Istanbul: A glimpse into what can be accomplished
At Istanbul airport Hajis in traditional white robes fit in just as much as teenagers in skinny jeans and sneakers.
On a recent assignment, I had a few hours layover in Istanbul, en route to Pakistan. The human landscape at Ataturk Airport was thought-provoking. Over the past decade, Istanbul has been making rapid progress towards affirming its position as a modern-day international crossroads. A great place to witness this is at the city’s main airport, where you can spot people from all parts of the world and many different backgrounds. One pleasing aspect of this is that this melting pot is to be found in a country with a majority Muslim population.
At the airport, Hajis in traditional white robes fit in just as much as young people in skinny jeans and sneakers. There is a mosque and ablution facilities for those who wish to pray, and high-end stores for those who wish to shop between flights. One could always do both, of course.
For those curious, observing this cultural milieu raises an interesting question, are modern societies of a predominantly Islamic character capable of developing to a point where they become of central importance to the global economy, attracting multi-ethnic visitors through commerce, logistics, tourism, and financial services?
Can new urban centres from the East rise again to assert their place on the world’s newly emerging mercantile routes?
To some extent, this has been done in Dubai. However, while Dubai’s achievements are highly significant, they are at times accompanied by a sense of artificiality.
The central point here is that what is required within countries of the Islamic world are not exclusive zones which function inclusively, but rather the genuine and organic progression of economic and social structures, civic sense, and the rule of law, allowing them to contribute enthusiastically to new patterns of trade and travel being catalysed by globalisation.
Additionally, in countries where Islam is used as the basis for arguing against openness, there is a need for counter-narratives to emerge - ones which advocate for humane development using a language that can be absorbed by conservative populations, and at times, even by working with Islamic injunctions.
Istanbul in modern Turkey, with its secular tradition (though not without its own significant challenges), growing economy, high literacy, and relative stability, does allow us a glimpse of what is possible if countries from within the Islamic world were to become more inclusive and tolerant.
Is this shift possible amongst a wider group of countries, some would ask, pointing towards Pakistan and other usual suspects on the list of supposedly unfriendly geographies. Yes, it is, in the long term. The important question is how best can such a reform agenda be initiated and actualised?
The development of this agenda demands reflection upon the present economic and social trajectory of these countries, and its realignment with a vision aimed at attaining economic prosperity without compromising on social virtues that such societies possess due to certain of their inclusive and communal traditions.
The execution of this agenda requires political will backed by contextualised technocratic expertise.
Furthermore, contextualised here means to have a thorough understanding of local political economies underpinned by an appreciation of the history of the operative landscape. The likelihood of this political will emerging in countries, whose citizens choose to dispassionately wait for it to, is low.
Rather, it has to be catalysed by the emergence of new partnerships between progressive individuals and institutions from countries of Islamic hue. These partnerships must include elements from civil society, academia, and the private and public sectors.
Civil society and academia can play a leading facilitative role, building trust and piloting economic and social programmes which can show results, stimulating larger, sustainable partnerships amongst private and public actors.
Such societies, with greater internal harmony and confidence in their own identities, will be able to embrace the world with openness, and add to its vitality.