For a Post-Cultural Europe

The Need for a Discursive Shift

Ayhan Kaya, Turkish political scientist and head of the Centres for Migration Research and European Studies at Istanbul's Bilgi University, explains why we should stop talking about civilizations and religion when discussing Turkey's role in Europe and the world

Erdogan and Zapatero at the Alliance of Civilizations Forum in Istanbul (photo: United Nations)
The UN confirmed Turkey's role as a mediator between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds by inviting the Turkish and Spanish prime ministers, Erdogan and Zapatero, to launch the Alliance of Civilizations initiative

​​ This piece has been written against the backdrop of sometimes heated discussions about Turkey's membership of the European Union in both Turkey and EU member states, as well as some political unrest in Turkey and neighbouring countries. However, Turkey has been reaping the benefits of its own relatively quiet revolution over the last decade, which has witnessed a transformation of its economic, political, and judicial environment.

Given the nature of today's media and communications, changes and discussions - whether positive or negative - impact on both majority and minority communities in Turkey and across Europe, including migrant communities living in the EU. The major catalyst for much of this change was the Helsinki Summit of December 1999, when European Heads of State and Government offered Turkey the concrete prospect of full membership of the European Union, four decades after its application for association with the European Economic Community in July 1959 and just two years after the EU had rejected Turkey's application for membership during the 1997 Luxemburg Summit.

The prospect of EU membership offered in Helsinki has radically transformed the political establishment in Turkey, opening up new prospects for a multitude of ethnic, religious, social, and political groups. Kurds, Alevis, Islamists, Circassians, Armenians, and other groups have become true advocates of the European Union in a way that affirms the pillars of the political union as a project for peace and integration.

The EU provides an incentive for such groups to coexist in harmony, moving from a stance dominated by a retrospective past, coloured by ideological and political disagreements, to an environment in which ethnic, religious, and cultural differences are democratically embraced as part of a prospective future. The EU as a "peace project", which has been able to settle deep-rooted animosity between Germany and France and, more recently, between Germany and Poland, is now debated in the Turkish media, with the EU being characterised not only as a peace-making political union, but also one that exports peace.

The vision of "Europeanization" for Turkey was also welcomed not only by Greece but also by other neighbours such as Syria, Iraq, Georgia, Armenia, and Bulgaria. Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and North African countries also expressed their support for Turkey's accession to the union. European Union vision has then provided Turkey with a chance to be a source of stability in the region. In other words, the EU became a lighthouse for Turkey, enlightening its road towards democratization, liberalization, and Europeanization.

Virtuous Cycle

Turkish generals (photo: AP)
A number of political reforms have been introduced such as the limitation of military control and influence on the judiciary, education, and the media

​​ The 1999 Helsinki Summit decision also stimulated a stream of reforms in Turkey, designed to fulfil the Copenhagen EU membership criteria. In fact, the country achieved more reforms in the two or so years after Helsinki than during the whole of the previous decade, including the right to broadcast in one's mother tongue; freedom of association; the limitation of military control and influence on the judiciary, education, budgetary decisions and the media; the extension of civil rights to officially recognized minorities (Armenians, Jews, and Greeks); the reformation of the Penal Code; the abolition of the death penalty; the release of political prisoners; the abolition of torture by the security forces; and greater protection for the press. Furthermore, strict anti-inflationist economic policies have been successfully enforced in accordance with International Monetary Fund directives, institutional transparency and liberalism have been endorsed, formal nationalism and minority nationalism have been precluded, and socio-economic disparities between regions have been dealt with.

The prospect of EU membership has also provided the Turkish public with an opportunity to come to terms with its own past, a sort of Turkish Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Two widely debated conferences on the "Ottoman Armenians during the Demise of the Empire" and the "Kurdish Question" were organized at Istanbul's Bilgi University in September 2005 and March 2006 respectively, paving the way for public discussion of two subjects that had hitherto been taboo in contemporary Turkish history.

These and other conferences, and indeed the very fact that such conferences could be organized in contemporary Turkey without encountering major public intervention, bear witness to an increasing acceptance of diversity. This transformation corresponds to a discursive shift, which officially recognizes Turkey as a multicultural country. That is to say that multiculturalism is no longer just a phenomenon in Turkey; it is also an officially recognized legal and political fact.

Nevertheless, despite these encouraging signs, much remains to be done in Turkey, and laws that have been passed need to be implemented. Outside and indeed inside Turkey, the debate regarding Turkey's EU membership continues. Within EU member states, both the political establishment and the general public are aware of the fact that Turkey's membership of the union will further stimulate discussions about "European identity" and "the limits of Europe".

Some recent debates have disfavoured Turkey's membership on account of its size, overwhelmingly Muslim population, and socio-economic conditions, which are below the European average, while other arguments emphasize Turkey's undemocratic and patrimonial political culture. Nobody can deny the fact that it will be difficult for the union to absorb Turkey in the short term. However, a more constructive discourse needs to be generated with regard to Turkey's full membership in order to revitalize one of the fundamental tenets of the European Union, that of "a peace project".

Vicious Cycle

Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: AP)
Erdogan hopes that positioning Turkey as a model for other Muslims states will enhance the country's prospects of being integrated into the European Union

​​ From 17 December 2004 to 3 October 2005, when EU state and national government leaders decided to start negotiations with Turkey, tensions began to rise between nationalist, patriotic, statist, and pro-status-quo groups on the one hand and pro-EU groups on the other. This was the time when the "virtuous cycle" of the period between 1999 and 2005 was replaced with the "vicious cycle" starting in late 2005. A new nationalist wave embraced the country, especially among middle-class and upper middle-class groups.

The electoral cycle of presidential and general elections, witnessed militarist, nationalist, and Eurosceptic aspirations coupled with rising violence and terror in the country. The fight between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the other statist political parties, backed by the army, crystallized during the presidential election in May 2007. The AKP had nominated the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdullah Gül, as presidential candidate, but Mr Gül did not fit the expectations of Turkey's traditional political and military establishment and he failed to reach the required two-thirds majority in the assembly sitting. This failure was the result of the fact that the presidential post has a rather symbolic importance in Turkey since it was first occupied by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. However, the establishment argued that, as someone with pro-Islamist values and a wife who wears a headscarf, Mr Gül was inappropriate for the office of president.

The conflict even led to military intervention in politics on 27 April 2007, an intervention notoriously labelled "e-intervention" because of the way it was announced on the web page of the chief of staff. However, the nationalist and militarist alliance against the AKP was unsuccessful in the general election and on 22 July 2007 the party won a landslide victory, with 47 per cent of the votes cast. Following the elections, Abdullah Gül was also elected president.

It could simply be concluded that, instead of heeding the nationalist and militarist electoral campaigns, based on a parochial, local, anti-global, and anti-European discourse that aimed for "nationalist closure", the Turks opted for Europeanization, globalization, stability, and progress. However, this time the EU was not a lighthouse for Turkey. This is why the political divide present at the top of the Turkish state is now being turned into a social divide between moderate Islamists and secular fundamentalists, involving a wide variety of political and non-political actors such as the political parties, parliament, judiciary, army, academia, non-governmental organizations, media, and business circles.

The social and political divide in Turkey has both internal and external sources. The divide actually seems to have economic reasons as the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has so far represented the interests of newly emerging rural, conservative middle class, who are competing against the established urban middle and upper middle classes.

The divide also springs from the fact that the legitimate political centre is now accessible to several social groups including not only secularists, republicans, Kemalists, and liberal business circles but also Muslims, Kurds, conservative business circles, and several other groups. International sources of the divide are namely the internal crisis of the European Union, its enlargement fatigue, ongoing instability in the Middle East, changing American interests in the region, the rise of political Islam as a reaction to the ongoing Islamophobia in the world, and the global evocative ascendancy of civilizationist/culturalist/religious discourse.

Clash of Civilizations v Alliance of Civilizations

It is actually very interesting to see that the Turkish electorate has become more politically attracted to the pro-Islamist AKP at a time when civilizationist and religious discourse has become very popular at global level. The timing of Turkey's European bid partly coincided with the aftermath of 9/11 when Turkey started to become instrumentalized by the USA and the EU as a model for Muslim nations because of its orientation to moderate Islam. Turkey was portrayed as a bridge not only between continents but also between civilizations.

The moderate Islamic state of Turkey was praised by western countries in a way that also embraced the pro-Islamist ruling party in Turkey. The instrumentalization of Turkey as a model for other Muslim countries was also welcomed by the Turkish political elite. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several other politicians and academics played with this new role, expecting it to bring Turkey into a more favourable position in the European integration process.

Turkey's role as a mediator between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world was also accredited by the United Nations as Erdogan and the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, were appointed by the UN to launch the Alliance of Civilizations initiative.

However, the efforts of the Turkish prime minister and the United Nations would appear to have failed. The Alliance of Civilizations paradigm has so far implicitly underlined that civilizations, religions, and cultures have fixed boundaries and that they are bound to remain so. In this regard, it is actually identical to the "clash of civilizations" paradigm.

Participants at the Second Alliance of Civilizations Forum, which took place in Istanbul from 6 to 7 April 2009 (photo: dpa)
Participants at the Second Alliance of Civilizations Forum, which took place in Istanbul from 6 to 7 April 2009, asked themselves whether the image of Turkey was being skewed by the culturalization of the accession question

​​ The former advocates dialogue between civilizations/religions, whereas the latter underlines the impossibility of communication between them. However, one should realize that both paradigms actually spring from the same holistic notion of culture, which is based on the idea of perceiving the world through ethno-cultural and religious lines. The ways in which Samuel Huntington, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, or George Bush have so far perceived the world are no different from the ways in which Erdogan or Zapatero see the world. The common denominator for all these leaders is that they all perceive the world through the lens of religion.

One should instead challenge the assumption that there are rigid borders between civilizations, cultures, and religions. On the contrary, civilizations, cultures, and religions are in constant interaction with one another, constantly learn from each other, and constantly create liminal third spaces where borders blur and disappear.

Furthermore, the culturalist rhetoric of the paradigm of the "alliance of civilizations" also generates a dominant understanding in the West, which compels Europeans to perceive non-Europeans within the framework of difference, religion, culture, and civilization. This rhetoric has also recently disturbed some prominent political and judiciary figures in Turkey, who are saying to themselves: "I used to think that Turkey was part of western civilization. When did this change? When did we become the representative of Muslim civilization?"

The work of Antonia M. Ruiz Jiménez ve Ignacio Torreblanca Payá, entitled European Public Opinion and Turkey's Accession (Brussels: EPIN, 2007), also reveals that neither the instrumentalization of Turkey nor the culturalization of the whole issue of Turkish membership creates a positive image of Turkey in the European public eye.

The emphasis made on Turkey's bridging capacity between civilizations and the compatibility of the European identity and Turkish identity have not yet had a substantial impact on the Turkish public's support for the EU. So what can be done? Apparently instrumentalist and culturalist perspectives do not bring the EU and Turkey closer together. It seems that the only way to change Turkey-EU relations is to break up the hegemony of civilizationist/religious/culturalist discourse, which has so far paved the way for nationalist, religious, parochial, and local divides both inside the European Union and in Turkey.

The European public should be reminded that the EU is a project of integration and peace, not of division. The magnet of the union should be restored not only for the European public but also for the neighbouring countries and the world. This can only be done through the efforts of constructing a post-national and post-western Europe. The boundaries of post-western and post-national Europe are always in the making and transcend the retrospective, civilizational, cultural, and religious contours of the essentialist project of the European Union. This is the kind of political, post-civilizational, post-cultural, post-Judeo/Christian European Union that both Turkey and the world need. This kind of politically defined Europe, which is subject to the developmental logic of enlargement, is also what the EU needs in order to overcome ongoing structural problems in the union.

While Turkey waits for the advent of a post-national and post-western Europe, it still has some homework to do. Above all, it should carry on making structural legal reforms to convince the European public of its democratic determination. It should then abandon its culturalist, nationalist, religious, and civilizationist discourse and try to come up with a political, economic, and post-civilizational discourse. Consequently, it should not allow itself to become overwhelmed by the ongoing political crisis created by the contemporary social and economic transformation of the country and instead consider the crisis as a window of opportunity that compels different social groups to communicate with each other in order to resolve their problems.

Ayhan Kaya
© Ayhan Kaya / Kulturaustausch 2009

Ayhan Kaya is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations, and head of the Centres for Migration Research and European Studies at Istanbul's Bilgi University. He specializes in Euro-Turks in Germany and France, the Circassian Diaspora in Turkey, and the construction and articulation of modern diasporic identities. He was awarded the Turkish Social Science Association Prize in 2003 and the Turkish Sciences Academy Prize in 2005. He is also a member of the Committee of Experts of the Emigration Countries, Council of Europe.

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