When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cruised to an easy (and expected) victory in last month’s presidential race, he triumphantly called for “a new Turkey.”
He said it was time to put aside the old divisions, and unite, and move forward. Of course, every winning politician says the same thing.
But what is this New Turkey?
Yesterday I read a story in the Hurriyet Daily News, one of the leading newspapers, that said that Turkey was becoming a recruiting hotspot for the Islamic State (ISIL). A subsequent New York Times story backed up this claim. Both entailed harrowing reports of IS recruiters roaming the neighborhoods and backstreets of Istanbul, of Ankara, and other cities, looking for disaffected youth to gather up and send over the border to Syria and Iraq. For as much as 150 bucks per day, they could vent all their pent up anger and disillusionment by shooting at the great Enemy, the West.
(Of course, I also read stories of similar recruit drives in Europe and America; at one university in America, students were actually signing petitions in support of IS. “Are those the guys who have been cutting off Americans’ heads?” asked one student, as he signed the document. )
Nice to think that right here, in my neighborhood of Kadikoy, that somewhere nearby could be some fellow walking around, approaching young people and asking if they’d like to sign up. One afternoon this week, I managed to get an early afternoon off. I caught a dolmus from the school back to Kadikoy. It was the first week of the new academic year, and most of the students were heading back to university.
Vaguely, I wondered, if it would be possible to wander around certain half-deserted streets (the muttering retreats) and enquire if any IS recruiters had been around.
You can imagine the scenario:
An American walks into a dark-lit, smoky café. Inside it is nearly empty; a few men sit over glasses of tea, or perhaps a pint of beer (it’s a bit early for that). They are reading newspapers, or watching the round-up of football scores on an ancient television above the bar.
“Merhabalar,” says the American, with studied courtesy.
“Böyrun, kolay gelsen,” says the garcon.
“Pardon,” says the American. “Burdalarda IŞIT işveren var mı?” He tries to make the question sound light, casual, as if asking for directions to the nearest metro stop.
“Effedim?” the garcon asks, not sure he understands. Another garcon, a younger guy, approaches.
“Can I help you?” He asks, in English.
“Oh, you speak English!” the American says gratefully. “I just wanted to know, are there any IS recruiters around here?”
“IS?” the guy is confused. In Turkish they say IŞIT.
“You know,” the American guy says. “IŞIT. Are there any IŞIT recruiters around here?”
The other men look up. The older garcon shakes his head, looks at the American suspiciously. One of the other men gets up from the bar, approaches the American with a hostile look.
“Siz kimsiz?” The man says angrily. “CIA mı siz?”
The American anxiously denies this. No, he is not CIA. He ıs only a journalist, and a poorly paid one at that.
“You are a journalist?” the man says, still in Turkish and even angrier. He spits, shouts an obscentity. “Siktir git, pezivenk!” He gestures toward the door.
The American journalist, taking the hint and not wishing to be beaten up for the simple sin of being a member of the press, slowly and calmly hauls ass. Outside, he is followed by a couple of the men. He breaks into a run, they chase him, catch him and start to beat the American. A policeman finally arrives, breaks it up. He asks for the American’s passport. The men, meanwhile, are telling the policeman that you are a CIA agent asking about the Islamic State … In the morning, the Turkish papers report of an “AMERICAN ‘JOURNALIST’ BEATEN, ACCUSED OF BEING AGENT.”
… Well, as you can see, that would hardly be ideal. Actually, when I read the New York Times story, which was written by a Turkish reporter, I envied the reporter’s ability to go into shops and make such direct enquiries. But then, she has the hometown advantage, I suppose. She doesn’t have to walk around with the burden of Western distrust; of course as a journalist in Turkey, she still could potentially be accused of trying to “overthrow the government,” always a de facto charge here against “provocative” journalists, but at least she won’t be considered a CIA agent.
Meanwhile, pundits suggest that Turkey’s decades-old policy of zero conflict with its neighbors could potentially have backfired, in that now Turkey finds itself isolated and vulnerable in a region torn by war. These days, with US-led forces beginning to drop bombs on IS fighters, it’s Turkey’s responsibility, so it has been reported, to clamp down on the borders, to prevent new IS recruits from crossing over into Iraq and Syria. Well, as Americans back home know with border patrols, good luck with that. And what do you do if the recruits are coming from your own backyards? Start patrolling the neighborhoods too?
Perhaps all this is pure speculation, fear-mongering; if so, I apologize. I’m sure it is not the New Turkey that Mr. Erdoğan has envisioned, but it could be one that is on the way, if not here already.
[CORRECTION: The original version of the story misidentified the sex of the New York Times reporter in the third-to-last paragraph.]
James Tressler, a former California-based journalist, is the author of “Lost Coast D.A.,” “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1,” and “Conversations in Prague.” He lives in Istanbul.