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Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds
By Stephen Kinzer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
252 pgs. US$25/C$39.95

America's mysterious ally

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 8, 2001

Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two WorldsAs the title of Stephen Kinzer's Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds suggests, Turkey is a microcosm of the struggle between the Western and Islamic worlds. It is a nation of occasionally bewildering contradictions that has both fascinated and repelled the West, seen throughout history as alternately barbarous and cultivated. As Kinzer aptly illustrates, Turkey is a nation of the East that looks towards the West for its future, it is a democratic nation with a horrible human rights record, and one that wants a presence on the world stage while being distrustful of foreign political influence.

Modern Turkey as we more or less know it was born in 1923 when Kemal Atatürk launched what was essentially a one-man revolution to overthrow the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. His aim was to introduce a secular republic wedded to reason, one that promoted freedom and equality for all Turks. As history has witnessed countless times, however, not all revolutions end up fulfilling the dreams of their instigators. Fearful of Atatürk's legacy being destroyed by the very people he wanted to free, Turkey's military has created a state only somewhat less repressive then it was under the Ottoman Empire.

As Kinzer relates, for most of the Twentieth Century Turks have been largely supportive of the restrictions placed on them by what they consider to be a benevolent military filling a vacuum left by poor political leadership. Wary of the destabilizing influences of ethnic strife because of a large Kurdish population and religion, Turks have put up with successive military coups and political intrigue that has done little to unshackle them. They have patiently supported the suppression of what are considered to be divisive voices - journalists, Muslims, Kurds and leftists not surprisingly fit into that category - to safeguard a republic that straddles Europe and the Arab world.

That may have changed on April 19, 1999 when an earthquake devastated Turkey and revealed a political order more concerned about looking in charge then aiding its citizens. That earthquake had a profound social, political and cultural effect and led Turks to question their institutions, ones that have held it is more important to protect the idea of the state then its individual citizens. Grassroots aid efforts convinced millions of Turks that they did not need their state to carry out massive actions, perhaps giving birth of a nascent libertarianism.

As Kinzer writes, what was good for the figurative children of Atatürk isn't being fully accepted by his grandchildren. Today's Turks are asking questions about their nation's past - including the massacre of untold numbers of Armenians in 1915 - and are less willing to accept personal and political limitations. The country's Muslim leadership, which had grown increasingly radical during the 1980s, has moderated its voice and - along with Kurds - are looking to create a more inclusive state. The average Turk, says Kinzer, wants to fulfill the unrealized potential of a talented nation. Ultimately, he says, people have come to believe that unity can only be achieved by embracing others.

A cynic might say that Turks have traveled a long way to end up in the same place but Kinzer is supremely confident about a nation that he obviously is in love with. Kinzer maintains that if any country can prove that Islam, democracy and modernity can co-exist, it is Turkey. It has the potential to be an example to the Muslim world and a respected member of Europe but only if its political and military leadership can be convinced that Turks won't destroy the legacy of Atatürk. Whatever its future may hold, Kinzer has crafted a marvelous study of where Turkey stands today and the path he hopes it will take in the coming decades. His love letter to Turkey needs to be read by anyone who wants to understand better a nation which is the one of the West's closest allies and yet also one of its greatest mysteries.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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