- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2007

MARMARIS, Turkey.

People generally construct social bonds with like-minded people. A child’s school determines not only educational quality, but also social contacts in adulthood. It also significantly impacts how one perceives every aspect of life, from religion to mentality and language to socio-political and economic behavior, customs of food and dress, etc. Some successful societies have managed not to emphasize differences. In under-developed or developing countries, the differences are so pronounced that they force the lower and middle classes to consider the issue of equality — naturally encouraging reactionary behavior.

In real life, it is vitally important for everyone to receive the same treatment under the law. But that is the only equality that one can get — if lucky. What”s more important is that behavioral attitudes represent an appreciation of life. From rich to poor, a give-and-take with dignity, honesty and goodwill should guide a healthy society, nurturing trust between rich and poor. In his 1995 book “Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity,” Francis Fukuyama defines “trust” as a society’s capacity for cooperation which underpins its prosperity.

I was on vacation at a luxury hotel in Marmaris the day the ruling Islamist rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) announced Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its presidential candidate. It reminded me that the challenge to Turkey’s prosperity is, indeed, built in the social dynamics. Luxury hotels reserve part of the beach for their customers, but the rest is open to the public. Within an hour of the AKP announcement, a group of locals bombarded the beach — women with headscarves and shalwars, with their underwear visible after swimming, men and children with their underwear. It was unusual for them to appear this way on such a beach. They were definitely not Islamists, but they simply did not know any better. Yet, the tourists were visibly curious. Soon the scenery turned them off. They left the beach for the pool within the hotel compound.

Two recent polls offered extremely interesting insights on perceptions of cultural and religious propriety. A survey conducted by Bahcesehir University, one of Turkey’s leading universities, showed that 88 percent of AKP supporters believe that wearing a bathing suit on the beach is a sin. Sixty-three percent of National Action Party (MHP) supporters and 14 percent of Republican People’s Party (CHP) supporters agree. Turkey is surrounded by sea on three sides.

Another poll earlier this year by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Turks define themselves as Muslim first. Evidently, it brings new challenges as well as responsibilities. This week, a Turkish plane bound for Istanbul from Northern Cyprus was hijacked. According to passenger accounts, the hijackers asked the passengers to raise their hands if they are Muslims. Everyone did. The hijackers said that as Muslims they had no intention of hurting the passengers. Unfortunately, no one seemed bothered by the hijackers’ attempt to build empathy with fellow Muslims. No one was willing to consider or discuss what the hijackers would have done if there had been non-Muslims on the plane — or to make the point that it is nonsense to mix religion and criminal acts. Turks refuse to address these issues unless the West forces them to. Then they behave as reactionaries.

Turkey’s so-called liberal political parties under-theorized the role of culture and religion in building a modern nation-state. The possibility that Mr. Gul’s wife, who wears a turban, will represent Turkey as its first lady symbolizes a different culture taking over Turkey’s social and governmental life. It will certainly take Turkey a step closer to being seen as an Islamic state, too. Many Turks, however, adamantly insist that a first lady in a turban is not a concession by the secular democracy, but they are quick to point out that how Mr. Gul uses his authority is the important part.

The United States does not see the headscarf/turban as a blow to secular democracy, but everyone must consider why the United States has failed in its efforts to bring democracy to the Muslim Middle East. Among the many reasons it’s important to remember that democracy and its culture take a long time to settle and fully mature. It is also impossible to underestimate the impact of the First Amendment on American democracy. The First Amendment assures the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition for redress of grievances. In Turkey, however, not everyone can speak their minds — even journalists are not completely free — because they can’t simply afford to pay the price. The system does not allow them that freedom. Now the AKP is building its base of power in government and the private sector with patronage and favoritism.

Although democracy means the rule of many, many democracies have failed. Turkey now faces the consequences of failing to respond to the needs of more than half the population on time. Now we must wait and see whether the change will be for good or bad. In the meantime, we should keep in mind that “trust” is seriously a missing chain in Turkish unity.

Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.