Thoughts on Tom Friedman’s alarmist column

Posted June 16, 2010 by Alan Gottlieb
Categories: Turkey

I just read this morning’s New York Times column by Thomas Friedman, in which he sounds alarms about Turkey lurching toward the Arab world and away from the West.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

After 9/11, I was among those hailing the Turkish model as the antidote to “Bin Ladenism.” Indeed, the last time I visited Turkey in 2005, my discussions with officials were all about Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. That is why it is quite shocking to come back today and find Turkey’s Islamist government seemingly focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League — no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.

Say what?

Based on the conversations we had last week with some impressive and knowledgeable Turkish moderates, Friedman’s concerns seem overblown. Even if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been making some unpleasant noises about Israel, and even if he is snuggling with some unsavory characters, the Turkish intelligentsia does not seem inclined to follow him over the cliff Friedman sees on the near horizon.

Revisit this post I wrote last week. In particular, this line:

“We need to want to be part of the EU, even if in the end it drags on for decades and then never happens,” Atlığ said.

Not one person with whom we met expressed concern about Turkey abandoning the West for the East. They scoffed at the possibility of that ever happening, especially with a growing, prospering middle class pushing hard for more westernization.

I’m not going to claim I have the chops of a Tom Friedman. He knows global politics and economics as well as anyone. But he often seems in the thrall of CEOs and a certain brand of center-right intellectual.

Today’s column strikes me as under-sourced; as though he flipped through his Rolodex and had a Turkish coffee with an old chum or two. Maybe he needs to get out of the boardrooms and five-star hotels and out into the street.


Moving pictures trump words

Posted June 14, 2010 by Alan Gottlieb
Categories: Turkey

Now that I am back in a country that does not block You Tube (shame on you, Turkey), here is a video compilation of our trip. It may be more than people who weren’t along want to watch, but it has some good moments. It’s about eight minutes long.

And here is a map of our route:

Spreading the word

Posted June 12, 2010 by Alan Gottlieb
Categories: Gulen, Turkey

Retired army Volonel Hussein Deveci and his wife (sorry, didn't get her name)

On our last day in Istanbul, we learned more about the Gülen movement’s efficient – and expensive – mechanism for bringing visitors to Turkey. From humble beginnings just four years ago, the non-profit organization Bakiad has grown to the point where last year it coordinated the visits of 250 groups, totaling about 3,000 people, most of them from the U.S. and Canada. The number this year will be higher than that.

Why do they do it and how do they do it, I wondered? Is there some hidden agenda or is it really a pure form of altruism, as one member of our group put it? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. I don’t think any hidden agenda exists – no desire to transform Turkey into an Islamic state with Fethullah Gülen as its Ayatollah Khomeini.

I’ve decided that to understand what’s going on here, you have to ponder Turkey’s current place in the world. It wouldn’t make much sense for a group, say, of North American evangelicals to start bringing delegations of foreigners over to see how the church fits into the life of the nation.

But Turkey is in such a dynamic position at this moment in time, and its fanatically secular government, which by and large (with major exceptions) served the mainstream population well from independence into the late 20th century, has so outlived its usefulness that I’m guessing Gülen and his followers sense a moment of great opportunity. They may not even know exactly why they are doing what  they’re doing, but sponsoring delegations certainly builds goodwill. Read the rest of this post »

On Israeli question, reason meets anger

Posted June 11, 2010 by Alan Gottlieb
Categories: Gulen, Turkey

Signs like these are everywhere

There has been a lot of talk among the people with whom we have been meeting about an interview the Wall Street Journal conducted with Fethullah Gülen last week on the topic of the Israeli raid on the Gaza aid flotilla.

The section of the interview that caught everyone’s attention:

Mr. Gülen said organizers’ failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid “is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters…”

He said that when a charity organization linked with his movement wanted to help Gazans, he insisted they get Israel’s permission. He added that assigning blame in the matter is best left to the United Nations.

None of that sounds remarkable or controversial until you consider the super-heated atmosphere the incident has created here. Everywhere we’ve seen banners and posters decrying Israel as a “terrorist state.” Some urge a severing of all ties between Turkey and Israel.

To many people still incensed about the deaths of nine Turks during the raid, Gülen’s comments probably sound not like a voice of reason and moderation (which is how they strike me) but a sell-out, or even an apologist making excuses for the inexcusable.

Then, in the Today’s Zaman newspaper Wednesday, I found this excerpt from a column, presumably also in the Turkish language edition, by a woman named Asli Aydintaşbaş Milliyet:

Why did Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen feel the need to speak about the Gaza flotilla issue? How should this message from Pennsylvania, which came at a time when Turkey was unable to overcome the shock of the attack on the Mavi Marmara, be understood?

It seems to me that Gülen has noticed the psychological atmosphere that has been taking Turkey away from its mission as a “bridge between the East and the West” towards the corridors of the Arab world. An atmosphere that has been taking Turkey away from its identity as a “Western Muslim country” heading for the EU to a position as the protector of Hamas and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And he wanted to say “stop” to that. The Gülen movement has the power of transcending Turkish borders with its schools and NGOs across the world. The movement, just like Turkey, gets its power from its ability to be a bridge between the East and the West and to make use of this with a dynamic workforce. The move of the spiritual leader of a movement with such a global aim at a point when he thinks Turkey’s interests are at stake is very understandable.

This column seems to echo some of the points made in the New York Times article I mentioned in my previous post, points which were to some extent scoffed at by Turkish internationalists with whom we met. Read the rest of this post »

Turkey’s emerging identity, internally and globally

Posted June 10, 2010 by Alan Gottlieb
Categories: Turkey

Istanbul from high ground

Back in Istanbul for a couple of days now, we have had a chance to focus on politics, specifically Turkey’s self-identity and place in the world, and where the Gülen movement fits within this three-dimensional mosaic.

Yesterday we had the good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Celil Sağir, the 37-year old foreign news editor of Zaman, Turkey’s largest circulation daily newspaper. In these days of newspaper shrinkage and disappearance, Zaman has a daily circulation of close to 900,000, and growing.

Founded in 1986 by businessmen affiliated with the Gülen movement, Zaman has established a reputation as a socially conservative paper – in the Turkish context that means “respecting values of religion,” as Sağir put it – and politically liberal, meaning its editorial pages ardently endorse Turkey joining the European Union.

(By the way, Zaman also has an English language edition, Today’s Zaman, that sells about 8,000 copies per day and is an excellent read. See its website here.)

Zaman features opinion columnists who represent the entire spectrum of Turkish political thought. From advocates for Kurdish rights to secularists to Fethullah Gülen himself, Zaman has boosted its credibility, Sağir said, by showing that it does not toe anyone’s line.

“This demonstrates that different ideas can exist side by side without creating conflict,” he said. “That represents an important contribution to the democratization of Turkey.” Read the rest of this post »

The meaning of hospitality

Posted June 10, 2010 by Alan Gottlieb
Categories: Gulen, Turkey

Our group, and hosts, in Nigde

The days have been so long (18-plus hours is the norm, it seems) and so full that I am beginning to fall behind. But this isn’t meant to be a travelogue, so I won’t trouble myself with describing the wonders of places like the Kaymakli Underground City, or the renowned Cappadocia, and will focus instead on the human interactions at the heart of this trip.

As I write this, it is Thursday morning here and we are back in drizzly Istanbul for three more days filled with meetings, school visits and a bit of sightseeing. When last I left you it was Monday afternoon and we had just visited the science high school on the outskirts of Konya. From there we drove about 100 miles east to the town of Nigde, where our group was to stay with host families for the night.

We drove through the gates of the Sunguroglu K-12 school at dusk, lightning flickering in the distance, the damp air redolent of flowers. Rob Bowman and I were greeted by Aydın Demircan, a professor of organic chemistry at the local university, our host for the night, along with his wife,  a pharmacist (I am doing my best with names!), for the night. After loading our bags into the family Toyota, we headed into the school. We sat in a semi-circle in the office of , the school’s founder, and introduced ourselves. Read the rest of this post »

In education, we get what we deserve

Posted June 8, 2010 by Alan Gottlieb
Categories: Turkey

Some of Turkey's elite high school science students

We learned today why other countries are eating our lunch when it comes to education. We paid a visit to Ibrahim Büyükkoyuncu hıgh school on the outskirts of Konya, a provincial capital in south-central Turkey. It’s a private Gülen school for boys grades 9-12. Actually, it’s two schools in one (and there is a girl’s equivalent across town) – one focused on sciences, one on languages.

Before I describe the graduation requirements, think about where you or your children attend or attended high school. Three years of math, maybe three of science, right? If you were a math and sciene geek you could elect to take four years of each.

OK, get a load of this: Students in the science school must take four years of physics, four years of chemistry, four years of biology and four years of math. In the 14 public science high schools, students must take at least five hours of math per week and three hours each of the three science subjects. At Büyükkoyuncu, though, each of those requirements is doubled.

So not only are these top students, the ones against whom our top students will be competing, all taking four years of science, they’re actually taking the equivalent of  12 years. And where our students might be taking five to seven hours per week of math and the same amount of science…well, you get the picture. Oh, and the school day is nine hours long. Read the rest of this post »