There is an old Turkish saying, “Tell me who your friend is, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Turks today must be very confused about their identity. On the one hand they are ardent allies of Europe, Israel, and America. On the other, they remain firmly ensconced inside the mind-walls of the Islamic world.
Modern Turkey is a land of numerous nations and countless cultures where traditional Muslims occupy the countryside and pro-Europe urbanites inhabit the cities. Not to mention the Kurds, Jews, even a few Orthodox Christians. The only secular republic in the Islamic world, it suffers alienation of affection from both its Islamic co-religionists and mistrustful Europeans.
Now the Turks hope to take another step closer to her Western neighbors by joining the European Union. In October 2004, Turkey got the green light to begin negotiations for EU membership. Turkey is the largest, poorest country ever invited to start talks. And the most troubling. An overwhelming majority of Turks favor membership, but it will take at least a decade before Turkey can become a full-fledged member.
Ankara’s European supporters, like Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, believe Turkey is a model for other Muslim societies: a pro-Western republic with a secular multi-party democracy. Turkey’s EU candidacy, Straw said in a recent speech reported by the BBC, will be the “acid test” of whether people of different faiths and origins are doomed to remain divided or can be united by their universal values. Among Turkey’s supporters are Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Greece, the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and its biggest champion the UK. Greece has also promised to get on board once Turkey recognizes the Greek Cypriot government of Cyprus. Turkey steadfastly refuses to do so.
The U.S. discreetly supports Turkey’s bid, but considers it an internal issue of the EU. Like its European supporters, the Bush administration believes EU membership will create an even more stable and democratic Turkey. A recent editorial in the Economist agreed: “An ever closer partnership between Turkey and the European Union, culminating in full Turkish membership, can only be good for relations between Islam and the West. It will show that western nations have no insuperable prejudice against Islam — and it will confirm Turkey’s role as a nation whose Muslim heritage is fully compatible with democracy.”
IT ALL SOUNDS LOVELY, but supporters are taking on faith the notion that the Turkey that joins the EU a decade from now will be a much different Turkey, a born-again Turkey. Among the skeptics are the governments of Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, France and the Netherlands. The BBC reports that Dutch EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein has warned of the “Islamisation” of Europe if Turkey joins, noting that EU membership will in effect negate the defeat of the Ottoman Turks during the 1683 siege of Vienna.
Currently only about a quarter of Austrians favor Turkish integration into the EU. Besides the costs of integration, Austrians fear the inevitable wave of job-seeking immigrants and the eroding of traditional Christian values through multiculturalism. Likewise France expects Turkey to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian genocide before it begins EU negotiations. That’s not likely to happen.
Another concern is that Turkey is a ticking religious time bomb. Often the harder an Islamic country is pushed to secularize, the greater the fundamentalist reaction. Skeptics wonder what would happen if once inside the EU Turkey began to slide towards Islamic fanaticism or commenced suspending human rights. Of course, European countries could, conceivably, slide toward fascism or some totalitarian equivalent too, particularly if Muslim immigration continues and those immigrants include anti-Western, bomb-wielding, threat-making fanatics.
Opponents, meanwhile, point to a long shopping list of problems with Ankara. Today’s ruling Justice and Development Party government is essentially the lap dog of a military that has shown little tolerance for human rights or religious freedom. On the other hand a strong military may be needed to prevent an Iranian-like Islamic revolution. Not surprisingly, the military views current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a latent Islamist, not unlike the first Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan who was quickly forced from power in a 1997 coup.
Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights has blamed the current Turkish government for the “destruction of (Kurdish) homes, crops and livestock, extrajudicial execution and disappearances.” And Human Rights Watch notes that “just ten years ago torture was pandemic with deaths in custody running at about one a week. State forces committed extrajudicial executions and disappearances, or political killings through their proxies, almost daily. Security forces burned villages in intense conflict with the Kurdish Workers’ Party and in the early 1990s drove more than 380,000 Kurdish farmers out of their homes. Courts often branded writers or politicians, who mentioned Turkey’s minorities, as terrorists and imprisoned them.” Police torture remains common today, and most of the displaced Kurds remain just that — displaced.
European opposition is strongest from countries with large Muslim populations like Austria, France, and The Netherlands. It is also an unpleasant fact — but a fact nonetheless — that as Muslim immigration increases so does the popularity of far-right parties. (Recent high-profile murders, threats, and violent attacks by fanatical Muslims in the Netherlands and elsewhere have also been a boon for the far-right.) The free movement of labor is a basic EU principle, so Europe will have to brace for wide streams of Turkish immigrants.
But it is not just the influx of poor workers that concerns opponents, it is their belief systems too. And this has led to the inevitable charge of discrimination by Turks. Prime Minister Erdogan recently told the Economist that “If the EU has decided to be a Christian club rather than one of shared values, then let it say so now.” But Europe is not a Christian Club, but a collection of largely secular nations with similar traditions, values, and freedoms. Citizens of Mr. Straw’s homeland are less likely to believe in God than those in any other country, according to a recent BBC-commissioned global survey of religion. The World Almanac and Book of Facts notes that there are between 23 million and 40 million atheists in Europe. And Europeans guard their secularism jealously. Muslims, however, are notorious for ignoring the line between Church and State. Indeed to many Muslims there is no line. The Sharia is the law and Allah is the ruler. Period.
There is another yet Turkish saying that may be apropos: “What a man is at seven is also what he is at seventy.” One reason the military suspects Erdogan of latent Islamicism is that just a few years ago the Prime Minister planned to take the retro-medieval step of criminalizing adultery. After this sparked criticism from the EU and would-be Turkish homewreckers, Erdogan backed off. Such flip-flops reinforce suspicions that Turkey will say or do anything to gain membership, but will not fundamentally change its ideology.
Critics also charge that legal reforms, such as allowing prisoners legal counsel, were not enacted until the EU recognized Turkey as viable candidate in 1999, though reports persist that prisoners continue to be refused legal aid. And even when torture cases do go to court, which is not very often, few result in convictions.
THE TURKISH GOVERNMENT IS ALSO widely criticized for providing lip service regarding the issue of displaced Kurds, while most remain crowded into urban slums, discouraged from returning home by a brutal village guard corps. Many Kurdish villages continue to lack medical facilities, schools, electricity and phones, things they had prior to 1990, but were destroyed or torn up by the Turkish army.
Similarly, the Turkish government is often accused of interfering with academic freedom, particularly through its military-created Higher Education Council that keeps a close eye on what professors write and say, while the military’s ban on headscarves keeps most women out of the universities. (Human Rights Watch argues that the state should neither require nor ban religious symbols or dress in universities.) The government counters that it only wants to protect women who choose not to wear the scarf, and in this way protects the public order, and that giving in on the headscarf ban will lead to more demands by religious parties until secularism is all but eliminated. It is hard to say who is right, but the overriding concern must be that Turkish women are able to make their own choice whether to wear the headscarf.
Eighty-two years have passed since Ataturk created the modern democratic Turkey. Mr. Straw and his supporters say that this is proof that Turkey is a legitimate European partner, one that respects democratic principles and “universal values.” But it is only recently that religious fundamentalism and fanaticism of the Iranian, Jihadian, Talibanian variety have come into being and developed a popular and radical following. Many Muslims insist that Turkey is a traitor to Islam, one that has chosen wealth and power over religion. And Ataturk remains reviled by many fundamentalist Muslims who abhor the separation of church and state. Europe, for many Muslim fanatics, remains synonymous with Christianity, and is thus the breading ground for heresy. Indeed until the modern era, Muslims were strictly forbidden to visit Europe, and the ban was later lifted only as a way of acquiring military and technological secrets. So far the military has kept a lid on jihadism, but once the EU puts a muzzle on the army, all bets are off.
Meanwhile the French government is considering putting the Turkish question before the French voters in a referendum. Austria and the Netherlands may do the same. France is also floating the possibility of a third-way for Turkey, which would mean not quite full EU membership, something Ankara flatly rejects.
Throughout modern history Turkey has been given the unflattering epithet of the “sick man of Europe.” Today much of Europe seems to think she is out of danger, if not well down the road to recovery. Some may want a second opinion.
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