In recent days, the news from Turkey seems to be producing the wrong kind of headlines.
- Bombings in Ankara, Istanbul, and Diyarbakir
- Attacks on personal freedoms and freedom of the press
- Threats against minorities and their properties
- Dark tales of loss of refugee life and abuse of displaced peoples
In light of news like this, what should our response be? Many countries have begun issuing travel advisories, telling their citizens to stay home. Parts of the city, which were once crowded with tourists are now empty except for small groups and a high police presence. Sharp declines have occurred in visitors from Europe, Russia and the United States. Many cruise lines have cancelled their stops in the ports of Turkey.
As an evangelical believer from the West who has happily lived in Turkey for many years, I find this response troubling. Turkey was long seen as the moderate Muslim partner that the Western world had been looking for. This viewpoint led to an extended period of growth in prosperity and freedom for the country. Much of Turkey saw development that brought standards of living forward by leaps and bounds. Many foreigners, who visit Turkey for the first time, are surprised by the very European feel of many of it’s cities.
Unfortunately, recent events are leading to a more isolationist attitude towards Turkey. The ever “on again-off again” merry-go-round with the EU has never been so obviously against EU membership. The United States has not found the willing partner in the region that they once found when the Turkish military leaders were more influential. Perhaps most significantly, the current administration’s falling out with an influential Turkish religious leader, who resides in the US, has led to the loss of their biggest media advocate abroad.
If trends continue, Turkey will have no choice but to lean more and more to the South and the East for partnerships abroad. Even more so, this will lead Turkey to look within and become even more isolated from the rest of the world. Although Turkey is very modern, the percentage of the population which speaks European languages is very low, with less than 17% of the population speaking English with any proficiency.
Practically, this means that even though Internet usage is high, the vast majority of the population relies on the local media for their information and news. Attempts to provide alternative perspectives via Social Media have been actively thwarted by the government. More and more, regardless of where you are in the world, the likelihood of having a broader perspective is dependent on personal relationships.
In my opinion, the West must continue see Turkey as a vital connection point to the Muslim world. Whether the context is business, tourism or inter-religious dialogue, to turn away from Turkey at this point would be a great mistake. In Turkish culture, it is impossible to have influence without relationships. Relationships are best established with time and tea. If Western businessmen, politicians and tourists allow recent difficulties to create a significant lapse in these relationships, it could have the greatest impact on their worse case scenarios for Turkey becoming a reality.