Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds
© 2001 Stephen Kinzer
Turkey is an anomaly. For centuries, it was the dreaded foe of Christendom, twice pushing at the very gates of Vienna. After the Great War, when the victorious west disassembled the Ottoman Empire and reduced the Turks to mere Antaolia, it seemed a total defeat — but shortly thereafter, a rare Turkish hero of the Great War led a revolution and established a new Turkish Republic, one that — phoenix like — drove away its exhausted enemies and even reclaimed a foothold into Europe. It was to Europe that the new lord looked: not as an object of conquest, but an object of emulation. Like Peter the Great, Mustafa Kemal would make his life’s ambition to modernize and westernize the Turks whether they wanted it or not. Using the military to carry forth his will, he declared war on the past: out with fezzes and zithers, in with fedoras and Bach! While the other mideastern countries that emerged from the Ottoman disintegration drifted into tyranny — religious in Afghanistan, secular in Iraq, both in Iran — Turkey remained anomalous, discretely controlled by a military that had enforced liberalization, and counted itself the enemy of Taliban-style religious rule, but itself imposed limits on democracy and speech. But the forced liberalization of Turkey at the hands of an illiberal power, the military state, has long since showed its age. Turks today want more from their ‘devlet’, their state, than being patronized; they want genuine democracy, genuine freedom to talk about issues the military order would rather have stay buried.
Crescent and Star is the product of one man falling in love with Turkey while living there for years for the New York Times; It combines vignettes about life in Turkey with historical-political reporting, both heavily steeped in obvious affection for Turkey as a whole. It us romantic and at times naive — Kinzer bubbles that Turkey could be a world power and admits that portraits of Kemal hang in his office, as they do around Turkey — but to the total outsider like myself, informative. Kinzer’s passion for Kemalism is never hidden: he wants Turkey to become not merely a member of the European Union, but a genuine European power. Again and again he asserts the cultural bonds that link Turkey and eastern Europe. Greece and Turkey are divided by political bickering over Aegean islands more than anything else, and towards the end he presents a heartwarming account of trans-Aegean brotherhood in the wake of a series of earthquakes. As one earthquake near Istanbul shattered belief in the devlet’s competency and humanitarian interests, it also shattered belief in malevolent Greeks: the Greeks were first to come with aide, and when Greece had its own earthquake days later, the Turks responded to that charity in kind — charity in the truest sense of the word, caritas, love in action. For Turkey to fulfill its destiny, Kinzer writes, the military must acknowledge that its paternalism has kept Turkish domestic politics immature. Its protective intervention in the past, removing incompetent officials whose blundering were pushing the country toward civil war, have served their purpose: for Turks to become truly European, they must be set free to create their own destinies.
Crescent and Star brims over with human interest, created by personal research. Kinzer lived in Turkey for at least four years during his tenure as bureau chief for the New York Times, and he cultivated a variety of friendships, even hosting a blues radio show in Istanbul. He interviewed Turks and Kurds extensively, and his obvious love for Turkey is not in the least dampened by the stories of Armenians and Kurds who have suffered at the hand of the state. The Turks have his affection, not the Turkish government. While the book’s optimism — stemming from a quiet Kurdish front and ongoing negotiations with the EU — now dates it, given how the chaos in Iraq and Syria has turned Turkey’s borders into a war zone, Kinzer’s account nontheless illustrates how Turkey’s history has given it a pecuilar stamp, a place able to bridge Europe and the middle east not only geographically. Turkey’s close involvement with the Syrian war, its frequent brushes with the Russians and Irans, make it a country worth knowing about. Considering that a faction within the military attempted to assert itself politically once again, there’s no denying this kind of book’s relevance.