Debate on Turkey's EU Accession

Europe: A Common Dream?

When Turkey started to get closer to European criteria for democracy, the arguments against Turkish membership in Europe became expressed in offensive tones, to the surprise of the Turkish pro-European democrats. By Nilüfer Göle

Nilüfer Göle (photo: CADIS)
Nilüfer Göle: Turkey serves as the "other" for the redefinition of European identity

​​The opening of talks with Turkey marks an important date, but it brings to an end neither the public debate nor the process of integration that will take decades. One should notice therefore that an important shift has occurred in European politics and transferred the power of decision-makers to that of opinion-makers. The issues related to the European Union were mainly in the hands of Eurocrats and, once resolved in Brussels, these issues moved to national contexts and became part of a public debate. The idea of a popular sovereignty that is extended and juxtaposed from nation-State politics to the European Union illustrates this shift.

The idea of a democratic Europe came to mean building Europe from below, with the foremost the necessity of consulting people, and therefore a consensus on the need for referendums, whether to vote for the European Constitution or for Turkish membership. The idea of a referendum on Turkey, as one could expect, is mostly defended by opponents to Turkish candidacy, counting on the popular vote to reject it in ten years' time.

Opening up of democratic space

Yet ten years' time seems sufficiently long to Turks. They believe they can transform in the meantime their societies accordingly. In ten years' time, according to some democrat intellectuals, Turkey will achieve the level of democratic stability and the eventual rejection of Turkey by referendums in the European countries will not matter and have no drastic effect. The presence of a European perspective would have fulfilled its role. Such an argument might sound optimistic or a way to de-dramatize the European anti-Turkish attitudes, but it illustrates also the confidence of Turkish intellectuals in the dynamics of the European perspective in Turkey, already at work.

The European perspective forced Turkey to reform the republican definitions of citizenship. Turkish republicanism as the nation-state ideology has been founded on two pillars: namely, authoritative secularism and assimilative nationalism. For democratization, a need exists to create a consensual "secularism" and not an exclusionary, authoritarian one, backed up only with military power.

In spite of the ongoing cleavages and conflicts between hard-line Islamists and the secularist establishment, one can witness that Turkish society has experienced, especially during the last two decades, a "fall of the wall" that has separated and divided two Turkeys; one composed of educated urban and Western-looking secularist upper- and middle-classes (labeled in the conversations "white Turks") and the other faith-driven lower-middle classes (labeled "black Turks") originating from Anatolian towns.

The course of upward social mobility changed the life-trajectories of many of those belonging to the latter group (turned them into "grey," meaning partially whitened), who have had access to higher education in the 1960s with emigration to urban cities, profited from new market opportunities that expanded in the 1980s, and invested in the avenues of political power since the electoral victory of the Party of Justice and Development.

Opening up of a democratic space

The thinning of the wall between two faces of Turkey brought different publics and cultural codes into close contact and interaction, albeit with intense conflict, yet this contact transformed the mutual conceptions of Muslim and secular publics and limited the claims to hegemony of the latter.

This was made possible by the opening up of a democratic space, shared both by religious and secular, the first giving up the absolutism of the religious truth-regime and the latter giving up its claims to hegemony over the society. That the party of Justice and Development, the AK party, who had Islamic roots, won the November 2002 general elections by democratic means and came to power in Turkey is an outcome of this process of interaction.

The democratic sphere gained a momentum to the extent that the polarization between the secularist establishment and Islamist radicals was played down, leading to an intermediary space of debate and representation. The European perspective reinforced the democratic momentum and created a new political agenda of reform, a "common dream." The mobilization of human rights movements in civil society, the formation of a public opinion in favor of these reforms, and the determination of the government and the political classes all culminated in a series of reforms that were passed by the parliamentary vote during the course of 2002-2003 in order to harmonize the Turkish legal system with what are called by the European Union the Copenhagen criteria.

Turkey first country to have abolished death penalty

One major example of these reforms is the abolition of the death penalty. The Turkish Parliament voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty (August 2, 2002), a first in a Muslim country. The repercussions it had for Turkey were far more than expressing the desire to embrace European values or just pleasing Europeans, as cynical observers would think. At the time the death penalty was discussed, the leader of the Kurdish movement (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, was in prison under the death sentence.

In spite of the nationalists' objections, the law passed in the Parliament with the help of those who argued in favor of abolishing capital punishment, including the sentence passed on Öcalan, and of the recognition of Kurdish rights in Turkey.

It was meant to be a victory of reformists against nationalists in questioning the hegemony of Turkish nationalism in definitions of citizenship. The Turkish skeptics in Europe dismissed these reforms that they had considered on "paper" and as "cosmetic," meaning superficial and merely done for strategies of seduction.

The "Armenian question"

Apart from the Islamist issue and the Kurdish one, the Armenian question still remains a major taboo for Turkish nationalism. The official view of the past is based on the suppression and denial of the 1915 genocide that created a sort of short-memory and diffused amnesia about the past for the generations of the Republic.

One question is how to remember the past and the second is to develop and express points of view that are independent of the official one. The choice of words to label the events, whether it is "deportation," "ethnic cleansing," "massacres," or "genocide" is becoming a battle ground for the public debate that begins.

The debate is initiated by few Turkish intellectuals, historians, including those of the Armenian community who challenged the ideological version of the events, defying the taboos of Turkish nationalism and exploring new ways of relating to the emotional trauma of Armenians and developing a new narrative on the historical past, albeit under the pressures of nationalist forces and juridical intimidation.

The Istanbul Conference

In that respect, the Istanbul Conference signaled a new period in opening up a new mental and discursive space. The conference brought together Turkish historians who wanted to pursue a free discussion on the Armenian past of Turkey, in spite of the pressures and postponement, which was at last held at Bilgi University in September 2005. It marked a collective effort to break away from the official discourse and to confront Turkish nationalism with its own past.

I am not referring to a problem-free society but on the contrary attempt to illustrate the ways in which Turkish society names and debate the problems, trying to bring into public awareness those subjects that were kept out of sight, repressed, or forgotten. The crimes of honor and women's rights issues follow the same political pattern; that is, it is with the help of feminist organizations that the issue is brought into public attention and new legislation is called for in favor of women's rights.

It is rather the "way" of politicizing the issues, carrying them from silenced arenas (silenced whether by shame or repression) and giving them a plurality of voice and visibility in the public sphere that points to the existence of a democratic pattern that we can call the "European way."

Europe: an identity or a project?

The presence of a European perspective works in Turkey against the fixity of identities whether they are defined in national or religious terms. Embracing the European project means for Turks the dismantling of identity knots, the ones that create obstacles for establishing peace and pluralism.

It can seem paradoxical to note that when Turkey started to get closer to European criteria for democracy, the arguments against Turkish membership in Europe became articulated and expressed in offensive, not to say aggressive, tones, to the surprise of the Turkish pro-European democrats. In other words, the debate started when the Turkish file grew thinner, that is when Turkey has started, as observers would put it, "to do her homework," to resolve some of the problems in her file and hence become eligible for European membership.

Turkish membership triggered an anxiety of identity loss and a desire for boundary maintenance for European publics. The question of geographic frontiers, civilisational belongings, religious differences, past memories, were all themes that entered into the debate as a constellation of insurmountable differences and set a new agenda.

Europe's universalism

Throughout these debates, Europe was constructed as an identity defined by shared history and common cultural values rather than as a project for the future.

It is in contexts outside the core countries of Europe (for instance in Spain, Portugal and Greece) that Europe appears as a project and has the power of induction of democratization. In Turkey, where Europeanness is not part of a "natural" historical legacy, Europe is appropriated voluntarily as a political project, as a perspective, promising a democratic frame for rethinking commonness and difference.

Turkish candidacy reveals the non-equation between European identity and the European project. For the European countries there is not difference but continuity between the two: the European Union is the European identity (including Christianity) written large. Turkish candidacy, perceived as a threat, reinforces the quest of identity preservation and boundary maintenance. But the very richness of the European past and heritage turns against themselves, against its claims for universalism, as Europe develops a fixation on identity and hence an obstacle to creating a "common" dream, a common project.

Nilüfer Göle

© Nilüfer Göle 2005

Nilüfer Göle is a professor of sociology at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. She is the author of Interpenetrations: L'Islam et l'Europe," Paris: publisher Galaade, 2005; Islam in Sicht, Der Auftritt von Muslimen im öffentlichen Raum, eds. Nilüfer Göle et Ludwig Amman, global-local Islam, transcript, Septembre 2004;and The Forbidden Modern (Veiling and Civilization in Turkey), University of Michigan, 1996.

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