Notes from Istanbul: Oil-based wealth gap buoys extremists

You have to walk in the shoes of a Turk to understand why America’s reputation is spinning sand where we need full traction in the war against terror.

The average income in Turkey is slightly more than $8,000. But in forward-leaning cities like Istanbul, signs of wealth are everywhere.

Real-estate prices resemble those of U.S. coastal cities.

The streets of Istanbul teem with young Muslims, people who look just like anyone else you know, with the same aspirations of material comfort and happiness.

When the loudspeakers on the minarets call the faithful to prayer, no one rushes from the teahouse or sweet shop to the mosque.

It is easy to see why the people of Istanbul are skeptical of war.Its lessons are woven into the history of the place.

Rivers of blood accompanied the change of each temple from ancient Greece to Christian church to mosque. Constantinople was renamed Byzantium before it was ever called Istanbul.

There are a thousand minarets in Istanbul, but millions of satellite TV dishes reach to the sky.

Here is the point: Istanbul does not suffer from radical Muslim clerics. It suffers from the costs of growth.

There are an increasing number of mega-cities like Istanbul that are overwhelmed by growth: We would do well to understand the consequences.

In the United States — Florida is a prime example — people complain how growth has overwhelmed our roadways, schools, and environment.

Though we are outraged, angry and even divided about those costs, private corporations supported by our public institutions reliably deliver essential goods and services, or, at least we are convinced they do.

The same is not true, at all, in Muslim states that are struggling to modernize at the same time population is exploding.

The English-language Turkish Daily News recently reported of its industrial pollution, “No one knows how the waste can be prevented from posing a threat to public health. No one can say the precautions taken by the Environment Ministry and the municipalities on this issue are enough to stop the continuation of such illegal acts.”

In a past interview, the Turkish environment minister said the cost of bringing the nation’s infrastructure to European Union standards for the environment is more than $90 billion.

And so, to walk in the shoes of one of 10 million people in Istanbul, is to experience on one side visions of sugar-plum fairies — the appetites of a consumer culture based on Western standards — and on another side, the costs of growth for which developed nations, like the United States, appear to be immune.

Walking in the shoes of a Turk means to believe in the benefits of a secular Muslim nation but also to feel tugs of empathy for poor Muslims in the latest round of hatred and violence in neighboring nations.

I suspect it is a very small number of Turks willing to embrace the lies of anarchists such as al-Qaeda.

But if radical Muslims are exploiting the great divide with the West, from its side of the bridge the United States is reinforcing the divide.

And that is how the Turks see it today.

I don’t believe a single Turk thinks the war in Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction.

It was about oil. Oil money is pouring into Istanbul. It is the lubricant for the exploding, unabsorbed costs of growth.

In Muslim nations that possess oil reserves, modernity has been grafted onto those places and people by sheer accommodation of wealth.

Other nations, such as Turkey, that don’t have oil but are also Muslim are slowly being buried under the costs of growth we might recognize, if we look hard enough.

Until the United States begins to address these costs — the chief of which is turning out to be global warming caused by the consumption of oil and fossil fuels — our influence with secular, moderate Muslim nations like Turkey will rely increasingly on military power. It will never be enough.

America desperately needs moderate Muslim nations to convince their own people that the solution of enmity in the Mideast is not a place — Jerusalem.

In Istanbul, the restoration of balance has never been in destruction but only in the equitable distribution of wealth at reasonable and sustainable costs to quality of life.

Today, and every day, an armada of oil tankers slides across the Bosphorus, back and forth like floating hypodermic needles, ceaseless as the tides.

Until we show the Arab world that we have alternatives to power based on an energy supply that threatens international security, soldiers of the United States will be spinning and spitting sand in places where suicide bombers believe they are sitting at the hand of God.

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