Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 19:08 pm (KSA) 16:08 pm (GMT)

Is Turkey Asian or European?

Kadir Ayhan

As a Turkish citizen living abroad, I have received countless questions from foreigners related to Turkish history, politics and culture. However, none of the questions has been asked more frequently than that of whether Turkey is Asian or European. There can be very many answers to this question, depending on the approach one takes in analyzing Turkey's identity.

My first reaction to this question is always this: "Why does it matter? For me, it is just a matter of crossing the bridge." I am making two points with this answer: 1) Identities are not constant, but relative; they can change contextually. Since identities are relative, Turkey, or any other country for that matter, does not have to be strictly of one identity or another. 2) İstanbul indeed is a bridge between Europe and Asia, and that gives Turkey a unique geopolitical significance and a natural role of bridging Europe (the West) and Asia (the East, indeed the Middle East).

First of all, the wording of the question is wrong since it reduces the dimension to geographical identity alone. That is because there is no such thing as an Asian identity, but there are not well defined sub-Asian identities. Asia is the largest continent in the world and is home to diverse ethnic, cultural and religious identities. The Asian identity has been discussed in East Asia since the 19th century, but it is usually limited to the East Asian countries -- and yet there is still no definition of an East Asian identity. Indeed, in East Asia not many people can picture Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians and even Russians as "Asian." On the other hand, the simple question "Asian or European" makes sense from a traditional Western point of view since it hints at "Oriental or Occidental?" However, the term Orient itself is very ignorant, because it implies a meaning of simply "non-West" in a "West vs. the rest" setting.

The question can be paraphrased in this way: "What is Turkey's identity?" This question can be answered from three different approaches: 1) What identity does the Republic of Turkey attach itself to? 2) What identity does the general Turkish public attach itself to? 3) What identity does the world attach to Turkey? Each question can be dealt with in a comprehensive analysis, but this article's aim is to suggest an identity for Turkey that can arguably be an optimum answer to all three questions.

Turkey is located where Asia meets Europe and geographically has land on both continents. The capital Ankara and the larger portion of the country are in Asia. Turkey is the successor of the Ottoman Empire, which had been the leader (caliph) of the Muslim world for about 400 years. Today, 99 percent of the Turkish population is officially Muslim. Yet these facts are not enough to place Turkey under an Islamic identity. The Republic of Turkey imported Western systems, including democracy, laicism (secularism), the Latin alphabet, the educational system, the justice system, etc. In addition to these systems, Turkey also imported Western music, Western clothes (the "hat revolution" being the most symbolic) and Western arts -- all elements of the Western culture that usually come as a set together with modernization. These changes were made under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's revolution in the 1920s. Today, Turkey is a country with a 99 percent Muslim population that is enacting more Western reforms in order to be able to join the European Union. Turkey is also a member of organizations that originated in the West, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and NATO.

Two different images

The question in the title comes up because of two apparently different images of Turkey. Samuel Huntington, in his unconvincing yet significant contribution, the theory of a "clash of civilizations," categorizes Turkey as a torn country that is in the middle of two civilizations: the Muslim world and the West. According to his theory, the elites of Turkey see their country as Western, while some of the Turkish society attaches itself to the Middle East and the Muslim world. Although Huntington does not clearly mention what he means by "elites" nor who sees Turkey as part of the Muslim world, he most probably thought that secularist (not secular) Turks identify Turkey as Western while conservative (or practicing Muslim) Turks side with the Muslim world. Having been rejected by the West, Huntington argues, Turkey may turn to the Turkic countries of Central Asia in search of a new identity. Until not long ago, Turkey, as a torn country, was destined to be alone in the international arena; the West used to see it as part of the Muslim world while at the same time the Muslim world used to see it as "overly Westernized." Being a torn country meant being stuck in the middle, having neither a Muslim identity nor a Western one.

However, the reality today is very different from what Huntington argued 16 years ago. The conservative Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, most of its supporters and most other conservatives enthusiastically support Turkey's negotiations with the European Union. This at a time when there are mixed feelings about EU reforms in secularist circles. Moreover, Turkey today is not only craving the EU, but also engaging more with the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkey's significant geopolitical location provides the country with a unique role of bridging different cultures of various regions (or different civilizations, as Huntington puts it).

Turkey no longer has to be stuck in the middle, with no clear identity; it can assume the role of a peaceful mediator, with a dual (or multiple) identity. One identity should not come at the expense of another. In order to be part of the Western world (e.g., NATO, the EU) as a democratic nation, Turkey does not have to ignore its population's Muslim identity, nor does Turkey have to turn its back on the Muslim world. As will be discussed below, Turkey became closer to both the Muslim world and the Western world (and indeed the Caucasus). This fact offers prospects for Turkey serving as a mediator between the Western world and the Muslim world.

Negotiations between Turkey and the European Union started in 2005, and a number of reforms have been implemented in accordance with the Copenhagen criteria within the last decade. Recently, State Minister Egemen Bağış was appointed minister for EU affairs and chief negotiator in order to accelerate negotiations with the European Union. The EU is Turkey's number one trading partner, particularly due to Turkey's membership in the customs union, which it joined in 1995.

Turkey's relationship with the Muslim world

Relations with the Muslim world have gotten better compared to a decade ago. Turkey has been attending Arab League summits as an observer since 2005. Relations with its neighbor to the south, Syria, have improved tremendously, considering that the two sides drew very close to war only a decade ago. Last year, Turkey was very active in mediating between Syria and Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also offered US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Turkish meditation. Despite tension from time to time, relations with Iraq and the regional administration in northern Iraq are relatively peaceful. The secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is a Turkish professor, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu. Trade interdependence with the Middle East has increased a great deal; energy agreements are being signed with Iran and the Arab countries.

A subgroup within the Muslim world is culturally closer to Turkey: the Turkic countries of Central Asia. Azerbaijan is Turkey's closest ally, or maybe closer than an ally, and other Turkic countries also are very interdependent on Turkey. Turkish businessmen and Turkish NGOs are very active in the region connecting the newly independent former Soviet republics to their historical brother country, Turkey. Learning Turkish and studying at Turkish universities are an increasing trend in Central Asia. Many Turkish soap operas are being watched all over Central Asia and in most Arab countries.

In addition to Europe and the Middle East, Turkey also engages more with the Caucasus. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline started operating in 2005. This pipeline is becoming an important oil supplier in the East-West energy corridor and thus offers Turkey more strategic significance in the Caucasus. Turkey does not have diplomatic relations with Armenia, but there has been progress -- especially within the last year. Turkish President Abdullah Gül went to Armenia upon an invitation from Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan to watch an Armenia-Turkey soccer match and discuss bilateral issues. There have been more diplomatic summits at the prime ministerial and foreign affairs ministerial levels since last year's soccer game. Moreover, Turkey proposed the creation of a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform in order to avoid clashes in the region. Right after last year's conflict in South Ossetia, Prime Minister Erdoğan visited both Georgia and Russia to discuss the cooperation initiative. The idea was welcomed by Russia, Georgia, Armenia and even NATO.

Turkey's ties with Europe, the Muslim world and countries in the Caucasus are simultaneously getting closer. This proves that close relations with different "civilizations" are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, Turkey's close ties with Europe are an opportunity for the Muslim world and the Caucasus, while Turkey's ties with the Muslim world offer prospects for Europe and the West in general. Economic benefits are easy to point to as the reason for Turkey being an intermediary between the two regions; however, what is more significant is Turkey's role in preventing the "clash of civilizations."

*Published by Turkey's TODAY'S ZAMAN on Mar. 31st. Kadir Ayhan is a student at the Graduate School of International Studies of Seoul National University.

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