Turkey: pivotal nation bridges Europe and Asia

The Islamic leader of Turkey, a powerful secular Muslim state, is celebrating re-election as his country hails a new era of power. Another Ottoman Empire in the making?

It's the only city in the world located on two continents, and it is has been the capital of three great empires: Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. But now Istanbul, once known as Byzantium and then Constantinople, is increasing in power and influence once again, as Turkey's role on the world stage grows.

The country has an economic growth rate of 8.9%, not far behind the emerging superpowers of China and India, although it is predicted to slow to just over 6% this year; ambitions to become the first non-Christian nation in the European Union (it is already a member of NATO); and a rich history as the powerful hub for relations between Asia and the West.

Yesterday Recep Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a third four-year term as Turkey's government. It's a fascinating story of how a political party with religious roots has managed to become the dominant, modernising force in a nation that has officially been secular since Kemal Ataturk, the founding hero of modern Turkey, established it as a republic in 1923.

In Ankara, now the political capital, Mr Erdogan told his supporters that he would use his third election victory to become a voice for the Middle East and for European Muslims on the international stage.

'Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.'

It is this Muslim identity that worries some countries in the EU. With a population of 73 million and its increasing economic and diplomatic importance, conservative voices in France, Germany and the other core EU nations fear Turkey could become too powerful a voice. Others, in favour of Turkish membership, argue the EU cannot be an exclusive Christian club.

Meanwhile, Turkish power is advancing in any case. During the decision about whether and how NATO should intervene against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, the Ankara government played a crucial role.

New Danger

Now there's an added danger: as thousands of Syrian refugees from President Assad's repression flee across the border, Erdogan's condemnation of the 'atrocities' could spark a stand-off between the two neighbouring nations, between whom relations had improved in the last few years. If that happens, Europe and America, as NATO partners, would be obliged to defend Turkey.

Could this new era of rising Turkish power be marked by conflict rather than the peaceful improvement in prosperity and citizens' rights promised during the election campaign?

You Decide

  1. 'Why shouldn't the muslim world have a superpower?' Discuss.
  2. Is Turkey right to welcome Syrian refugees? Even if it sets up conflict between the two governments?

Activities

  1. Research Turkey's bid to join the European Union and the objections the country faces. Write a balanced account of both points of view as if reporting for a newspaper.
  2. Study the Ottoman portraits in the links by Titian and Bellini, two Venetian artists. Design an image to celebrate Erdogan's election victory – or you could update Ataturk's image.

Some People Say...

“The world has enough superpowers, we don't need another.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This Ottoman Empire stuff isn't serious.
Well, at its peak the power of the Sultans was immense, as the map shows. But by the early 20th Century the monarchy's powers had decreased and the borders had retreated dramatically. When Ataturk took over, the last Sultan fled Istanbul in a British boat in 1922.
That's history.
Indeed. But there are large Muslim populations across the Balkans and South Eastern Europe, so Erdogan's promise to give them a voice in Europe and in international forums is interesting. He could extend Turkey's influence considerably.
And what about the Middle East and North Africa?
Turkey's power has already been cleverly increased through boosting trade, and mending relations with neighbours. The country could become the region's economic and diplomatic powerhouse.

Word Watch

NATO
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a post-war alliance in which 28 western countries have pledged to defend each other if attacked. In recent years the alliance has acted in unison in areas seen as a threat to world security or human rights – for example in Kosovo and Libya. Turkey joined NATO in 1951.
Ataturk
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a soldier and statesman and the first President of modern Turkey after the Turkish war of independence in 1918-23. Ataturk means 'father of the Turks,' a name given to him by the people in 1934. His portrait is everywhere in Turkey even today.
Secular
Non-religious. Secular states are those with no state religion and no links between any religion and the structures of poltical power. France and the United States are two other examples. The UK has the Church of England as the 'established' or official faith.

Subjects

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