Reflections on a missed opportunity and the need for respect

I have been watching the struggle for democracy in Turkey with concern and some sadness, recalling a wonderful week that my wife and I spent there while on sabbatical in 2005. It was our first and so far only visit to that fascinating country which bridges Europe and Asia. For centuries it has been a meeting place of diverse cultures and a crossroads for trade.

Our hosts were Zeki and Cigdem

Leblebici. Zeki is an architect and Cigdem taught social psychology at the Ismir University of Economics. They were generous hosts to us in a small town near Izmir and introduced us to various aspects of Turkish life. Izmir is a bustling, modern city with a large busy port. In the bazaar we drank strong Turkish coffee and sampled a specialty called “and kokorech” which is grilled sheep intestines – actually quite delicious! We also sampled a dessert made from chicken called “tavukgeysu.” We took the ferry across the wide bay and rode in one of the fifteen-seater vans that are the most common form of public transportation. They go everywhere and seem to be very efficient (we could use something like that here in Richmond!). Although American troops had invaded Iraq two years earlier, the war never came up in conversation. Our interactions everywhere were marked by

warmth and good humor.

Turkey is a vast and dynamic country of 70 million people with a literacy rate of more than 90 percent. The Turkish language has no relationship to Arabic and few Turks speak Arabic. Their roots are in Central Asia and have more in common with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Although nearly all Turks are Muslims, the country had followed a secular path since Kemal Ataturk’s reforms in the early 1920s and the liberation from European colonialist influence. But since the advent of Erdogan’s Islamist-oriented government, the country has become divided over the role of Islam. In Ismir, all the young people we saw wore Western dress.

After years working internationally with Initiatives of Change, Cigdem returned to Turkey to pass on her vision for her country’s role in the world to a new generation. She asked us to speak to her class at the university about our work in Richmond of trustbuilding and honest conversation. It was a lively and talkative crowd. However, we noticed that open discussion about politically controversial topics was often guarded.

At one point we asked, “What would you most like to see different in your lifetime?” At first they were quiet. Then one said, “For Turkey to be in the European Union!” Others immediately voiced similar hopes. It was clear that they regarded themselves as part of Europe rather than Asia. In those days Turkey was negotiating membership with the EU. (About 46 percent of its exports go to EU countries and 38 percent of its imports come from Europe.) Sadly, its efforts met strong resistance and Turkey’s relationship with Europe has become more strained over the years as Erdogan pursues more authoritarian policies. At the same time, Europe now looks to Turkey to help ease the refugee crisis.

I don’t know to what extent the EU’s lack of welcome played a role in Turkey’s shift away from democracy; but I do wonder how different its current situation would be if European countries had been more farsighted and had not missed the opportunity to build a solid relationship with a country that has so much to offer the world.

Above all, the young Turks we met longed for respect. “Turks are always looked on as second class citizens,” said one. “I want to see an end to this. We want to be truly independent, not reliant on other countries.” “Better human rights” was another wish. One student asked,

“Is the US really supportive of Turkey or just using it for strategic aims?”

Sadly, Cigdem died a few years after our visit. I often think of that interaction with her students and hope that their dreams will one day be fulfilled.