Turkey and Pakistan: Things they can learn from each other

Posted on October 3, 2007
Filed Under >Mast Qalandar, Foreign Relations, Travel
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Mast Qalandar

This post was inspired by my recent trip to Istanbul — my first ever to Turkey. Turkey is probably the only country left where Pakistanis are still received warmly. Pakistanis know Turkey not only as another Muslim country but a country that was home of the caliphate (Khilafat-e-Osmania) for several centuries. They also know Turkey because of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (died 1938). Pakistanis rate Ataturk very high among the Muslim leaders, somewhere close to Quad-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. We also have a major road named after him in Islamabad called Shahrah-e-Ataturk.


From the very inception of Pakistan both countries have had consistently warm relations. Jinnah was a great fan of Mustafa Kemal. He talked so much about him at home that his young daughter, Dina Wadia, started calling him Grey Wolf, the name of Armstrong’s famous book on Mustafa Kemal. Stanley Wolpert mentions in Jinnah’s biography that once on holidays Dina said to her father:

“Come on, Grey Wolf, take me to a pantomime; after all, I am on my holidays.”

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was also a great admirer of Mustafa Kemal. When he visited his mausoleum in Ankara he was so impressed with the change of guards ceremony at Kemal’s mausoleum that he introduced a similar ceremony at the Quaid’s mazar in Karachi, which remains in place to this day. Musharraf, too, when he took over in 1999, made some sounds about Ataturk when he appeared on TV carrying his two little dogs. But when the mullahs growled Musharraf’s dogs disappeared, never to be seen again. Nor was Musharraf heard eulogizing Mustafa Kemal any more.

Politically and socially, Turkey has changed a lot since Mutafa Kemal, and so has Pakistan since Jinnah. But the difference is Mustafa Kemal, if he were to return today, would still be able to recognize the country he created 80 odd years ago. The country is still called Turkish Republic, the name given by him. It has the same territorial boundaries; and secularism (the centerpiece of Kemal’s reforms) is still protected by the constitution even though it has come under some pressure lately by the headscarf lobby. On the other hand, I doubt if Jinnah would recognize the country he left behind — neither territorially nor ideologically. Quadi Azam had left behind a much larger country with a short name, Pakistan. Today, he will find a lot smaller country with much longer name — Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Other than having traditionally friendly relations with each other, Turkey and Pakistan also share some dubious distinctions. Their armed forces have been and are major players in their countries’ politics — and economy. Both armies have to their credit four coups each in as many decades in their respective countries. They also share the tragic distinction of hanging their popularly elected prime ministers on dubious or cooked up evidence. Turkey’s army hanged Adnan Menderes in 1961 while Pakistan’s army hanged Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979. These hangings cast a long and a dark shadow on each country’s politics and, which in the case of Pakistan persists it even today. Turkey, however, in a gesture of remorse or reconciliation, pardoned Adnan Menderes posthumously in 1990 and removed his grave to a mausoleum in Istanbul and even named a university and an International airport (Izmir) after him. Pakistan is still battling with the ghost of Bhutto.

Turkey, it seems, is gradually beginning to emerge from the shadows of the armed forces and moving towards a stable democracy. It had two peaceful and free elections in a row. Justice and Development Party (AKP) was only recently voted in with a landslide majority and they were able to put their candidate, Abdullah Gul, in Jankaya (Turkey’s White House). AKP’s leaders, even though labeled as Islamists, vow to maintain the secular character of their country. And the Armed Forces are, hopefully, learning to live with civilian governments in command. All indications are Turkey will remain politically stable in the foreseeable future. Pakistan, unfortunately, is still governed by a General-President who believes that Pakistan’s stability depends on his continuing in the office. Democracy and stability in Pakistan is still a pipe dream.

Since I spent only two weeks in Istanbul my impressions are mostly based on what I saw and what I heard from the taxi drivers, the shopkeepers, the tour guides and, of course, what I read in the Daily Turkish News, which was delivered to my room every morning by the hotel. Therefore, these impressions are bound to be touristy.

First impressions first. When I stepped out on the balcony of my hotel room overlooking the Bosphorus, the view, especially at night, was breathtakingly beautiful. Bosphorus is the famous waterway, running north to south between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, that is the dividing line between Asia and Europe. Istanbul sits astride the Bosphorus. It is a city of 12 million and is embroidered over a range of hills on both sides of the Bosphorus, its millions of lights twinkling at night like sequins. The two suspension bridges connecting the European and the Asian sides of the city glitter like necklaces studded with different colored gemstones. It’s one of the prettiest sights.

Istanbul is to Turkey what Karachi is to Pakistan — a bustling port city. But unlike Karachi, Istanbul attracts millions of tourists annually who pump in billions of dollars into its economy.

Another thing that a newcomer notices in Istanbul are the mosques. There are, reportedly, 2,500 mosques, distinguishable by their peculiar architecture — a cluster of rather shallow domes and spear-like minarets. They look quite picturesque when lighted at night. The call for prayer or the azan goes out of these mosques five times a day, and a very large number of people seem to respond to it and head towards the mosques to pray. However, I felt that, unlike Pakistan, the loudspeakers of Istanbul are, mercifully, not as loud. I am not sure if they are intentionally set at low volumes, or it is the enunciation of the Turkish muezzins that makes the difference — or, perhaps, because of the double-glazed windows of my hotel room — I never heard the crackle of loudspeakers in even though there were two mosques nearby. On the contrary, In Islamabad I wake up with a start when the muezzin clears his throat and taps the microphone before delivering the morning azan.

A Pakistani visitor is struck with the openness of the society in Istanbul. You see women everywhere — working in the offices, shopping in the bazaars, “manning” the shops, riding the buses, trains and boats, and also praying in the mosques. Many women seem to wear a headscarf and many prefer to wear jeans and T-shirts, and some even wear bikinis on the beaches and swimming pools. It is all tolerated. There is no ban on alcohol, nor there are any restrictions on music, dancing and nightclubs.

It is the openness and tolerance in the society coupled with the way they have preserved their historical monuments — both Christian and Muslim — that attract millions of tourists to Turkey. For example, Hagia Sophia, the famous landmark of Istanbul was the greatest Christian cathedral of medieval ages. It was converted to a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. (Converting places of worship or destroying them was nothing unusual in medieval ages. People of all religions did it whenever they conquered enemy territory. Unfortunately, they still do in some parts of the world.) However, in 1935 Hagia Sofia was converted into a museum and was no more used as a mosque. On the walls and the ceiling of the building both Christian and Muslim inscriptions and murals are preserved. It is a major tourist attraction of Istanbul. Incidentally, most mosques in Istanbul emulate Hagia Sofia’s architecture.

Turkey’s secularism is a bit different than the secularism that we see in Eruope or USA. It’s a bit aggressive kind of secularism, which, when introduced, might have had a rationale but it is beginning to present some problems. For example, women with headscarves are not allowed in schools, colleges and government buildings. It so happens that the new First Lady wears a headscarf. She can and will live in the President House but cannot participate in any reception held there. That’s sound funny. Doesn’t it. They will have to do something about it. A Turkish columnist, Mustafa Akyol, put it very nicely:

“Secular democracy should be neutral. It should not take sides with any religion — nor against any religion”.

But there is more to Turkish secularism than meets the tourist eye. And there is a whole history behind Turkey’s obsession with headscarf and headwear in general. More on this in a separate posts perhaps. Meanwhile, The New York Times, in a recent editorial, summed the emerging situation in Turkey in the following words, some of which are also relevant to Pakistan:

Though nearly all of Turkey’s 70 million people identify themselves as Muslim, the Turkish Constitution calls for strict secularity in public life. The insistence on secularism, in place since the country’s founding in 1923, was intended to counter what were viewed as anti-modern strains within Islam that impeded development. Over time, however, it led to the entrenchment of a secular ruling elite and the exclusion of more openly devout Muslims. In recent years, that observant group – which also accounts for much of the Turkish middle class – has fought back at the ballot box and scored victories.

Secular Turks have been understandably anxious about the ascendancy of Mr. Gul’s Justice and Development party. Widely known for its Islamist roots, the party now holds all the top offices in government. Mr. Gul himself has attracted a great deal of attention because his wife wears the Muslim headscarf, a visceral affront to some secularists.

They fear that religion may creep into government and then into their own lives, encroaching on precious freedoms such as women’s rights. Mr. Gul and his party have pledged to maintain a secular government, and their five-year record in power so far – a time of economic growth and legal reforms that have brought Turkey closer to joining the European Union – suggests that they will keep their word.

The military, which has toppled four elected governments since 1960, waves the banner of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in its ferocious embrace of secularism. But Ataturk’s ultimate goal was for Turkey to become a Western-style democracy. And in such a democracy, the military exists to serve the government, not the other way around.

I think both Turkey’s armed forces and the AKP government can learn from Pakistan’s experience. Each time the army has intervened in Pakistan it has created more problems than it has solved. In the process it has not only landed the country in an intractable mess but also lost public support that is so vital to any country’s armed forces. And Pakistan’s “Islamization” process over the last 30 years should serve as a warning to AKP and all those who are toying with the idea “Islamizing” their countries. It is a slippery slope. Once you embarked on it, you go on sliding until you land in a pit from it is virtually impossible to get out —- unless, of course, another Ataturk comes along and pulls you out.

One last observation about Turks. It is summed up in a kind of stereotypic saying that I came across during my visit.

“If you hit a Turk ten times he will do nothing. If you hit him the eleventh time, he will kill you”.

This simply means don’t test a Turk’s patience too much.

Photos for this article were taken by the author himself.

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82 responses to “Turkey and Pakistan: Things they can learn from each other”

  1. Tee says:

    My Pakistani brothers and Turkish Kradeslar,

    I have lived bith in Pakistan and Turkey. It is amazing how identical our people, culture and habits are. I think that our neighbouring countries have a lot to do with how the history has taken its course and toll on us.

    Turkey is linked to Greece on one side and Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Syria on the other. Except for Iran, all these countries share the same Roman heritage and are fairly moderate and secular. Note that, communist threat had bothered both Pakistan and Turkey.

    Pakistan shares borders with morally corrupt and culturally backword India at one side while religiously fanatic Iran and politically torn Afghanistan on others.

    You see many times your geological situation also determines the course of society.

    I have been to school in Turkey and had Turks in my class in Pakistan. We are one and the same. If it were not for the British Raj in Pakistan and 1st world war, we probably would have been speaking the same language too.

    Pakistani Aukaab (Pakistani Falcons)
    Turk Kurtlar (Turk Wolves)

    Both fiercely independent, proud of their heritage and are uncontrollable…….. In other words, these are the nations that will survive to the end of times. (Insha-Allah)

  2. Yousuf says:

    My dear Turk and Pakistani brothers,

    To me Mustafa Atta Turk was a great person. It is due to him that Turkey has so far modernised. I am a Muslim but I fear so called Islamisation. Islamisation is itself no particular way to every Muslim. One Muslim practice something different than another Muslim. The first effect of Islamisation is that people of different Islamic sects start fighting with each other each trying to impose their own ideology on other sects. People of religion should be fully allowed to practice their religion and do not fight others because another person is from different sect.

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