Can Turkey absorb—and transcend—the contradictions between East and West?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“My books are partly about the contradictions between East and West”, writes Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006, in his essay, Other Colors, published in 2007.1 Because of its geographical location between Asia and Europe, his country, Turkey, is a society whose culture has been shaped by the contradictory—often contending—elements of East and West. The event that took place on May 29, 1453 serves as one example to illustrate what Pamuk means by the contradictions between East and West: while for Easterners the day is commemorated as the Conquest of Istanbul, for Westerners it is remembered as the Fall of Constantinople. Another example is the reintroduction of The Thousand and One Nights, this marvel of Eastern literature, via Europe through Antoine Galland’s French translation of it.

The contradictions between East and West, however, have not prevented Turkey to evolve itself into a hybrid society with many different peoples with diverse cultural backgrounds. Even though the Ottomans converted their military slaves to Islam under their centralized system of bureaucracy and military, they allowed relative autonomy in running of their provinces, whose residents included the Greek and Armenian Christians, and the Jews. As Pamuk states in one of his novels, “During the Ottoman period, many different peoples had made Kars their home. … a large Armenian community … many Persians … the Iranian armies … Greeks … Georgians and Kurds and Circassians …”2 In fact, Istanbul, Pamuk’s beloved city on the Bosphorus, is a city born out of a synthesis of East ad West: “The first big sandwich shops of the era (1960s) had names invoking other lands and sea, magic realms like the ‘Atlantic’ and the ‘Pacific,’ and their walls were decorated with paintings of the heavenly islands of Gauguin’s Far East. … This suggests that Turkey’s first hamburgers were, like so much else in Istanbul, a synthesis of East and West.”3

A synthesis of East and West, needless to say, does not ensure harmonious blending of the two cultures. As a matter of fact, the birth of modern Turkey has added a new twist to the contradictions between East and West. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the founder of the Turkish Republic, introduced an ambitious program of Westernization, which included, among others, the adoption of the Latin alphabet and the Christian calendar, the declaration of Sunday, not Friday, to be the day of rest, and the promotion of women’s rights. What Ataturk intended to do was to create a modern secular society, denouncing the legacy of the Ottoman social system which, despite its strikingly modern administrative structure, was bound by the sharia, or Muslim religious law. The founding of the Turkish Republic was a wholesale conversion of Turkey into a secular society with democratic values of the West. What he did not anticipate was, however, the degree to which Turkey would be subjected to divisive forces of a hybrid society coming from, for example, Kurdish separatists and Islamic Fundamentalists.

The political turmoil in Turkey in recent weeks illustrates the degree to which the Turks still struggle to maintain a synthesis of East and West, as the contradictions between them are embedded in the very fabric of their hybrid society. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister, is not immune from that contradictions between East and West, as he oscillates between his support of civil liberty and justice on the one hand and his appeal to despotic measures in dealing with civil disobedience on the other. What is needed for Turkey to survive the current episode of social turmoil would be to absorb—and transcend—the contradictions between East and West in a manner that will not invite the intervention of the military, as it has happened in the past, or will not spread out to its neighbors in this fragile part of the world. Indeed, what is needed for the Turks now is to recall the words of one of Pamuk’s characters: “I didn’t remember His voice, but I recalled the answer He gave me in my thoughts. ‘East and West belong to me.’”4

  1. Other Colors, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, p. 201.
  2. Snow, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, p.20.
  3. Other Colors, ibid., p. 71.
  4. My Name Is Red, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, p. 23.