Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Blowout on the Bosphorus

Turkey used to be on everybody's bucket list. Particularly Istanbul. Straddling Europe and Asia, terminus of the Orient Express, former seat of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul for years has been among the world's top tourist destinations.

And it doesn't disappoint. The first impression upon disembarking a cruise ship is not to be forgotten -- a skyline silhouetted with massive mosques, a dream scene particularly at dawn or dusk. There is no other sight like it in the world.

Istanbul has the Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, Galata Bridge, wonderful Ortakoy, Leander's Tower, trips on the Bosphorus and the Hagia Sophia, where kings were crowned for centuries.

Istanbul has it all. It's big and prosperous and vibrant. And it's self destructing.

It's no longer safe to travel there. Between terrorist attacks and abortive coups, it's simply not worth the risk. Always expensive, Istanbul now require you bring body armor along with lots of money. A random bomb could go off anywhere.

In the past nine months, there have been four separate terrorist attacks at sites my wife and I had previously visited. It's a chilling feeling. "We were there, right there, just a few months ago!"

Istiklal Caddesi, the heavily traveled pedestrian street. A staging area near the iconic Blue Mosque. The university neighborhood where a rogue taxi driver unceremoniously dumped us after a dispute about the fare. And Istanbul International Airport, one of the busiest in Europe.

With enemies on all sides, Istanbul has become a bulls-eye for terrorist groups -- the Kurds, the Syrians and all sorts of surrogates for the Russians.

But the greatest enemy is not from another country or from a terrorist group, but from within Turkey itself. The real battle is between the Turks who want a secular country (think Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey) and Turks who support the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his quest for a full return to Islam. Erdogan and a good many of his followers want a rebirth of the Ottoman Empire. It's a bitter push-pull, and Erdogan is winning.

We saw the change first-hand. On our first visit there in 2009, the dress was largely Western. On our second visit, in 2015, there were hijabs everywhere and many women were completely covered, a striking turnabout.

The move toward Islam reached a climax -- or at least a climatic milestone -- when a splinter military group attempted a coup in July. It was a gift to Erdogan. The failed coup gave him the excuse (a situation not unlike the 1930s turmoil in Germany) to turn a repressive regime into a de facto dictatorship.

Even before the coup attempt, dissent was not tolerated. There were said to be more journalists imprisoned in Turkey than in China. Dissidents who questioned government policies were jailed or killed. After the abortive coup, things got even worse.

  • Some 20,000 public school teachers were fired and thousands of government officials were jailed.
  • The media, already heavily censored, was completely suborned.
  • Hundreds of military dissenters were killed, and thousands more were held for trial.
Erdogan saw subversives everywhere, and the legislature gave him free rein to crush them, declaring a three-month state of emergency during which all democratic constraints were removed. He wasted little time. In a chilling development, Erdogan purged universities throughout Turkey, firing 27,000 teachers and staff and forcing all deans to resign. -- the first step in an open campaign to muzzle the intellectuals or simply drive them out of the country.

Right now there's little to stop Turkey from becoming a full-fledged Islamic dictatorship, another in a long line of failed democracies in the Middle East.

The take-home message? There are actually two. First, unless you like living dangerously, don't travel to Istanbul, and be careful everywhere else in Turkey. Second, hold out hope that this magnificent country with its rich heritage does not succumb to totalitarianism. It would be a terrible waste and a huge loss for all concerned. And it's almost certainly going to happen. 

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