Turkey at a crossroads

Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, has always been a bridge straddling Europe and Asia, mixing Western modernity and Asian traditions.

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At the same time Muslim, the overwhelming majority of the population, and yet intensively secular since Ataturk days.

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Aiming to integrate Europe, and yet very much part of the Middle East. This permanent tension has always been there but it is now becoming more acute.

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The coming years will be crucial to decide whether the new generations will still live in the same country their grandparents built after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

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The streets of Istanbul continue to reflect this enchanting cocktail of tradition and modernity. Amid urban growth and dynamism, the mosque continues to attract the pious.

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While modern Istanbul, from Pera and Galata to Nisantasi and Moda, look like any western capital, with globalisation and foreign brands shaping the urban landscape.

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Globalised Turks are deeply connected to the world, both physically and mentally.

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At the cutting edge of fashion and technology, with hipsters in Galata undistinguishable from the pairs in the Soho.

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However, new trends are becoming more visible, as a result of government policies reinforced by internal and external migrations.
Firstly, the growing presence of Islamic religious symbols in the streets since the current administration, a conservative and authoritarian party of Islamic leanings, took power more than a decade ago and started to reverse strictly secular Kemalists principles against such symbols, including in female attire.

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Scarves and even burkas have become an ever growing presence.

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This is not only linked to conservative Anatolian new migrants but also to a growing number of richer Arabs tourists and businesspeople that find Turkey a convenient playground.

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Secondly, growing internal and external migrations.
For decades, traditional Anatolians have occupied the space left by Greeks, Armenians and Jews in cities like Istanbul, bringing more traditional mores to the cosmopolitan city. And supporting the new government Islamic sympathies.

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Sometimes these economic migrants are reduced to scavenging and begging in dilapidated neighbourhoods like Tarlabasi, worlds apart from the lights of nearby Istiklal Cadessi.

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Moreover, new flows of poorer Arab immigrants, around two million refugees escaping from wars in Syria and Irak, are reshaping the ethnic and social landscape, adding to the Middle Eastern feels in some areas.
Leaving many children lost in the urban jungle, where often they don’t even understand the language and risk exploitation.

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Sometimes playing dangerous games, with little prospect to improve their lot in life.

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Breeding anger and lack of hope.
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These trends, reinforced by the EU reluctance to accept Turkey integration and the new Turkish foreign policy dubbed “new ottomans” by many observers, will determine the future worldview of young Turks.

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Would they keep moving East, towards the Middle East and Islamic values?

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Would they jump back into European waters?
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Or, maybe, they will simply remain stranded, growingly isolated, neither here nor there.

Syrian immigrant, Istanbul. August 2015

The answer of this question is not only fundamental for Turkey, but will also deeply affect Europe and the rest of the world.


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