By John David Dyche
Strategically situated where East meets West, the country of Turkey is, as it has been for centuries, one of the most geopolitically important places on the globe. A Louisvillian, Laura Wells, is one of the leading independent journalists there.
Wells, a Collegiate High School and University of Virginia graduate, has lived in Istanbul since 2009, after having visited Turkey many times before that. The founder and editor-in-chief of NeoOttomanNews.com, a Middle Eastern news site, her reporting resume is extremely impressive.
These are interesting times to be on the Near Eastern beat. Things are changing fast in the nation that is America's only Muslim NATO ally and has Iran, Iraq, and Syria among its neighbors.
This week marks Turkey's 90th anniversary as a secular democratic state, having been founded by its first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to succeed the 623-year Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire. Some Americans are now asking if Turkey is reverting under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his predominately Sunni Muslim AK Party.
Wells says Turkey feels more religiously conservative than when she began visiting there in 1999. More women are wearing headscarves and there's more talk of religion everywhere. The government has restricted alcohol sales and advertising and implemented an Internet filter that blocks "inappropriate" sites unless users opt out.
She cites several examples of the new climate. A couple that kissed in the subway got official warnings for transgressing "moral laws," and world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say received a 7-year suspended prison sentence for denigrating the religious beliefs held by a section of society after he tweeted a Muslim medieval poet's musings on the hypocrisy of some co-religionists.
While Turkey has seen some mass demonstrations recently, Wells distinguishes them from the so-called Arab Spring uprisings. Turkey's government is the product of legitimate elections, and protestors there seek to change particular policies rather than challenging the ruling regime's legitimacy.
The Turkish government is nonetheless a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood and its deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, in Egypt and supports the Syrian rebels seeking to topple the Alawite, Shia-aligned tyrant Bashar al-Assad there. According to other American media, this support may even extend to al Qaeda affiliates active in Syria.
Turkish Kurds claim that this support extends to forces fighting Syrian Kurds and threatens to renew their long-running conflict with the Turkish government that has cost an estimated 40,000 over the last 30 years. Erdogan has boldly embarked on peace overtures to the Kurds, including the PKK group that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
A Washington Post columnist recently wrote that Turkey's foreign intelligence service, the MIT, exposed Israeli agents operating inside Iran. Relations between Israel and Turkey have been rocky since Israeli commandos killed several Turks on a flotilla trying to break the Gaza blockade.
In an article titled "Ankara Alienates Everyone," Lee Smith of The Weekly Standard notes that the U. S. recently canceled a sale of predator drones to Turkey after the MIT "shared American intelligence with Iran." Smith quotes former American ambassador to Eric Edelman as saying, "It's time for people to take another look at what's going on in Turkey."
Wells believes that Turkey is going through a pivotal time that will influence the fabric of its society for at least the next few decades. It is, she observes, becoming a more religious society, due to demographics as well as government policies, since rural, less educated, more pious Turks have more children generally.
Noting the weakness of both the secular and ultra-nationalist opposition, and the strength of Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who lives in Pennsylvania and has many dedicated followers, including many in governmental posts, she thinks Turkey has entered a new, religious, and economically prosperous period that seeks to marry Turkish identity with Sunni Islam, with an additional focus of economic growth as a means both to propel and spread this new identity globally.
The recent opening of the new Marmaray rail tunnel beneath the Bosphorus Strait is evidence of this. It links the Asian and European sides of Istanbul, but has larger potential as part of a trade route running from China's Pacific coast to England's Atlantic one.
A Wall Street Journal piece recently noted that some media rights groups claim that, "Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists world-wide," but the government disputes that characterization. Regardless, Turkey can be a challenging assignment for reporters.
Louisville's Wells is doing difficult, but vital work there. It deserves a wider audience here. You can follow her on Twitter at @wellsla.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e- mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.