Turkey Update: What’s Erdogan up to?

Travel as a Political Act bookI’ve been hard at work updating my “Travel as a Political Act” book and I’d love some help from my traveling friends who are familiar with Turkey.

I’m rewriting the chapter on Turkey to include information about the 2016 coup attempt there — and the extreme reaction to the coup by President Erdogan.

You can read the rough introduction to the chapter below. And, if you are up to date on Turkey, I’d appreciate your suggestions on how to better describe the changes brought on by what seems like a dictator in the making.  What’s it like for the locals and for tourists in Turkey now? What’s Erdogan up to?  Thank you.


Turkey and Erdogan

My Dad used to be absolutely distraught by the notion that God and Allah could be the same. Years ago, I couldn’t resist teaching my toddler Andy to hold out his arms, bob them up and down, and say, “Allah, Allah, Allah” after table grace just to freak out his Grandpa. Later, rather than just torture my Dad, I took a more loving (and certainly more effective) approach to opening him up to the Muslim world: I took him to Turkey. Now — while he’s still afraid of ISIS — my Dad is no longer afraid of Islam.

While violent Islamic fundamentalists represent a tiny fraction of all Muslims, the threats they pose are real. And they get plenty of media coverage. To help balance my understanding of Islam, I make a point to travel there and learn about its reasonable, mainstream side.

Just as Europe and the US are dealing with rising populism, nativism, and fear-mongering politicians looking for an excuse to cut down on freedoms and amp up their military and local forces of “law and order.” And just as pluralistic secular Western governments are dealing with fundamentalists in their society that would prefer to see sins treated as crimes and their style of prayer in school, Muslim nations have that same dynamic. In fact, the challenges, while similar, are more extreme in much of the Islamic world.

I have long loved traveling in moderate, Western-facing Muslim countries such as Turkey and Morocco where embracing secularism was not seen as being anti-Muslim but simply the mark of a modern democracy. Visiting moderate developing nations which happen to be primarily Muslim gives us a safe and fascinating look at our globe’s fastest-growing religion, practiced by more than 1.5 billion people worldwide. Through travel, we can observe Islamic societies struggling (like our own society) with how to navigate through a rough-and-tumble globalized world. In doing so, we gain empathy.

I have long considered Turkey one of my favorite countries and a good classroom in which to better understand our world and its struggles. Through my company, I’ve offered (and guided) tours of Turkey through good times and bad since before the first Gulf War (in 1990). We’ve followed Turkey’s torrid modernization, its battles with separatist Kurds, and its internal tug-of-war between modern urban secularists and traditional more rural fundamentalists. And, for many years, I’ve worried with my Turkish friends about the slow yet persistent drift to the political right and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in that country that has always taken great pride in the modern constitution given to it by its founding father, Ataturk. Then, in 2016, a failed coup attempt gave the country’s president the opening he needed to become its dictator.


Erdogan vs. Secular, Pluralistic Turkey

Turkey is not living in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. Ten percent of its society is Kurdish and many Kurds have aspirations to secede and join an independent Kurdistan. Just as rich and powerful forces push a right wing and fundamentalist agenda in the USA, powerful and wealthy forces are pushing a right-wing and Islamic agenda in Turkey. For a decade I considered Turkey a model of balancing the needs of a strong leader with Western ideals of pluralism and secularism. And for years, Muslims in neighboring countries dreaming of a more democratic system looked to Turkey for inspiration and as a model. But gradually it became clear that Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had a different vision: to make Turkey less free and more Islamist. The constitution, given the modern state of Turkey at its founding in 1923 by Ataturk, anticipated such a leader. In fact, that constitution called for a strict separation of mosque and state and even required the Turkish military to overthrow its own president if ever he violated that tenet (which they’ve actually had to do on several occasions).

Turkey’s President Erdogan needed an excuse to declare a state of emergency and establish his more authoritarian rule and he got it in mid-2016. On July 15th, 2016, a faction of Turkey’s military attempted a coup (apparently to stop Erdogan’s over-reach). It failed and Ergodan responded with a harsh crackdown. Erdogan declared an extended state of emergency, replacing leading generals, silencing professors, shutting down the press, and locking up thousands of western-minded Turks. He essentially criminalized his political opposition. Before the coup attempt and all the purging, Ergodan — during his attempt to get Turkey admitted to the EU — was praised for supporting religious freedoms and civil rights. Suddenly, it was all different. The leaders of the military were replaced by Erdogan cronies. The military and the judiciary, both counted on for their defense of secularism, were effectively silenced. Erdogan moved to stop the public from organizing. He blocked or limited internet access and social media. Turks were arrested on charges of simply insulting the president. Erdogan, named by the European Voice newspaper “European of the Year” in 2004, had now moved Turkey — its populace thoroughly frightened and silenced — closer to a Muslim autocracy.

For many years the predictable question I’d get from loved ones is, “Why are you going to Turkey?” With each visit to Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world, my thoughts were: Why would anyone not travel here? Now, with the darkness of Erdogan settling on 70 million Turks, Western tourism is essentially dead in a country where it once thrived. Hotels are shut down, squares that thrived with guests from around the world are quiet, and there’s barely a foreigner in sight. From a safety point of view, I would be totally comfortable visiting Istanbul. I’d receive a warm and eager welcome. But I’d be sad, as the free spirit I expect to find in Turkey would be in hiding.

This chapter shares favorite moments I’ve enjoyed over the years in pre-Erdogan Turkey. The lessons are true as ever. And hopefully, when the spirit of Ataturk retakes its rightful place as the guiding light of the Turkish people, we’ll be traveling there again soon.