Turkey gropes between West and Islam
Published: Feb 13, 2019 05:56 PM
Well-known Turkish writer Ferit Orhan Pamuk used the word hüzün to express the melancholy of modern Turkey. He used it to indicate the pain and sorrow over a loss.

He deeply loves Istanbul, which straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait. The bridge can serve the flow of people and vehicles, but how about the spirit? For more than 100 years, Turkey has never walked across this bridge to Europe. When facing a conflict between tradition and modernity, the West and Muslims, secularism and religion, it turned to Islam to realize the dream of a big country.

From a religious or cultural perspective, Turkey does not fall into the category of Western civilization. However, it has sided with the West. It is a Muslim country most influenced by the West.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's reforms started in the 1920s. Considered the founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk initiated a series of policy changes designed to convert Turkey into a modern, secular and Westernized nation-state. Learning from the West and Europe has been viewed as the sole path to become prosperous and militarily powerful.

Such reforms have almost opened the door for Turkey to enter the Western orbit. It copied the European model for its judicial system and abolished the use of the Arabic alphabet for a Latin script. It also became the only Muslim country to be a member of the US-led NATO.

But religion and cultural traditions, like a curse, cannot be easily shaken off. Atatürk wanted Turkey to be Westernized, but not to become a Western vassal, and he wanted to build Turkey into a modern Muslim powerhouse on an equal footing with the West.

Then there came the common challenges many emerging countries faced after WWII. In their founding policies, almost all of these non-Western emerging countries faced the question of national unity. They had to emphasize nationalism or resort to religious beliefs to enhance national awareness and consolidate the "imagined community."

When these countries face multifarious disputes with the West and Western values, they tend to resort to tradition and religion to thwart Western influence. On the one hand, Turkey wants to be a pro-West or Westernized country by doing away with the influence of religion on politics and modernization. On the other, most Turks believe that Islamic values are superior to Western practices and that Turkey's history is more glorious. 

Under a Western-style electoral system, religion has become a factor that must be taken into account to seek votes. Those living inland and in rural areas are often more conservative voters. 

Turkey's return to Islam and an increasing distance from Westernization in recent years has led to the dominance of conservatism, which is particularly evident in the field of education. 

Since 2012, when Imam Hatip education was extended to middle schools for pupils aged 10 to 14, total student numbers have risen fivefold to 1.3 million in over 4,000 schools. 

Last October, the Economist published an article titled "Why Dissidents are Gathering in Istanbul," with a subtitle "A century after Turkey lost the Middle East, Istanbul is an Arab capital again." 

Turkey now wants to return to and lead the Muslim world after being rejected by the West. Although doing so seems to have been forced by the West, it's in essence a result of Turkey's history, tradition and religion. 

Turkey's alienation from the West is a process that non-Westernized countries will inevitably undergo in achieving modernization. 

The true challenge is how to prevent going into isolation and conservatism during the process. 

Can Turkey continue secularization and find its own path to modernization while wrestling with the West? Just as Orhan Pamuk said, Turkey needs to build or invent a new national spirit. 

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina