Volume 18 Number 4
Turkey Asks, 'Why Not?'
01 August 2005

As Turkey, straddling Europe and Asia, seeks to join the European Union, Cigdem Leblebici reflects on the momentum for change in her country.

What is Turkey?
A population of about 70 million people of diverse origins (Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian, Kurdish, Greek, Armenian, Arabic...?)
A culture forever in flux, which bears elements of hunting-gathering, pastoral, agrarian, industrial and post-industrial stages?

A historic, geo-political crossroads where, since time immemorial, civilizations have been created and have perished, leaving behind legacies of greatness and wisdom along with stakes and unanswered demands? The borders of the most recent, the Ottoman Empire, ran into the so-called Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

A soul where Shamanism and Islam converged to create Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, Yunus Emre, Haci Bektas Veli, Pir Sultan Abdal and many other Sufis?
My parents’ generation was born into the final years of the 700-year-old Ottoman Empire and the birth years of the Republic of Turkey in the early 1920s. My generation was brought up with a nation-state ideology: unitarian, free, secular, democratic, with little sense that we are descendants of the Ottomans.

I experienced my own connection with this Ottoman past only when I visited Beirut in 2003. I have a photo of myself in front of the huge building put up by the Ottoman Governor of the period. My grandfather, whom I knew, had once taught in the Medical Faculty in Damascus. We used to hear stories of the famine, the retreat of the army and learned the Arabic recitations of my father’s nanny.

In Beirut I realized that everyone else sees my generation as Ottoman, even if we don’t. I found myself confronted with being one of a not-so-positive ‘them’. We had been pretty comfortable, enclosed within our national borders, almost disowning our past. Here we are now, choosing to join the European Union, and create a common future with it.

Our country’s greatest wealth, its people, are waking up after a long period of drowsiness. We are beginning to stop looking at ourselves through others’ eyes, looking down. We are beginning to recognize our assets and handicaps.

In Turkey what sometimes seems like chaos is in fact momentum towards the deconstruction of many systems, ways and values that have been taken for granted for long enough—and, bit by bit, the reconstruction of new ones.

Some years ago, a well-known Professor of Management in the Middle East Technical University asked, ‘Why?’, as a single exam question. All the students but one spent hours trying to figure out what the professor was aiming at, and wrote pages in response. The student who got the highest grade wrote two words: ‘Why not?’. We are daring to ask these questions.

What are the main causes of the increasing rate of change in our society?
We must first remember that the average age of our population is 27.7. That alone is a great source of impetus.

Secondly, we take our name from the nomadic-pastoral Turkic nations who fought their way from Central Asia to Asia Minor in the 11th century. Perhaps these nomadic roots are one reason why we do not seem to mind change very much!

People looking at us from outside look at the authoritative streak in our families and administration with something like pity and do what they can to help change our systems. We respect the wisdom and advice of our elders and cherish those who have served, lived and died for us. We used to feel as if we were betraying them if we questioned them, but this questioning is now happening. We are discovering that those whom we perceived as perfect are not as we believed and hoped they were.

I remember how angry I was when I discovered that my father was not perfect. Thinking that he was infallible had strengthened me; now I felt weak. I felt betrayed. Isn’t it complex? Having gone through the shock, I became more of an adult, stronger than I had felt as his protégée, and learned to love him with his frailties.

The state, our father figure, has proven incapable of many tasks seen as its responsibility. We are moving from blame to the discovery that some of the tasks we expected our governments to undertake may in fact be our individual, adult responsibilities.

There is no shortcut to this awareness among the public. When the system was changed radically without public demand, democratization did not result and people just felt guilty about mistreating our leaders.

The factors which are bringing about a rise in awareness include the increase in communication through the proliferation of the media. Others are the rise in average levels of education; modern travel which brings more Turkish people into contact with other cultures; the increased number of private enterprises, including educational ones, which are experimenting with different approaches to leadership, initiative, teamwork, and responsibility.

I am grateful for all the opportunities for interaction offered by EU, Armenian, Kurdish and American friends. Whether positive or negative, their feedback helps us to reconsider our position with regard to the past and the future. As our people, one by one, adopt adult status in interactions, our state will gradually grow out of its ‘younger brother’ position in relation to the EU, US and others.

One habit which is both an asset and an impediment is our tendency to disregard, cover up or tolerate others’ mistakes; to save face. Ours is not a culture of confrontation; whereas feedback, given unselfishly and lovingly and received with a trusting heart, helps to shed light on the blindspots of our selves. We are beginning to discover that one can give negative feedback and still love that person.

As educational opportunities become more equal, children from remote and deprived areas are becoming socially mobile and reaching positions of power. Their rhetoric can be different from that used by the élite rulers of the past. This, too, is a new factor in our society.

Some values are more important to us than life itself. One is our land. Another is our family. We see life on earth as a stopover where we have lessons to learn. The day we meet our Creator will not be an end; it will be a joyful reunion—especially if we have discovered our mission on earth and fulfilled it. We believe that everything, ‘good’ and ‘evil’, is given to us by our Creator. In fact, what looks negative may be our greatest instructor. Our destiny is to live out our days with the awareness of their true meaning.

Cigdem Leblebici lectures in Social Psychology at the Economics University in Izmir, Turkey.