How to Understand Turkey

Seminar at the Royal Institution

By Julie W | October 23, 2013


On October 17 an appreciative audience made up largely of Cornucopia readers attended the How To Academy's seminar at the Royal Institution's famous Faraday Theatre.

The historian Philip Mansel spoke first, drawing out past Turkish-European trade, political and cultural relations, with French being the language of the Ottoman elite and a 300-year alliance with France. Strong relations also existed with Sweden, Poland, The Netherlands and England. Even Turkey's beloved poet Nazim Hikmet was the son of a Polish Pasha. He hoped that the diversity within Islam in Turkey, from the Alevis and the Sufis to the Gülen movement, might prevent any one group dominating in the future.

Norman Stone reminded us that when Nazim Hikmet was in prison the only visitor he was allowed was his ex-wife – a very refined kind of torture. He went on to describe his experiences of the general will of the people in relation to state services. He gave a very even-handed explanation of the present government's successes in addressing national housing and economic issues, the efficiency of Ankara and so on, but foreign relations were still a stumbling block. He recalled the controversial writings of the Dutch Arabist, Reinhart Dozy, read by the Young Turks, and wondered if there wasn't something equivalent that might have an effect today.

Andrew Finkel brought his journalistic perspective as witness to the changes in Istanbul since he was first there in the 60s. Perhaps Istanbul is the enemy of nostalgia, he suggested. He noted the cultural changes brought about by the movement of populations, not just from rural to urban but of exiles from Bulgaria and Kurdish Iran, and that religious identity was important to people recently arrived. He spoke of the disasters caused by irresponsible urbanisation (in the 1999 earthquake) and by lack of economic responsibility (in 2000 – 2001), but felt that even a reforming government must be wary of over-using bureaucratic control.

The novelist Elif Shafak spoke eloquently on the difficulty of understanding Turkey even as a Turk, and that it was a country with more questions than answers. She spoke of emotional perceptions within Turkey: fear of the deep state, of loss of diversity, the need to catch up in terms of modernisation and democracy, and how emotional responses also coloured political stances. She hoped for more women's voices in politics and for a less top-down patriarchal system.

The presentations and the questions from the audience were ably moderated by Tony Curzon-Price. Many thanks to John Gordon and the How To Academy for arranging such an interesting, lively and useful event.

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