A few years ago and old college friend and I were prowling the stacks at Powell’s City of Books when I came across Stephen Kinzer’s Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds. Years ago I read his Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala and from time to time I’d seen his New York Times articles chronicling life in the “Stans” of Central Asia. Since Turkey has always been one of those countries that for whatever reason seem to fascinate me, and I was somewhat familiar with Kinzer’s writings, I made a mental note of his book and promised to read it someday. Well, I finally did. And I’m glad I did.
After reading several books on Iran over the last year, I was struck by the similarities and differences between the two countries, as pointed out by Kinzer. Both are Eurasian, non-Arab Muslim countries and former great empires. In the 20th century both experienced overthrows of their respective monarchies and were soon replaced by authoritarian leaders who ruled for about a decade before dying in office. Both leaders totally remade each country into their own chosen image.
But that’s where it ends. While Iran is a theocracy, Turkey is a secular republic. While the mullahs of Iran’s Council of Guardians have the final say on which candidates can stand for election, Turkey’s military sees itself as the nation’s protector. While their tight grip on the nation’s reigns of power of relaxed a bit over the years, traditionally the Turkish military has decided which political course the nation will take and if needed, step in and directly take power, as they have done several times over the last 40 years.
Kinzer criss-crosses Turkey, speaking to politicians, military officials, Kurdish leaders, dissidents, students and average Turks. Out of his interviews emerges a nation, like its physical location on the map occupying both Europe and Asia, nestled between two worlds. A long-standing member of NATO, but not a member of the EU. Muslim, but by the standards of its neighbors to the east and south, incredibly secular. Politically free, but within certain agreed parameters. Urban and rural, as well as modern and traditional. Yet at the same time, all Turkey.