"There are two Turkeys within Turkey right now," says Binnaz Toprak, a political science professor at Bosporus University.
In many ways, there have always been two Turkeys. This nation of 71 million straddles Europe and Asia, which helps explain some of the contradictions: It is a Muslim country with a secular government. It is part of the Middle East but also a longtime member of NATO, along with the U.S. and most of Western Europe.
Now, Turkey faces a choice: Should it turn its focus East, toward the Muslim world, or West, toward Europe? To some extent, the question may be decided for Turkey as the European Union (E.U.)an organization of 27 European nations that cooperate politically and economicallyconsiders Turkey's application for membership.
From the 14th to the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was the political and economic heart of the Muslim world. At its height, it ruled an area stretching across the Middle East and northern Africa, and into southeastern Europe. But in World War I, the Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany, and their defeat resulted in its collapse. That, in turn, allowed the victorious British and French to create many of the countries of the modern Middle East from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Modern Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
Ataturk's most significant change was the separation of mosque and state: Islamic law under the Ottomans was replaced with a secular system of government and constitution. Polygamy was outlawed, and in 1934, women gained the right to vote and hold public office.
Joining The Club?
But 80 years later, like many Middle Eastern countries, Turkey is experiencing an Islamic revival: The portion of Turks who identify themselves by their religion has increased to 46 percent this year, from 36 percent seven years ago, according to one survey. At the same time, public opinion of Europe and the United States has fallen sharply.
Perhaps the most powerful factor pushing Turks east has been the slow pace of talks on admission to the E.U., which would bring Turkey trade and other economic benefits. To help its application, Turkey enacted a series of reforms to bring its policies more in line with those in Europe: The death penalty was abolished, torture was outlawed, and women's rights and the rights of the Kurdish minority are now better protected.
Nevertheless, some Europeans remain opposed to Turkey joining their club. Some object to Turkey's history of human rights abuses; others worry about the security or cultural implications of more Muslim migrants, who would have easier access to Europe. In 2002, a former French President said Turkey's admission to the E.U. would mean "the end of Europe." As a Cardinal from Germany, Pope Benedict XVI said Turkey did not belong in the E.U. because it is Muslim. (On a recent visit, the Pope said he now supports Turkey's bid.)
"It hurts me that the E.U. expects Turkey to be something it's not," says Nilgun Yun, a stylish 26-year-old eating a muffin in an Istanbul café. Her position, shared by many of her friends, is simple: "Accept me as I am. We are Muslim, and we will remain Muslim. That's not going to change."
And in a Middle East riddled with repressive regimes, Turkey stands out as a lively democracy, so its acceptance by the West is being viewed as a test case by many. Namik Tan of Turkey's Foreign Ministry says other Muslim countries across the region are watching.
"Turkey is a beacon for those countries," he says. "Don't forget: If we fail, then the whole dream will fail."