Tired of Waiting, Turkey May Look to the Orient

It was Kylie Minogue, at a time when Turkey’s schizophrenic cultural heritage bifurcates the country into Asia or Europe and its iconic sea, the Bosphorus, splits the country down the middle between occident and accident, who made me think Turkey and Europe might just about be ready for each other.

There was the pop poppet, well, life-size images of her anyway, flaunting her curvaceous clunes at shoppers in the Agent Provocateur lingerie outlet at Istanbul's Kanyon Mall. On the other hand it was a shocking exhibition of flesh in a country that’s 98 percent Islamic. But the thing was, it was me - there purely for the purposes of research, of course - who was shocked.

Today, with the world teetering between a spavined west, its captains of industry reduced to rowing the lifeboats, and a spectacularly resurgent Asia considering idly how to sink them, I had come to take a look at this country so interestingly caught between the two.

The cultural and religious aspect is never far from the surface. I had been reading press accounts of Turkey’s gathering fundamentalism, how its women had enthusiastically embraced the hijab (while those disinclined to were having it forcibly pulled over them anyway), how Islamist vigilantes were closing down bars and the merest suggestion of décolletage with equal zeal.

Once the Muslim world's secular standard-bearer, Turkey seemed to be fast morphing into Tehran, or so one read. There were even suicide bombings of louche infidels, the remains of the worst visible across from Kanyon in the scorched ruins of the old HSBC headquarters. It was all bad for business in an ancient land that history describes as virtually having invented commerce. Turkey seemed no place for Europhiles and certainly not a brassy, arsey Australian one.

But the only fundament I could see was Kylie’s. The store seemed to have more patrons than the Blue Mosque on a busy Friday than an end-of- Eid al-Fitr at the Bin Ladens. And if any shock was evident apart from mine, it was likely at the near four-figure price being asked - in euros, mind – for a libidinous basque-and-suspender set, though given the clientele that uber-modish Kanyon attracts up there in Levant, Istanbul’s shiny new financial district, customers were probably stunned at how affordable all this Euro-naughtiness was.

Of course, not all 70 million Turks are fanciers of lacy French smalls, just as an increasing number are becoming less enamored of the Europe their government has pointed them toward. More peaceably than its imperial ancestors, Ankara has been at the gates of the EU and its predecessors longer than most of group’s current lineup have been in club. It first applied in 1959, just two years after the Treaty of Rome and a year before Harold Macmillan intimated British membership to the blackballing de Gaulle. But richer now - Greater Istanbul alone would be a Dutch-sized Euro-power, - proud Turks are sick of their membership aspirations being foiled at every turn by Brussels, playing burly bouncer to a Turkey pressing in vain at the red sash while a score of the fashionably-late in-crowd push past it.

If it’s not about religion, which Brussels unconvincingly insists it isn’t, then what’s Europe’s problem with Turkey? Its not as if Turks don’t know capitalism, which is more than can be said for EU newbies like Romania, Bulgaria and, hold on, isn’t that Hungary in the intensive care of the IMF? Turks, be they Ottomans or Byzantines, were enthusiastic accumulators of lucre long before European good manners determined it was filthy.

Literally straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s status as an international business centre is measured in millennia; or much of that time it was the world’s only business centre. Today, 75 percent of Turkey’s trade is already with Europe, whose banks control around 40 percent of the country’s banking assets, having profitably arrived in the country after the crippling financial crisis of 2001. That recovery cleansed and energised Turkey, making its financial systems, well, more European, though minus the subprime exposure.

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“The EU should have Turkey as an exciting new member because it will add excitement and growth to Europe,” insisted Suzan Sabanci Dinçer, the stylish 42 year-old chair of her family’s Ak Bank, one of Turkey’s big four private banks. “The big EU powers are slowing down. The world is shifting from West to East, and the EU needs a growth story, an emerging market within its borders.”

Istanbul’s resident billionaire quotient is up there with Hong Kong, LA and Tokyo; it is only the Russian oligarchs that lift London’s tycoon tally above Istanbul’s. Turkey boasts a robust democracy informed by a vibrant media, often over meze, cold Efes beer and raki, the heady national aperitif, in a lively meyhane. What, Mr Barrosso, is not to like?

It doesn’t feel much like Brussels deep in the heart of Fatih, a so-called ‘religious’ neighbourhood of Istanbul. Few foreigners venture here but I was in search of dervishes, real ones, not the phony types who whirl for gormless tourists at Topkapi. I was seeking something different from the whirlwind of sharp-suited telecom moguls, financiers and their arm candy in fashionable restaurants and clubs. I was led to a cheerful backstreet Sufi mosque. Ataturk had banned Sufism, believing that its mystic rituals were backward. It was too Eastern, he said, inhibiting Turkey’s post-Ottoman modernisation. But it is still practised underground and as a dozen young men in flowing kaftans whirled, I wondered how Ataturk would regard the rapt audience of European Sufi devotees - the women all tightly scarved - who’d also been lured here. And that the biggest group of Sufi devotees can be found in California, about as approvingly ‘West’ a place there can possibly be.

I pondered all this over cigars with Zeki Onder, the urbane vice-president of Sekerbank, once the institution – as the name suggests in Turkish – where Anatolian sugarbeet growers parked what little cash they’d nurtured. Sekerbank is now one of scores of modern banks thrusting their wares, rather like Kylie, along Levent’s Büyükdere Avenue, Turkey’s Wall Street, which has spawned a dozen or more of those billionaires.

Smoke circles hung thoughtfully around us as Onder described the future for Turkey as he saw it, sounding a little like Marx - the wit Groucho, not the suddenly-refashionable Prussian socialist - who famously didn't want to be part of any club that would accept him as a member. “There is a lot of money in this country,” the expensively-suited Onder mused, stating the obvious while gazing across the Bosphorus to booming Asia and beyond.

“And it remains to be seen who will best avail of it - West or East.” Once an enthusiastic Europhile, Onder now reckons a Turkish referendum on EU membership would be a close-run thing.

Marx - Groucho again - urged Americans to ‘Go West’ as Ataturk did of Turks but most every time Ankara has tilted occidentally, Europe has raised the drawbridge well before Vienna while developing sudden symptoms of Islamophobia, the truth that dare not speak its name in Turkey's sisyphean struggle to officially become European. They weren’t happy when Belgrade – once a heathen outpost of the Ottomans - got a big Eurotick for finally giving up the odious Radovan Karadicz. Long structurally part of Europe if not politically, Turks now ask their politicians why are they bothering with the economically-sclerotic EuroZone when there is now so much more fun - read money - in the easterly direction.

It wasn’t just Onder. Under portraits of the beloved Ataturk – a kind of national grandfather to Turks - banker after banker, financier after financier insisted Turkey was more than ready for EU entry. But if Europe couldn’t stomach Turkey as its emerging market within, then too bad, there’s the ‘brothers’ in Dubai for starters, then Russia (my hotel was full of shiny-suited ‘bisnismen’) just the other side of the Black Sea, and East Asia adding the cream.

Onder tells me of a conversation he had with a colleague in China. The Beijing banker felt sorry for European bankers “because there is nothing left to do there.” ‘Look at us,’ he said, ‘we have a huge future to get excited about.’" Önder laughs. "And he was right. I more or less feel the same about Turkey."