Greetings From Istanbul

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I'm in Turkey, where I'd never been until yesterday. So far I have nothing to report in the traditional journalistic sense of having either (1) talked to politicos who said something newsworthy; (2) talked to academics or other local experts who made trenchant analytical points; or (3) talked to cabdrivers who obligingly said something telling.

But just being here somehow reinforces the truism that Turkey is now one of the most important countries in the world.

The argument behind the truism is simple: By virtue of being Islamic yet in so many ways Western, Turkey has a distinctive and potentially productive role to play along various fault lines between Western countries and Islamic countries or Islamic non-state actors. And the character of the current Turkish government--more Islamic than previous governments yet determined to stay enmeshed in the Western world--only underscores that prospect.

So does walking around Istanbul. You see a non-trivial number of head scarves, but you see a lot more women's heads that are uncovered. You hear the five calls to prayer each day, just as I did when I visited Saudi Arabia a few years ago--but whereas in Riyadh all commerce ceases during calls to prayer (even the Starbucks closed its doors!), here the calls to prayer have no visible impact on street life.

The story of the week here--the Syrian shootdown of the Turkish reconnaisance plane--is another reminder of this dual Turkish identity. Here you have an Islamic country that, in the eyes of some of its citizens, now has a right to attack another Islamic country. But if it did, it could wind up being the leading edge of a Western-backed war aimed at regime change in Syria. And meanwhile it's consulting with NATO about what to do.

I'll post again from Turkey before leaving later this week. Meanwhile I'll leave you with the closest thing I have to traditional journalism--something I heard not from a cabdriver but from a worldly Turkish businessman I met at dinner. He made a pretty good case that Syrian leader Bashar Assad wouldn't have authorized the Syrian shootdown--and that, therefore, you have to suspect rogue military officers, presumably some who would like to complicate Bashar's life.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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