe of an indolent welfare state living off the largesse of harder working neighbors; Turkey is an absolute role model for the Middle East and nearly all of Asia and Africa. By emerging third-world countries, Turkey is seen as a model of a democracy which successfully integrated Islamist religious parties yet maintained its democratic character, a booming economy, and ever rising international power. Per usual, reality and perception are on mutually exclusive terms. As of December 2011, Turkey had imprisoned ninety-seven journalists, thousands of opposition figures, banned roughly a million websites, disqualified the Kurdish separatist party from serving in the Turkish parliament, bombed Iraq with collusion from Iran in flagrant violation of international law, and killed as many as 56,000 Kurds (admittedly, the actual total of the latter is probably less than half that…). Turkey refuses to renounce its claim on Cyprus, and has occupied half of it as a conqueror since 1974. Prime Minister Erdogan continues his attempts to push through a new constitution that would increase his power at the expense of the press and the judiciary. The whole of the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge the Ottoman Empire’s attempt at genocide which resulted in the murder of 1.5 to 2 million Armenians. This refusal has the backing of most Turks and when the great Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk (everyone should read Snow and especially My Name is Red) denounced this refusal, he was placed on trial for “insulting Turkishness” in a case that went all the way to the Turkish Supreme Court – he was found guilty and would have probably been sent to jail had there not been tumultuous pressure from the international community to not imprison him.

Like the rest of the Islamic world, Turkey faces the twin problems of a baby boom and the flight of non-Muslim peoples to more tolerant parts of the world. Much of contemporary Istambul would like to think itself similar to Athens, a modern European city whose country can easily take its place among the sovereign nations of the European Union. But in the event of so many clampdowns on civil liberties and so much intolerance of minorities, it’s not surprising that Turkey's EU membership was forestalled indefinitely.

There are all sorts of theories about where Turkey is headed. Perhaps Turkey will continue on its 2000’s path toward true democracy and economic boom. As late as the first quarter of 2010, the Turkish economy grew 11%. But the last few years make that possibility seem rather more unlikely than it once did. Some pundits believe that Prime Minister Erdogan is aiming for something approaching a revived Ottoman Empire in which Turkey becomes the benefactor if not the outright satellite governor of every Islamic state within a 2,000 mile radius. In some ways, Turkey is perfectly poised for that position. It stands at the precise northern center of the Islamic world, a potential nexus (perhaps the only potential nexus) of stability while the entirety of the Islamic world surrounding it engulfs itself in civil conflict. All these countries are practically crying out for a strongman to rule them like a colonial empire. Through its proximity to European stability, Turkey is almost ideally equipped to supervise Islamic Africa to its southwest and Islamic Asia to its southeast. No one doubts that if Turkey could prevent Islamic civil conflicts from spreading to Europe or East Asia, then the world superpowers would look the other way if Turkey ran the Islamic world like its own fiefdom. If this turns out to be the case, then Turkey would take its place with the United States and China as one of the world’s dominant superpowers.

Other pundits tell us that Turkey as we know it cannot sustain itself and must fall – potentially separating into at least three different countries – one European, one Islamic, one Kurdish, and all with massive potential for civil war. Should contemporary Turkey fall into pieces, then the only predominantly Islamic country of world importance that does not potentially look on the brink of a long civil war is Indonesia. The truth however remains that no one knows what the future holds in store for Turkey. But either of these two scenarios would yet again bequeath the fate of the world to Istanbul’s hands.

Update: Der Koosh correctly points out that I had in a previous draft misspelled the name of the city as 'Istambul'. I suppose that this misspelling begs the question: 'why should you trust someone to opine on a city which he can't even spell correctly?' The answer: you shouldn't. But I'll opine anyway..

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