Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammed: Lessons for us all in the Magnificent meritocracy

Flags of Turkey, left, and the European Union fly over in Istanbul in 2005. Picture: AP
Flags of Turkey, left, and the European Union fly over in Istanbul in 2005. Picture: AP
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WHEN I travelled to Istanbul for a conference recently I was eager to see just how much it had changed, having lived there for a number of years in the early nineties.

When I left back then, the elected government was about to be overthrown in a coup d’état, with the military determined to preserve the privileges of the ruling class.

Society was at an awkward crossroads, torn between the desire to be accepted by Europe and its natural impulse to reconnect with its past. As far as social mobility was concerned, it wasn’t what you knew that counted so much as who you knew.

As I mixed and conversed with people over endless cups of sweet tea, it quickly became apparent how much had changed and the degree to which the country, having resolved major questions of identity and belonging, is at ease with itself again. Within a generation, it has rediscovered the power which personal empowerment can achieve and is reaping the benefits, both socially and economically.

Being a country that straddles two continents and cultures, Turkey has its fair share of contradictions and anomalies. While increasing numbers of visitors experience the country through prefabricated hotels that line the sun-kissed coastline of the Mediterranean, its history and culture is preserved in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople.

If the sixteenth century Flemish diplomat and writer De Busbecq returned to Istanbul today he would find enormous changes. For a start, the Ottoman empire, one of the most enduring in the common Christian era, is long gone – the victim of its own search for artificial longevity. Islam is no longer the state religion, replaced by a personality cult built around Ataturk, the founder of modern day Turkey.

When De Busbecq wrote on the customs and norms of Turkish society during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, it was at the height of its power. One thing that he recorded at length was the degree to which the Ottomans had succeeded in creating a working meritocracy, at odds with his own experience in Europe. As he observed: “The Sultan himself assigns all to their duties and offices, and in doing so pays no attention to wealth or the empty claims of rank, and takes no account of any influence or popularity which a candidate may possess; he only considers merit and scrutinizes the character, natural ability, and disposition of each ... Those who hold the highest posts are very often the sons of shepherds and herdsmen, and so far from being ashamed of their birth, they make it a subject of boasting.”

Today in Turkey, the sons of provincial farmers head multi-nationals and lecture at its most prestigious universities, something that would have been rare only a generation ago. Talent and hard work is rewarded by immediate recognition. A friend of mine, Ahmed, is a perfect example of this.

The son of a factory worker in rural Turkey, he attends one of the most prestigious English-speaking universities in Istanbul. Today Ahmed is the rule rather than the exception. De Busbecq would no doubt note that social mobility, the secret to the Ottoman empire’s success, is alive and well in modern day Turkey.

History has seen few real meritocracies and when they did exist they quickly succumbed to powerful vested interests. In many ways creating a true meritocracy is the holy grail of economic and social prosperity as it is the ultimate call to take destiny into ones own hands.

Here in Scotland, our own news agenda is perpetually saturated with the fallout from entrenched power structures, be they economic, political or religious, insisting on retaining the power of privilege. Perhaps loosening their grip on power will allow these vital engines of human civilization to again flourish.

Scottish, like Turkish society, is itself living through historic changes and those that have taken place over the past generation will no doubt pale into insignificance when compared to those in the next. Scotland may aim to be a meritocracy, but it is the degree to which it succeeds that will in many ways determine its continued vitality as a nation.

• Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammed is co-founder of the Solas Foundation