Nobody has anything nice to say about Turkey anymore. That’s a shame. If there’s a news story it’s about Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the ways he’s taking new powers, purging and repressing. That’s all very important stuff, but I think it’s missing the forest for one particularly tall tree. I lived in Turkey for five years, and I’ve been thinking about the country for a while. There are some basics that the doomsayers are avoiding. This video presents what sort of functions as my Grand Unified Theory of Turkey Optimism. Islam is important, Erdogan is important, and the economy is important. But what is most important is Urbanization.
This theory can actually be applied to the politics of a lot of countries, not least the United States of America. The tension between rural and urban populations is a universal, whether we’re talking about China’s Hukou issues, or the 2016 US election. Thailand is another country that pops to mind. We’re all, as a planet, still going through a pretty insane process of transition. Our parents or great-grandparents were mostly farmers, and now we’re mostly urban dwellers. That’s going to keep having an impact for centuries to come. I hope this video helps you think through these issues a bit more.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Believe it or not, I’m still optimistic about Turkey. Thanks to the Syrian civil war and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country isn’t doing so well right now. Erdogan’s Islamist AK party has turned the country into a one party state, and a broader civil war with the Kurds remains a possibility. Erdogan just won a constitutional referendum that gives him sweeping new powers. It’s going to be a rough decade or two, but I’m still optimistic about the country’s long-term potential. Here’s why.
If you want to understand today’s politics, in any country, one conflict is probably more important than any other. That is the conflict between urban populations and rural populations. Rural populations tend to be poorer and more traditional than urban ones. Throughout the Muslim world they currently tend to support Islamist parties. Urban populations tend to be more business friendly, less religious, and more open and cosmopolitan. You can see this dynamic in the famous image breaking down the counties in the last US election.
A tremendously important facet of all this is urbanization. The politics of a given country have a lot to do with where they are in that process. The Majority of people in the United States have been urban since the 1920’s. Turkey has only passed that point in the past couple decades, and it did so very, very quickly. This has made Istanbul, the country’s largest city, unrecognizable for a lot of people. In the 1960’s the population was around 2 million. Now it’s at 15 to 20 million, depending on whose figures you trust. This city alone constitutes as much as a quarter of the country’s population. Other Turkish cities have experienced similar, if not quite as large growth. The countryside has emptied out.
And rural politics have come to the city. In the 1990’s Erdogan rose to prominence as the mayor of Istanbul. He and his AK party found their base of support in the millions of rural people that were uprooted from the context they had known for generations. They wanted to impose their own values on the city. They wanted a culture that was more religious. And they wanted to get back at the secular, western-facing elites that had run the country for 80 years. This has been the dominant fact in Turkish politics for the past few decades, leading to the success of Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah party in the 1980’s and 1990’s and the success of Erdogan’s AK party over the past 15 years.
Erdogan looks dominant, but city life is profoundly changing his post-rural electoral support. Turkey’s fertility rate has plummeted. It stood at 7 births per woman in 1960, but is now down to barely replacement rate. More and more of Turkey’s population has lived its entire life in the cities. Many Turks still hate their western-facing secular elite, but most want to live that elite’s lifestyle, with a few superficial changes. Traditional supporters of the AK Party have had their horizons broadened, and their aspirations and expectations are changing. This became very clear in April’s constitutional referendum.
In July of 2016, Erdogan successfully defeated a coup attempt. This made him a hero to many Turks, which convinced him that he could finally change the constitution. He won the constitutional referendum in April 2017, but only barely. Incredibly, he lost in Istanbul, his traditional center of support. Uskudar, one of Istanbul’s most conservative neighborhoods, voted against giving him new powers. This gives me hope. It’s a sign of things to come. Turkey isn’t like the United States. It doesn’t have a Senate or an electoral college to preserve the power of emptying rural regions. Once the city gets tired of rural politics, the AK party is toast.
Don’t get me wrong. Turkey is in for a rough couple decades. The AK party will win the next few elections. But they will have to cheat more and more to do it. Eventually, whether it’s five years from now or 20, Turkey’s Urban voters will stop listening to their post-rural parents and grandparents and opt for something better. Many believe that the AK party has the power to irrevocably change Turkey. Simple demographics show that that power is already slipping away.
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