PARIS, July 27 -- Returning to Paris recently after three days in Istanbul felt similar to being back in the dying part of Cleveland after three days in the Silicon Valley. I've always liked Turkey -- seems part of my Greek family dwelled in Izmir at some point -- its secularism and its francophilia (Kemal Ataturk, the country's modern father, got rid of all the Arabic words in Turkish and replaced them with eight thousand French-sounding ones). In recent years, though, I've felt this affection for the place grow into passion.
If I were to take a friend from another galaxy to a place on earth in the hope of showing them in a glimpse where humanity stands, there's a fair chance I'd take him/her/it there.
At once Asian and European (people in Istanbul love to say they were in Asia when late for dinner) this place is three thousand years of rich history past and, by the looks of it, at least a good thousand more to come. The reasons for the current optimism are myriad: a vibrant economy delivering 11% growth this last trimester -- hard to recall the recent times when the country represented over half the IMF's budget -- a sound banking system, a promising industry, a highly educated workforce, natural resources galore and, last but not least, a booming national airline with direct flights to pretty much every significant economy on earth.
Istanbul, like Turkey, is then, it is now and tomorrow too; it is here, there and elsewhere at once. I had not planned my time along the shores of the Bosphorus. Yet by some magical feat, one encounter kept leading to another and, in the course of three days, I met some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs, the most sophisticated (Ottoman in this case) citizens of the world, the sharpest intellectuals I have come across in 2011.
So what about the elephant in the room? The question of Turkey's European Union membership and the related friction. European politicians, lacking vision, won't cease anytime soon to cater to the basest, most chauvinistic instincts of their electorates by declaring this secular country's eighty million Muslims unfit to become part of Europe. The fact is, though, without its demography, the chances Europe does not become in the next decades what Italy has in the past few are simply nil. A place where you taste the most amazing cuisine and wine the world has to offer, where you visit the most impressive collections of masterpieces in museums and churches, a place where you can fully appreciate the meaning of the terms architecture, lifestyle, fashion... until you pack up your bags and go back to the real world.
On the other hand, the leaders of Turkey, once seemingly keen on EU accession, perhaps wounded in their self-esteem by Sarkozy and Merkel's rebuffades (if the goal of EU accession wasn't from the start just an excuse for the Islamic party, in power since 2001, to neutralize an army that has been the historical guardian of secularism in the country and which now seems emasculated, as the resignation of several generals has just shown) seem to now deem it irrelevant. In so doing they overlook the fact that many of the Middle Eastern and Central Asian neighbors who are courting them most enthusiastically these days see them not just as an El Dorado in itself but as a gateway to what remains, to this day, the world's largest economy - the Eurozone -- and the world's most important axis of trade -- the North Atlantic.
Still, the most potent impression I bring back from Istanbul has to do with far more than just Turkey. Despite our compulsive habit of using meaningless acronyms -- often elaborated essentially to promote the institutions whose economists coin them -- to categorize countries, we are missing out on the single most important story of our time: for the first time in five hundred years white males over fifty from Western Europe and North America are not alone calling the shots on this planet...
Not enough is done to chronicle this massive change, putting in perspective Asia's growing need for more soul (Atlantic-style) and how Europe and America are doomed without a rejuvenated version of the work ethic close to Max Weber's heart, whether protestant or, as the old continent is slowly discovering exists, not.
While, like Turkey, much of what we like to call "the emerging world" has long emerged, ours are definitely emerging times...
Felix Marquardt blogs at Feleaks.com