Emerging from World War I as a shrunken version of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey plays a pivotal role in the world.  A strong U.S. ally during the Cold War, Turkey is now one of the world's largest Muslim democracies.  Join Active Minds as we explore Turkey's past and current challenges, including its struggles with its Kurdish minority and its role in the Syrian Civil War.

Key Lecture Points

  • Becoming an independent state in 1924, the nation of Turkey was, ostensibly, the remains of the defeated Ottoman Empire.  Immediately, the country set out on a secular, democratic path with war hero Mustafa Kemal Pasha, or Ataturk, its leader.  The military, gaining strength and political influence during WWII as a result of a strong alliance with the US, has long seen itself as the protector of Turkish democracy and secularism.
  • Turkey’s Islamic identity dates back to the Muslim conquests in the 9th century and the establishment of the Ottoman Turk Empire beginning in the 13th Century.  Notwithstanding the secular government of Ataturk and his followers, over the past decade, the Turkish people have seen a variety of Islamist leaders rise on the political stage.  The first Islamist prime minister was elected in 1996, only to be ousted by the military.  In 2007, Abdullah Gul became Turkey’s first-ever Islamist head of state with Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister.
  • Turkey became a candidate for EU membership in 1999, yet still faces significant resistance from EU members as to its accession.   European concerns about Turkey’s Muslim religious and cultural identity, as well as its record in human rights are seen as reasons to block Turkish accession into the EU.
  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated the Turkish political scene for more than a decade, serving as prime minister and now as the country’s first directly elected president.  He has brought economic and political stability but his critics accuse him of polarizing the country by harboring a desire to turn Turkey into a religious society.  Under his tenure, Turkey’s strictly secularist establishment has been losing ground to a more overtly Muslim expression.
  • A NATO member, Turkey is part of the coalition fighting ISIS.  Turkey, an early supporter of the opposition to Assad in the Syrian civil war, sees the need to depose the Assad government as the region’s most pressing issue and ultimately the way to stop ISIS.   The US sees ISIS as the imminent threat.  This has led to a standoff between the US and Turkey.
  • Tensions rose in 2016 when Turkey saw a series of deadly bombings by ISIS; the continuing of the Kurdish insurgency; and a bloody attempted coup, followed by a crackdown with thousands of citizens arrested and further restrictions on freedoms of expression.
  • Relations between the US and Turkey, already frosty, cooled even more after the failed coup when Erdogan accused the US of being slow to support Erdogan’s government and refusing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, believed by most Turks to be responsible for the coup.  Adding to the strained relations, Turkey further complicated the Syrian civil war when they launched a land offensive against ISIS that also had the major objective of curbing Kurdish expansion along the Syrian-Turkish border, pitting US-backed Kurds against NATO ally Turkey.

Exploration Questions

  • Why is Turkey a critical piece in the current crisis in Iraq and Syria?
  • Why has the Kurdish question been so complicated for Turkey and for the US?
  • What role do the Kurds play in the current crisis in Iraq and Syria?

Reflective Question

  • What elements of Turkish culture influence the United States?
  • Have you ever traveled to Turkey?  If so, what were your impressions of the country and its people?
  • Do you think the US and NATO will be able to oust IS?  Why?  Why not?
  • Do you think there will be an independent Kurdistan?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Stone, Norman.  Turkey: A Short History. Thames & Hudson, 2014. 192 pages.  This book tells the history of Turkey from the arrival of the Seljuks in Anatolia in the 11th century to the modern republic.
    Click here to order
  • Howe, Marvine. Turkey: A Nation Divided over Islam’s Revival. Westview Press, 2004. 310 pages. The author, an American journalist who opened the Ankara bureau of the New York Times in 1979, addresses the issue of whether Turkish democracy and Islam can coexist.
    Click here to order
  • Vatandas, Aydogan. Hungry for Power: Erdogan’s Witch Hunt and Abuse of State Power.  Blue Dome Press, 2015. 188 pages.  This Turkish journalist tells the story of Erdogan’s transition from Muslim democrat to authoritarian leader along with discussions of Turkey’s unique position in the Middle East, its relationship with the US and Erdogan’s escalating authoritarianism.
    Click here to order