4 Jarring Signs of Turkey's Growing Islamization

Erdogan is set on making the formerly secular nation an Islamic country, and it's working.

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Residential towers are seen next to the newly built Mimar Sinan mosque in Atasehir, on the Asian side of Istanbul, on September 4, 2012. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

"Turn right at the omelet," said the gas-station attendant. We were standing on the outskirts of Edirne, a small city about two hours north of Istanbul. My Turkish is poor so I turned for help to my Turkish friend.

"Omelet?" I asked.

"He meant outlet," he said, as in outlet mall. On today's Turkish highways, outlet malls are more common than caravanserais or roadside inns once were on the Silk Road. The malls are just one sign of the economic boom that is bringing western consumerism to the masses. Arriving in Istanbul from one of the phlegmatic economies of Europe or even from the United States is a jolt. Drive around western or central Turkey and you'll see new roads, high rises, and construction sites everywhere. Much of it comes from Middle Eastern oil money, much of it reinvested into industries such as automobile manufacture, textile, and food production. A recent trip revealed a Turkey that is wealthier than ever in its modern history.

And yet, the gas jockey had it right. For the average person, Westernization is about as deep as the difference between "omelet" and "outlet." The Turkish government wouldn't have it any other way. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for more than ten years, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in charge for most of them. Their goal is change. They want to make Turkey wealthy and Islamic. They have turned from the vaguely socialist policies of their predecessors to crony capitalism, and from the staunchly secular and pro-western policies established by Ataturk, the Republic's founder, to religious and Muslim-world-centered policies. They have abandoned Ataturk's non-interventionist stance for an active role in Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and now Syria.

Turkey's building boom includes 17,000 new mosques built by the government since 2002. The state is planning an enormous mosque, more than 150,000 square feet in size, to loom over Istanbul on a hill on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Secularists are outraged, and an opposition leader, Republican People's Party (CHP) MP Mehmet Ali Ediboglu, calls this just another step in a process that, he claims, will end in an Islamic republic.

Whither Turkey? Erdogan's visit to Washington last week is a reminder of how important that question is. President Barack Obama has called Turkey a critical ally and has spoken of his friendship for the Turkish leader. Yet Erdogan is trying to change the Turkish constitution from a parliamentary to a presidential system -- with the hope, of course, that he will be the president. His opponent's charge that Erdogan's model is Russia's Putin, a virtual dictator by legal means.

A visitor can only wonder where Erdogan's country is headed. Consider four scenes from the road:

1) Lecturing in a public university on Turkey's western coast -- the country's secular region -- I saw a small but significant number of women wearing headscarves. The government not long ago overturned a ban on headscarves in public places. From the American point of view, that seems like a good thing and a move in favor of religious freedom. Turkish secularists, however, consider it the thin end of a wedge.

2) In Amasya in north-central Turkey sits the graceful Kapiaga Madrasa. It was built in the sixteenth century by Sultan Bayezit II, an enlightened ruler who welcomed Jews and Muslims expelled from Spain in 1492. The octagonal structure is constructed around a central, arcaded courtyard. A visitor encounters what sounds at first like the buzzing of bees. In fact, it is boys studying religious texts.

The day I saw the madrasa I was wearing a baseball cap purchased earlier at a Turkish naval museum. It was decorated with a Turkish flag and a historic warship. The students looked at me with a certain aloof surprise. I didn't realize that I was making a political statement, but my Turkish friend explained that the symbol was nationalist and secular in their eyes.

3) On the way to Edirne, we drove past the exit to Silivri. A summer resort, Silivri is also home to a huge prison. It houses hundreds of top military officers along with journalists, lawyers, and members of Parliament accused of plotting against the government. It is Turkey's answer to the Bastille, the notorious jail for political prisoners in pre-revolutionary France. With 47 reporters incarcerated, Turkey has been called the world's leading jailer of journalists.

4) Arriving in Istanbul at night after a trip to the Anatolian heartland, my friend drove down Baghdad Avenue -- the Rodeo Drive of Istanbul. Rock music and short skirts were on order, not headscarves and religious chanting. Political prisoners seemed far away. But the boys in the madrasa will soon be adults and the women in headscarves will be college graduates. What kind of a country will they build, I wondered, when they come to Istanbul and look up at its grand new mosque? And what will Turkey's future mean for Americans and our own long and troubled quest to build better relations with Muslim countries?