Crescent and Star


by Stephen Kinzer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)


As homework appropriate to these threatening times I sought to learn more about the near east by reading Stephen Kinzer's Crescent And Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds. It was a good choice and I highly recommend this book.


By simply visiting a country some people think that they understand that country's people. Not me. I stopped in two  ports in Turkey in 1946 as part of a navy mission. Although I recall my experiences as though they were yesterday (remembering yesterday is another matter), I learned little about the country except that the people (and I) favored an exotic anise-flavored drink called rakki and a kind of coffee that was over half coffee grounds.


Now, having read Kinzer's book, I know much more and what I learned frightens me. Turkey is a country on a knife-edge between secular modernity and a retreat either to a military dictatorship or to a reactionary religion better suited to the Middle Ages. Despite this, Kinzer remains hopeful and, thank goodness, his judgment is better based than my own.


Turkey is now probably the most modern of the Arab nations. A charismatic leader, Kemal Ataturk, deserves full credit for this. He was the military commander who drove the British out of Gallipoli. When, despite that win, post-World War I treaties deeded away much of Turkey, Kemal gathered an army and defeated Greek forces to extend its territory beyond the Dardanelles into Europe. He then overturned the Ottoman monarchy and established the Republic of Turkey. His secular government then quite remarkably turned to the West. Although he died in 1938, he remains the key figure in his country.


Kinzer tells us, "Three-quarters of a century has passed since then, and in that time Turkey has changed beyond recognition. The nation that faced Ataturk when he took power was not only in ruins but truly primitive. Nearly everyone was illiterate. Life expectancy was pitifully short, epidemics were accepted as immutable facts of life and medical care was all but nonexistent. The basic skills of trade, artisanry and engineering were unknown, having vanished with the departed Greeks and Armenians. Almost every citizen was a subsistence farmer. There were only a few short stretches of paved road in a territory that extended more than a thousand miles from Iran to Greece. Most important of all, the Turkish people knew nothing but obedience. They had been taught since time immemorial that authority is something distant and irresistible, and that the role of the individual in society is submission and nothing more.


"If Ataturk could return to see what has become of his nation, he undoubtedly would be astonished at how far it has come. Muddy villages have become bustling cities and cow paths have become superhighways. Universities and public hospitals are to be found in even the most re­mote regions. The economy is unsteady but shows bursts of vitality. Turkish corporations and business conglomerates are making huge amounts of money and competing successfully in every corner of the globe. Hundreds of young men and women return home every year from periods of study abroad. People are educated, self-confident and eager to build a nation that embodies the ideals of democracy and human rights."


Kinzer tells a story about Ataturk that makes me wish he was still around today: "In 1934 Ataturk learned that a ship carrying relatives of fallen Allied soldiers had docked near Gallipoli and that its passengers were mourning at the site. He sent them a moving message that is now chiseled, in English translation, into a memorial stone there. 'Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives,' he wrote, 'you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie side by side in this country of ours.... You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.'"


Unfortunately anyone in the Near East who acts like that now gets murdered.


Here Kinzer identifies the basic problem: "Three fault lines lie close beneath the surface of Turkish society: the ethnic one dividing Turks from Kurds, the religious one dividing Sunni Muslims from Alevis, and the political one dividing those who believe there is a place for religion in public life and those who do not. Although every Turk is aware of these divisions, for many years it has been considered bad form even to acknowledge them, much less to discuss how they can be healed. For decades Turkish leaders have chosen the course of denial, and the collapses of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have reinforced their resolve. They know what a rich mosaic Turkey is but pretend not to, even going to the extreme of jailing citizens who dare to assert that they are different from some of their neighbors. Whatever logic that pretense might have had in the past, today it is not just laughable but pernicious. Turks have a strong sense of patriotic unity, and their state will not be threatened if they are allowed to revel in their various identities and beliefs. On the contrary, it will be immeasurably strengthened because it will become a state based on openness and honesty rather than subterfuge and pretense."


Our Western attitudes toward the Turks are derived from the distant past. Kinzer reminds us of those attitudes by referring to two lines from "Othello": "'Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you Against the general enemy Ottoman.'


"In Shakespeare's day and for centuries thereafter, Christians in Europe could hear no more urgent summons. Generations of them considered 'the general enemy Ottoman,' better known simply as 'the Turk,' to be the scourge of civilization. His chief characteristics were thought to include mendacity, unbridled lust, sudden violence and a passion for gratuitous cruelty."

He goes on to remind us that "Older people in some parts of Europe can still remember being warned as children that if they did not behave, Turks would come to get them."


We need to cast off those attitudes. Turkey represents another of those conundrums posed by those lands of the Near East. It is a country we should help to fight against its reactionary influences and to move further into the Western sphere of influence.


The alternatives continue to frighten me.-- Gerry Rising