THIS past year was indeed a very turbulent one. The year started with not one but several loud “bangs,” primarily from Europe where blatant terrorist acts in public spaces took a sad and heavy toll. Unfortunately, these despicable acts came calling again over the past week, as terrorism again swept through Europe on the same day. Throughout the year, as if to shamelessly remind the world of their callous existence, terrorists carried many wanton acts of violence involving innocent bystanders from not only Europe, but also America and even the Philippines, underscoring the importance of transnational cooperation in nipping terrorism in the bud.
Turkey, which straddles Asia and Europe, was especially hard hit. Istanbul airport was senselessly bombed in the middle of the year, jarring the image of an otherwise peaceful multicultural city. A few months later, a failed military coup took place, resuscitating the ghost of Turkey’s military-ruled past. And just last week, the Russian ambassador to Turkey was gunned down by one of the guards assigned to protect him. The grisly images were both worrying and horrifying.
Indeed, Turkey is a country with a glorious past. Its modern founding father, Kemal Ataturk, wisely “shaped” the country he formed from the fragments of the Ottoman Empire to be a resolutely secular and Western-oriented one. It would be harsh and unfair to criticize the Turkey of recent years as having betrayed Ataturk’s farsighted vision. But the obvious attempts by some power-that-be to turn away from an otherwise strictly and proactively secular society to a religiously inspired and oriented one, is disappointing to say the least. In remains to be seen how such increasingly religious trends would jibe with Turkey’s bid to join the supposedly secular European Union. But the EU itself too, as will be discussed here, has perhaps bigger internal concerns to sort out.
I was attending an international conference last month when I met a delegate from Turkey. Polite and urbane, he cheerfully and unhesitatingly gulped down his glass of wine. Encouraged by this (to me) heartwarming sight, I couldn’t help but observe to him, “Your country is really a model of secularism!” Well, this gentleman who appeared to be from the elite of his country answered in all seriousness: “I know what you are trying to imply. But frankly, the increasingly non-secularizing trends in your country is also a reverse role model for some of my countrymen, and this is a fact which worries a lot of us in the more progressive circles, that we could one day evolve into a society just like yours!” I was dumbfounded for a few moments by these very to-the-point remarks. I was in a sense trying to empathize with the resilience of his country in the face of so many recent challenges, but he was actually sympathizing with me. So much for looking into the mirror before talking to others.
If we crisscross the European continent and traverse the English Channel to the United Kingdom, we can’t help but be reminded of the British electorate’s close-shaved decision in a referendum in the middle of this past year to leave the EU. It was a ground-shaking decision. The EU’s greatest challenge is perhaps well enshrined in its supremely lofty end goal, that is, to build “an ever-closer union”. To reach such a union necessarily entails the various EU member states ceding (as opposed, for example, to devolving) an ever-greater share of public and private powers hitherto considered sacrosanct sovereign concerns, to the EU headquarters in Brussels.
To those EU member states which are perhaps still dependent on EU assistance, this sort of cession is perhaps part and parcel of the uneasy compromises or reluctant deals between themselves and the EU. But to a longstanding worldwide trading and business empire such as the UK, which has in many cases even molded and defined the international standards in commerce and other fields, being subject to instructions from Brussels on their public and private affairs which they hold dear is, to say the least, unprecedented. When coupled with having to shoulder the financial and other burdens “apportioned” by Brussels, which they considered undue or unfair, it was not surprising that a majority of the British electorate chose to part ways with the EU.
And then there is The Donald, if we cross the Atlantic Ocean further. The election of Donald Trump as the next American president was of course not the harbinger of the apocalypse. Granted, Trump is “blessed” with a loud mouth, and may not meet the traditional expectations of an American president. But first and foremost, Trump is a pragmatist; he would not enter into what he perceives to be a losing deal, but he would be willing to deal and negotiate. And in the coming days, if not years, relatively less hostile wheeling and dealing would hopefully be the main game between the superpowers, not least in our part of the world.