ISTANBUL: It was Kylie Minogue 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 — flaunting her curvaceous clunes at shoppers in the Agent Provocateur lingerie outlet at Istanbul’s Kanyon Mall. It was a shocking exhibition in a country that is 98 per cent Islamic. But the thing was, it was me who was shocked.
I’d been reading press accounts of Turkey’s gathering fundamentalism: how its women had embraced the hijab, while those who were disinclined to do so were having it forcibly pulled over them by Islamist vigilantes. Once a 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 virtually invented commerce. Turkey seemed no place for Europhiles and certainly not a brassy, arsey Australian one.
But the only fundamental agitation was Kylie’s; the store seemed to have more patrons than the Blue Mosque on a busy Friday. And if any shock was evident apart from mine, it was at the near four-figure price being asked — in euros, mind — for a libidinous basque and suspender set, though given the modish clientele that Kanyon attracts up there in Levent, 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, risqué smalls, just as an increasing number are becoming less enamoured of the Europe successive governments have pointed them toward.
Ankara has been at the gates of the EU and its predecessors since 1959, just two years after the Treaty of Rome. But richer now — Greater Istanbul alone would be a Dutchsized euro-power — proud Turks are sick of their aspirations being foiled at every turn by Brussels, playing burly bouncer to a Turkey pressing in vain at the red sash while a crowd of badly dressed Eastern Europeans push past.
If it’s not about religion, which Brussels unconvincingly insists it isn’t, then what’s Europe’s problem with Turkey? It’s not as if Turks don’t know capitalism, which is more than can be said for EU newbies like Romania, Bulgaria and — whoops, who’s that in IMF intensive care? — Hungary. Turks, Ottoman or Byzantine, were enthusiastic accumulators of lucre long before European manners determined it was filthy. Literally straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s status as an international business centre is measured in millennia. Today, 75 per cent of Turkey’s trade is with Europe, whose banks control around 40 per cent of the country’s banking assets, having arrived after the financial crisis of 2001. That recovery cleansed and energised Turkey, making its financial systems, well, more European, though minus the subprime exposure. ‘The EU should have Turkey as a new member because it will add excitement and growth, ‘ insisted Suzan Sabanci Dinçer, the stylish 42-year-old chair of her family’s Akbank, 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 an emerging market within its borders.’ Istanbul’s resident billionaire quotient is up there with Hong Kong, LA and Tokyo; it’s only the oligarchs that lift London’s tycoon tally above Istanbul’s.
Turkey boasts a robust democracy informed by a vibrant media. What’s not to like, Senhor Barroso?
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 went in search of dervishes, real ones, not the phonies who whirl for tourists at Topkapi. I was seeking something different to the throng of sharp-suited financiers and their arm-candy downtown. I was led to a cheerful backstreet Sufi mosque. Atatürk banned Sufism, believing its mystic rituals were too Eastern and backward, inhibiting Turkey’s post-Ottoman modernisation. But it’s still practised underground and as a dozen young men in flowing kaftans whirled, I wondered how Atatürk would regard the rapt audience of European Sufi devotees, the women all tightly scarved.
I pondered all this over cigars with Zeki Onder, the urbane vice-president of Sekerbank, once the institution where Anatolian sugar-beet growers parked what little cash they had. Sekerbank is now one of scores of banks thrusting their wares, rather like Kylie, along Levent’s Büyükdere Avenue, Turkey’s Wall Street. Smoke circles hung thoughtfully around us as Onder described the future for Turkey as he saw it, sounding a little like Marx — Groucho, that is, not the Prussian socialist — who famously didn’t want to join any club that would accept him as a member.
‘There’s a lot of money in this country, ‘ the expensively suited Onder mused, stating the obvious while gazing across the Bosphorus to booming Asia. ‘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.
Groucho urged Americans to ‘Go West’ as Atatürk did the Turks, but every time Ankara has tilted occidentally, Europe has raised the drawbridge while developing sudden symptoms of Islamophobia, the truth that dare not speak its name in Turkey’s sisyphean struggle to become officially European. Turks now ask their politicians why are they bothering with the economically sclerotic eurozone when there is so much more fun — read money — to be found in the easterly direction.
It wasn’t just Onder. Under portraits of the beloved Atatürk — a kind of national grandfather — banker after banker 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.’ Onder laughs.
‘And he was right. I more or less feel the same about Turkey.’