Behind the anti-government protests in Turkey lies an even greater struggle: the struggle for Western recognition. Turkey has long sought to differentiate itself from the autocracies of the Middle East but has never been fully embraced by the West either. As the protesters call for a legitimate democracy what they really call for is Western acceptance.
Now is the winter of Turkey’s discontent but all the West can see is the Arab Spring. Turkish protesters implore Western officials to make public statements condemning the government crackdown. However, the disappointments of the Arab Spring are still fresh in mind leaving a reluctance to intercede. Liberal hopefuls were blindsided by the quick ascension of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the status of the Syrian rebels continues to deteriorate.
There is a growing Western cynicism toward the Middle East. In Rudyard Kipling’s words, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.
Turkey has a lengthy history of looking westward. In 1921, Kemal Ataturk famously modernized Turkey with ruthless vigor. He introduced Western clothing, laws, the Western calendar and alphabet and had no patience for Islamic fundamentalism. Ataturk remains the most adored politician in Turkish history.
In some ways, Turkey has succeeded in becoming western. The current Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, is conservative in financial policy only. His policies have attracted the likes of Coca-Cola, Microsoft, McKinsey and other Western giants to set up shop in Istanbul. Tourism makes up a whopping 63 percent of the economy.
However, all of this is to bring the West to Turkey rather than the other way around. Turkey has continually pursued admission to the European Union and has been continually rebuffed. With a spike in short-term foreign investment loans and a drop in long term, the Turkish economy is tremendously vulnerable to investor panic, which is precisely what it may face now in the wake of the protests.
For now, Turkey remains to the East of the West and to the West of the Middle East.