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Turkey: Where the West and the East melt *With critical lesson for Nigeria

If you don’t know, or may want to confirm what you already know, Turkey is one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions in modern times. Besides its historical past that was rich in diversity of civilisations, modern Turkey magnificently stands out as the melting point between the Western and Eastern cultures that appear to be in endless conflict.

KUNLE OYATOMI, just back from a working visit to Turkey, highlights the significance of that country as a model for peaceful co-existence between the warring cultures of the world, but also as an example too important to ignore by developing and under-developed countries like Nigeria for its successful experiment in balancing secularism with democracy and forging cohesion among desperate peoples who share common purpose as a progressive modern state.

BETWEEN Eastern and Western civilisations, Turkey in the middle is like a bridge that connects the two. Both civilisations had held sway there for centuries at a time, and the country bears their marks to this day. But modern day attraction for Turkey is that, despite the scars of its history, it has managed to hold together well enough to acquire the status of the cultural and political “melting pot” for the East and the West.

That is a  gigantic achievement in a world still largely divided and in conflict as a result of widening divergence between the core values of the East and West. Modern Turkey is the spectacular story of a country that emerged from war to become a model both for extremists on the East/West divide, and autocrats who prey on their countries’ diversities to perpetuate themselves in power and cripple virtually all forms of development which should have been possible if the “Turkish model” were allowed to flourish in many failed and failing nations of the world.

However, not every nation is blessed as Turkey to have an icon like the great Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to whom the creation of modern Turkey is ascribed. That was the man who took a good look at his country, knew its problems and prescribed a solution, which he vigorously implemented for modern Turkey to emerge. Today, the country luxuriates in the splendid aftermath of Ataturk’s vision, and the world applauds. How did he do it?

One of the numerous historical sites in Turkey
One of the numerous historical sites in Turkey

Apparently simple! He doggedly insisted that for the nation to hold together in a democratic atmosphere, secularism must be the core basis of governance in a country that is dominantly Islamic.

Although he was a military man, professionally trained in the undemocratic culture of soldiers and their institution, he had a basic understanding of the history of Turkey to recognise that the only way to justice and peace in his country’s pluralistic society was secularism. Ataturk was also conscious of the fact that for this approach to hold, Turkey would have to invest heavily on education and human capital development, so he went with a passion for both and Turkey is the better for it today.

For the Christian West and the largely Islamic Middle East, Turkey is the glowing model of the possibility of both cultures living in harmony. For the under-developed “third world”, Turkey stands apart as a study in responsible governance in the best interest of the diversity of peoples who inhabit a country.

As a Nigerian from an under-developed country visiting Turkey for the first time, I was numbstruck by the rich display of culture and history in most of the cities in that country. Of all of them, though, Istanbul stood out in resplendent justification of its qualification as “the city of civilisation.”

Dotted all over the city’s landscape are breathtaking monuments of historic significance which spoke eloquently of Christian Western as well as Islamic Eastern civilisations that thrived in Turkish ancient history. Among such structures is the Hagia Sophia Museum.

This magnificent structure served as a church for 916 years, before it became a mosque for another 481 years. Today it is a museum that preserves the iconic features of both religions. The Kariye (Church of Khora) Museum. What is today the Kariye Museum used to be Church of Khora (Hora) Monastery built about the fourth century and devoted to Jesus. In later years of reconstruction, one of the three chapters of the monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

This structure, further on into history, also became a mosque; but today it is transformed into a museum. There are several such monuments as the two mentioned above all over Istanbul, and the history of their survival and preservation was the history of conquests and occupation in turns by the civilisations of the West and the East.

What this apparently suggests is that at some point in the long distant past, the two great religions of Christianity and Islam would have been a lot more tolerant of each other than the relationship is today. And it is a fantastic credit to modern Turkey that at least  tolerant co-existence itself remains as a history essence of Turkish life.

Another historical site
Another historical site

But there is a greater global significant in this achievement which the world has to urgently learn from. If the extremists on both sides of the East/West divide would only stop for a while and look deeply at Turkey, there would be a lot less wars being fought in the world today. Besides, countries in the developing and under-developed world have even greater lesson to learn from Turkey, amongst which is  human capital being the fundamental basis in which to build a secular democracy in a pluralistic society.

Under this condition, their countries would attract more international sympathy and investments than a thousand image re-branding exercises would bring. Take a cue from Ataturk, although a soldier, he recognised the critical importance of education to national development. Unlike its Nigerian counterpart, the Turkish military (which brought Ataturk to power) did not set up structures to destroy the educational system of that country.

They did not systematically reduce funding of education for a period spanning about 20 years. Rather, Ataturk and the Turkish military invested heavily in education and the result is that, Turkey, today, is one of the most enlightened societies in the world with some of the highly sophisticated human capital any serious country would need for total development.

Let us take two impressive studies in this regards: The SEMA Hospital, and FATIH University. SEMA is said to be one of the biggest and best hospitals in East Europe. It is recognised and certified by the United Nations Joint Commission and given the international seal of excellence. For this hospital to qualify for accreditation, it had to scale (satisfactorily) 1,400 criteria, which is a very high benchmark for standards. With this certification (that is compulsorily reviewed every four years), the SEMA Hospital qualifies to treat the like of the president of the United States of America. That is as good as it gets, and understandably too because it doesn’t get any less excellent with 90 doctors in the hospital, 20 of whom are medical professors and associate professors.

Another interesting feature of SEMA Hospital is that it is a joint venture between government and the Turkish private sector. This notwithstanding, every citizen under 18 years receives medical care free of charge. Besides, doctors accept and treat emergency cases without demanding payment from victims (unlike the case in most hospitals in Nigeria with private investment interests). As for FATIH University, it showcases the convergence of some of the best intellectual experts from around the world. Its vice chancellor is a  Kenyan, and other academic staff are drawn from different parts of the continent. When we visited, we were informed that FATIH has a student population of 10,000 students.

Learning and research
Interestingly, about 50 Nigerian students boarded the plane with us on holiday back home. You can guess whose children they would be to be able to pay about 20,000 dollars annually to study in that university. The important point, however, is that because Turkey meets high international standards in learning and research, with latest state of the art technology, its educational institutions can attract the best brains from all over the world.

That by itself is a statement of approval from world class experts. If the reader was at these places we visited, he or she would, like us, feel the effects of efficiency because it is simply palpable. There is order, there is discipline, there is efficiency in Turkey; but, above all, there is a sense of unity and peace regardless of some cases of flashes of intolerance caused by extremists and criminals. These days, hardly any country is immune  from the scourge of terror.

However, the Turkish people are working hard at keeping the message of tolerance going for the Turks, the Kurds, the Christians and the Muslims. For this purpose, a ‘Journalists and Writers Foundation’ was established in 1994, and the impact this foundation is having on the Turkish society is said to be very positive.

Another site
Another site

The effect of the collective efforts of the people to sustain Turkey as the “melting pot” of the East and West is very visible, and the governor of Istanbul, Muammer Guler, was quick to draw our attention to the fact that “on the streets of Ankara, Istanbul or anywhere else in Turkey, nobody knows whether you are a Christian or Muslim.” I didn’t quite make out any difference, really. And as one of our Turkish journalists’ friend puts  it, “Turkey stands as an overlap between Asia and Europe creating a spectacular bridge between the two continents seeking  to unite them.”There is no dispute whatsoever that this aspiration is working well for Turkey, even if its impact on the rest of the world is yet a long way off.

This impressive circumstances     notwithstanding, Turkey still faces some challenges in its delicate pursuit of balancing “secularism with democracy.” The problem really is not with the philosophy but with its evolution process. At the beginning when Ataturk, the builder of modern Turkey, set off the process, the military was in firm control, and democratic institutions were yet fragile. But, over time, and since the departure of Ataturk, democratic institutions in Turkey have been maturing well ahead of the thinking that places military control over the civilians who are supposed to run the democratic institutions.

This attitude is patently inconsistent with true democratic culture in which the civilian politicians exercise control over the military, which, by its training and characteristics, is a command structure. With practically everybody in Turkey eager for the country’s membership of the European Union, this military control of the democratic process could stand in the way of membership. But, as habits die hard, a section of the military is uncomfortable with the fear of possible relapse into a crisis of faith if religion were to be introduced into Turkish democracy. However, the military is up against a formidable public opinion, the majority of which support democratic control in civilian hands.

The choice is very clear, the  military complies with democratic norms or the door into the EU will remain shut. It is pointless to name the possible victor in this “war of relationship” between the civilian and the military in democratic Turkey. Nobody wants anything to stop the country from entry into Europe, which indeed will be one of the benefits of the secularism of Turkish democracy. Not even the military would like to stand on the way. This report will be incomplete if mention is not made of the Turkish media. There is so much Turkishness in evidence in their operation; it elicits admiration from a first time visitor.

The Dogan Media Group tells it all well enough. It has obtained the franchise to use the title of some international media like Newsweek and CNN to publish and broadcast Turkish news in Turkish language. Everyone is proud to read or listen to news in Turkish. Its unifying factor is enormous.

The reading culture in Turkey is very much intense and this is borne out by the circulation of its most popular Turkish language, newspaper Today’s ZAMAN that sells 1,000,000 copies daily in a country of 85 million. That puts the paper, indeed most of the media in Turkey, in a powerful position in the country allowing it to play its role effectively as the Fourth Estate of the realm. Although, little is known about it here in Nigeria, Turkey and this country have for a long time had cordial relationship in sports, especially football. Football fans in Turkey are fascinated by the skill of players from Nigeria like Julius Aghahowa, Daniel Omokachi and Isaac Promise, but J.J. Okocha is the most popular.

Nothing tells the story better than this: Whenever you introduce yourself to a Turk as a Nigerian, he/she brightens up and replies, “J.J. Okocha.” That is interesting measure of Nigerians sporting popularity in Turkey. Yes, Turkey may fascinate as a tourist attraction, but there is no doubt that Nigeria has a lot more to learn from that country’s politics, and its social engineering institutions.


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