by Kevin Cottrell
I have recently spent a lot of time talking about how leaders sometimes benefit from postponing judgment about certain situations, strategies and relationships. In Turkey, I found myself in a perfect situation to practice what I have preached. Without question, I was excited to visit Turkey for the first time. While my itinerary covered both the capital Ankara and the cosmopolitan Istanbul, I was most excited about Istanbul and its sights. This all changed as four intense and invigorating days unfolded.
Landing in Ankara, I was immediately reminded of the dry hilly countryside of California. The weather was also a perfect match. We wasted no time in Ankara, jumping right into the issues of democracy and Islam. Our early meetings helped to frame what would become the cornerstones of our visit. Turkey is in the midst of a great deal of political tension between the secularists and the more conservative and Islamist movement led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). At first glance, this more pious movement seems to be in large contrast to western ideals, but the subsequent days in Turkey only illuminated how complex the issues are for Westerners to understand. The emerging power base is often likened to Europe’s Christan Democrats- except that they are blending Islam with business and free market ideals.
This political power shift is a backdrop to many other layered issues, including E.U. accession, the global strategic position of Turkey for its Western allies- most notably the U.S.- and the issues affecting Turkish minority groups and women.
A highlight of the Ankara experience was a dinner party held in our honor. It was a great opportunity to meet with non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives, government officials, business people and academics. I particularly enjoyed meeting the leaders of the NGO community who share a mutual interest in leadership development and strengthening democracy. I also connected with the leader of the Turkish Film Festival who will be sending us a set of Turkish films released at Cannes this year. The film industry is growing, and both the film industry and the festival are key elements in strengthening Turkey’s freedom of expression and creative economy. I also took this opportunity to pitch him my latests idea: The Story of Ataturk. Ataturk is the founding father of the modern Turkish secular state. His story is a source of inspiration to millions of Turks and his image dominates civic life throughout Turkey. We traveled on to Istanbul (pictured left). Upon our arrival, we had a bit of time to explore the area around our hotel located on the European side of the Bosporus. The views were commanding. In fact that evening, a few of my colleagues and I shared a sensory experience that was uniquely Turkey. On the rooftop bar of our hotel, we saw the Istanbul skyline of glowing Mosques, people having cocktails and socializing, there was a wedding party on one of the rooftops below, and the Turkey/Switzerland Eurocup soccer match was broadcast in the streets on a jumbo screen. The background was filled with a mixture of the sounds of revelry, the call to prayer, clinking of glasses, and acid jazz. It was then we realized we were having a truly Turkish moment.
In Istanbul we looked at the Turkish economy in a meeting with the U.S. Foreign Commercial Officer who briefed us on trade and economic issues. The Turkish economy has been growing between 6 to 8 percent in recent years and may level out at between 4 to 6 percent in the coming year. The growth and development is quite evident between Ankara to Istanbul.
The balance of our time was spent looking at the minority issues in Turkey. We had the opportunity to speak with members of the minority communities, including Armenians and members of the Christian Orthodox church, to get a sense of the challenges they face in secular Turkey that is trending more Islamist. Our visit to the Christian Orthodox included a sighting of His Holiness (pictured above). For the ethnic and religious minorities, the hope for E.U. accession is quite strong and akin to the very concerns held by many Europeans. If and when Turkey is admitted, the country will have the second largest share of E.U. population and thus parliamentary power, making it second to Germany. I felt my experiences in Turkey offered new and deeper insight into the growth of the European Union, the rights of E.U. citizens, and the important strategic implications for a growing E.U.
Our trip to Turkey included top sightseeing opportunities, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia (pictured left), the Grand Bazaar, and a boat cruise on the Bosporus. It was lovely. Perhaps after four intensive travel days, a personal transformation, and the sheer power of the historical significance, our dinner that evening turned into an amazing celebration rarely experienced by Westerners. In short, it included a wonderful meal, heartfelt toasts, singing and dancing, and of course the playing of tambourines (pictured below).
Kevin Cottrell is Executive Director of the Southern California Leadership Network, blogging from his fellowship with the German Marshall Fund in Europe.