I travelled to Turkey and found myself asking, is this country really the bridge between civilisations, and do we need a bridge anyway?
One of the great cliches about Turkey is that it is the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, the connection between Christendom and Islam. When you stand on the bridge over the Bosphorous, the river that runs through the centre of Istanbul, you feel a profound sense of geographic importance. You are told that on one side is Europe, and on the other you are told is Asia. Cross the bridge, and these oft-repeated words make you feel as though you are stepping across cultural, historic and civilisational tectonic plates. Is this really true, or do we simply think it is the case because the mantra of “the bridge” has been repeated so many times?
Turkey has a long and ancient history of peoples and empires. In the nearer past, it was taken by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. It fell to Rome in the 1st century BC and remained under Roman rule till Constantinople was named as the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD.
In the 7th century, Islam began to rise to the east of Byzantium. The Arabs took Ankara in 654 and by 669 they set siege to Constantinople. It is said that one of the companions of the Prophet, Ayub Ansari, was buried in Constantinople. They brought a new language, a new civilisation and of course a new religion called Islam.
There was considerable cultural engagement between the Muslims and the Byzantines. The Byzantine emperor Leo adopted the Islamic view that pictures of human beings should be banned. When the Arabs saw the domes on Byzantine churches they adopted them for Islamic architecture of buildings like mosques. The Arabs also translated classical Greek works of science and philosophy into Arabic.
As the Muslim empire grew and came under the control of the Abbasids centring on Persia, the Turks – who were a nomadic people from Central Asia – had been moving westward and under the Turkish Seljuk clan they took the sultanate in Baghdad. By the 11th century they had taken Anatolia from the Byzantines. In the thirteen century they were overrun by the Mongols, but were united in 1300 by Osman who established the Ottoman dynasty.
In 1923 the modern secular state of Turkey was founded by Ataturk. Despite the country’s centrality in the Muslim world to this point, and in spite of what is still considered in parts to be a religious people, Ataturk confined religion to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the mosque and the private domain at home, where it has remained ever since. One of the great ironies of Turkey is that it is a Muslim country that does not permit its women to wear the hijab in an official public space such as a university or in parliament.
More recently, Turkey applied to join the European Union, and in 2005 began accession talks. This seems to have been met by a mixed reaction both in the EU and in Turkey. With a population of over 70 million, the world’s 17th largest economy and a geographically strategic location, Turkey is asking itself is it Turkey that needs the EU or the EU that needs Turkey? With thorny phrases like “Christian club” being bandied about recklessly, Turkey along with the Muslim world is asking itself whether it is the fact that it is a Muslim country that is creating resistance in some European quarters.
Given the fluidity of history, culture and trade across the landmass that is modern-day Turkey, it seems strange to think of it as anything but Europe. Visit Istanbul and you certainly feel like you are in a European city. It is quite different from Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo or Baghdad. Travel west across the country and you feel a change in granularity and perspective as you near the borders of Syria and Iraq, but it is slow and gradual. The attitudes, cultures and peoples change gently rather than with the abruptness of stepping over a bridge. And that seems perfectly natural – why should a country change suddenly in the middle of its territory?
The same question can be applied to larger areas of geography, history and culture. Why do we think that Europe and European ideals (however you choose to define them) end at a fixed geographic point? This has never been the case previously, and nor should it be. Our European world does not end abruptly with a glass wall hemming us in like the globe that enclosed Truman in The Truman show. Real life doesn’t work like that – it didn’t in the past, and it doesn’t need to in the future. Unless we say it so many times that we start ourselves to believe the corrosive propaganda.
Ask those who repeat the mantra “the bridge” about how they see that role being carried out, and the answers are tenuous at best. That’s because the very notion of bridge implies separation and division that must be stuck together with a plaster. Our geographic and cultural connections are not like that. There is no chasm that yawns ominously between us like an infernal abyss. They are much more fluid and tightly interconnected. Our architecture, our intellectual roots, our commerce, genetics, and history all overlap and inter-relate. There is no epic gulf that requires spanning physically or metaphorically. It would be better to see Turkey as weaving together the strands of our interconnections. We don’t need to bridge the divide, what we need is to be bound together.
This article was published in The Muslim News