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At ease with their heritage

April 16, 2012

EN ROUTE from Balat to Sultanahmet in Istanbul during a recent vacation, my taxi driver kept pointing out major historical sites. “These are the old city walls; they’re 2,000 years old! That’s Galata Tower; it has been keeping watch over the city since the sixth century. You can find no greater luxury than the Cagaloglu hammam!”

This unofficial tour was punctuated with assurances that Istanbul was the greatest city on earth, its people the friendliest, its nightlife the wildest.

A day later, a chestnut vendor on busy Istiklal Street waxed lyrical about Istanbul’s many charms, insisting that there could be no more beautiful or historical city. Later, a waiter at the bustling Zubeyr Kebab spontaneously announced that Istanbul’s magic lay in its ability to jointly inhabit the past and the present.

This enthusiasm for Istanbul was not confined to those who made a living interacting with tourists. I had rented an apartment in a non-touristy part of town, and my hosts and neighbours, all middle-class Turkish professionals, were ready with gushing praise for the city, its buzz and the opportunities it offered. Their optimism and investment in their hometown helped explain why Turkish friends from my college days had returned to Istanbul after spending a few years studying and working abroad.

On trams and buses, Turks rather than tourists were liable to be wearing T-shirts embossed with their country’s flag or an image of Kemal Ataturk. At cafés, youngsters sang along with ageing musicians performing Turkish folk songs. Back alleys, balconies and rooftops across the city were adorned with the red-and-white crescent flag.

I like to think that I am not a naïve traveller, and leave my rose-tinted glasses at home when I set off on short vacations. I am also cautious about letting limited interactions with middle-class or elite representatives cloud my judgment of complex societies. Faced by the Turks’ overwhelming national pride and optimism about their country’s trajectory, I tried to think of the broader context. Turkey is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies; its GDP rose by nine per cent in 2010 and 8.5 per cent in 2011. In less than a decade, income per head has roughly tripled. No doubt, it is easy to confuse prosperity and patriotism.

Moreover, the Turkish state has long promoted the concept of ‘Turkishness’. State-sanctioned notions of national identity trickle down through policy, propaganda and curriculum and breed rampant nationalism. That nationalism is in turn complemented by state investment in public life and civic institutions.

Throughout my trip, I saw signs of a state that has invested in preserving its historical and cultural heritage and glorifying itself. At Emirgan Park, a tulip festival was under way, and state-employed gardeners were arranging four-foot-tall, tulip-shaped sculptures covered with pictures of Turkish leaders, flags and monuments.

I was expecting Istanbul to be bustling and beautiful, but I was not expecting its residents to be so infused with national pride and a collective desire to see through their country’s progress. After all, Turkey has its fair share of emerging democracy challenges.

The country has struggled to qualify as an inclusive democracy owing to its marginalisation of the Kurdish population. Since the constitution defines ‘Turkishness’ as a prerequisite of citizenship, Kurds exist as second-class citizens, struggling for equal representation. An ongoing effort to draft a new constitution free from ethnic bias has been marred by political divisiveness.

Barely two weeks before I arrived there, thousands of Kurds took to the streets of Istanbul to celebrate their new year, but were arrested or wounded during ensuing clashes with riot police.

The three consecutive terms of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have also stirred the battle between secularism and Islamism, the Achilles heel of most Muslim countries’ national identities. The AKP’s popularity is buoyed by increasingly religious Turks and an anti-West Islamised elite, and the party has been accused of trying to implement an Islamic state.

Like Pakistan, Turkey has also been subject to military interference in the political sphere. While the AKP has tried to counter this by putting Ergenekon — a clandestine organisation with ties to the Turkish security establishment — on trial, it has done so at the expense of human rights. Military officers, academics and others have been detained indefinitely without charge; websites have been banned; journalists reporting on the case have been sued. And the human rights violations do not stop there: dozens of journalists and thousands of Kurds languish in jails on vague charges of being ‘terrorists’.

The resilience of Turkish pride and nationalism despite these challenges intrigues me. After giving it some thought, the only conclusion I can reach is that Turks have embraced their nation’s rich past and cultural heritage, one that is necessarily inclusive by virtue of geography. This joint ownership of their country’s history and identity gives them a sense of investment in the national project, a sense of purpose, and faith in their country’s potential.

Pakistan has an equally rich historical and cultural heritage, but has actively worked to deny it by rewriting history and making no effort to preserve its artifacts. The Indus Valley Civilisation, Gandhara art, Hindu temples, Mughal architecture and much, much more could mould Pakistan’s national identity — and that identity would be pluralistic, tolerant, informed and proud.

But in trying to craft a new, artificial identity as an Islamic nation with allegiance to the Middle East rather than South Asia, we have squandered a rare opportunity. It may be too late for Pakistan to reclaim its true sense of self. But our leaders should remember that a shared, glorious past that holds the promise for a better future can energise and enliven a polity.

The writer is a freelance journalist.