A White Gentlemen's Club
The Turkish republic turned 85 in the autumn of 2008 – an impressive age for a human life. Most political entities, however, can look forward to at least another century's existence.
Since the beginning of its accession talks with the European Union, Turkey has been going through serious crises in a number of spheres. Following a decade of impressive economic growth, exports have fallen, the population is highly debt-ridden and the country's political instability is putting off foreign investors.
Remarkable constitutional crises
Turkey has just emerged from one of the most remarkable constitutional crises of its history. A democratically elected governing party was threatened with a ban because of a legitimately passed legislative amendment concerning the lifting of the ban on the wearing of the headscarf in universities. It belies common sense that a draft law legalising the wearing of headscarves would put an end to the secular system – laiklik – and thereby endanger the Turkish Constitution – as the opposition maintained!
However, in contrast with these restrictive legal moves, the cultural and civil society sectors are flourishing. There is an almost anarchic liberty and diversity in both realms, with the Turkish civil public sphere seeing serious and honest attempts at confronting the country's past.
At issue is no longer whether the mass murder of the Ottoman Armenians during WWI took place, but whether it constituted genocide or whether some of these events can be seen as legitimate self-defence on the part of Turkish trorops and the population against militant Armenian separatists who were seen to be cooperating with the Allies and against the Ottoman Empire.
There is no longer any doubt that Atatürk too regarded the Armenian massacre as a war crime. The curtain of oblivion, which veiled the traumatic origins of the Turkish Republic, has finally been drawn aside. And with it, the debate over the country's repressive and authoritarian nationalist heritage that blinded the elites over decades has grown. It is this revengeful nationalism that led to the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. How can its continued existence in a modern and complex society be explained?
Beginnings are always traumatic. Particularly in the political sphere, the birth of a polity is accompanied by myths of origins, projecting the unity the nation into a mythic past in the hopes of achieving a future in which the nation is seen as one. Plato called such myths of origin the "noble lie".
In Turkey's case, the task of these foundational myths was to take the many-tongued, multicultural patchwork of the Ottoman Millet System, influenced as it was by all manner of religious faiths and which granted recognised minorities among the non-Muslims certain rights of religious and cultural autonomy, and turn it into a united nation.
As the Turkish nation was mobilised amidst the ruins of a decaying empire, an interesting distortion took place. The Turks, who had ruled the Ottoman Empire, now became the victims of its decline. For many, this role reversal – from lord to bondsman, as Hegel would say – became historical reality through the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920.
The Traumas of the Turkish subconscious
In 1920 the victors of World War I – the British, French and Italians – divided up the Ottoman Empire between themselves. The "homeland" was torn apart. These two traumata – the position of becoming an oppressed nation that had to emancipate itself in a war of national liberation, and the fact that the West in general, but particularly the Europeans, wanted to parcel up and distribute their homeland – are buried deep in the subconscious of the Turkish nation.
It is for this reason that many in Turkey confuse the defence of the republican system with authoritarian nationalism. The military, civil servants, lawyers, justice authorities and teachers all regard themselves as "guardians of the constitution".
Class war between new and old elites
Between these old republican elites and the new class of Muslim entrepreneurs, industrial bosses, small businesspeople, and farmers who make up the basis of the governing AKP (Justice and Development Party), a class war is currently being waged, fought out as a "cultural war" in many areas of life.
The result is a delay in the reforms Turkey has to push through as a candidate for EU accession. Had the constitutional court decided in favour of banning the AKP last August, Turkey's European candidacy would have been more than hanging in the balance and would have been seriously jeopardized.
Unfortunately, a number of negative developments in Turkey are mirrored within the European Union itself. As Turkey struggles against its nationalist myths of origin and the traumata of its beginnings, the European Union too, is attempting to stabilize its momentous political experiment by conjuring up the ideals of a "core Europe" and the "European nation", Judaeo-Christian values, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the like.
Instability of identities
Yet we live in an age of instability of all categories of identity. The Turkish nation is just as incapable of denying its multicultural and multi-religious origins as the European Union is of drawing its boundaries by insisting on religious and cultural homogeneities.
In the wake of the French, Dutch and Irish "No's" to the EU constitution, the union has lost a chunk of its democratic legitimacy. A draft constitution pushed through only by political elites and which has to protect itself from popular opinion does not elicit trust. Nevertheless, the majority of the Turkish population is still in favour of joining the EU, provided the Europeans will have them.
Turkish accession will entail significant challenges for the institutional architecture of the European Union. If Turkey had a population of 70 million at the time of accession, and according to EU’s own regulations, it would be entitled to fewer votes in the Council of Europe and the European Parliament than Germany – but more than every other country.
What would the French, British and Italians say to that? Further difficulties are inevitable with regards to agricultural policy and the labour market. But Turkey's economic integration into the union would also bring European investments and new jobs in communication, housing construction, finance and tourism.
Hurdles not insurmountable
One of the major economic losers may be the Turkish agricultural industry, which would have to compete with Spain, Greece and Italy over Europe's fruit and vegetable markets. As a consequence, many Turkish farm workers may lose their jobs and start migrating into the cities or other EU countries. Yet these market problems are not insurmountable.
As with Poland and Hungary in recent years, the community is capable of finding a modus vivendi with Turkey in the fields of agricultur and free migration policy. The more difficult issue in my eyes is the cultural xenophobia towards Islam currently holding Europe in its grip.
The headscarf affairs in France and Germany, the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Danish caricatures, the never-ending debates in Germany that lead to a criminalisation of the Turkish minority, and finally the deaths of Turkish migrants in the Ludwigshafen fire – all these events in recent history indicate a deeply rooted unease towards Islam in Europe.
I am less confident than I was a decade ago that Europe now has the will to integrate Turkey into its cultural and political structures. The war in Georgia, which borders Turkey, will have prompted many European politicians to prefer not to extend Europe's borders right up to the edge of the Caucasus Mountains.
On the other hand, for the Turkish government a "privileged partnership", as favoured by Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel rather than full membership, smacks not only of defeat, but also of the conversion of the European Union into a "white gentlemen's club".
Turkey – a model for the Islamic world?
The countries of the Middle East – and also the emerging states of India, Mexico, China and Indonesia – will view this as a sure sign of continuing Christian Eurocentrism.
The United States is also in favour of Turkey joining the European Union, less for geopolitical reasons – Turkey has been a reliable NATO partner ever since 1952 – but rather because of the belief that Turkey's entry into the community of European states could serve as an example for other Muslim countries, encouraging them too onto the path of democracy. The official US stance under Bush was that Turkey is the only democracy capable of development among the Muslim states, a strong friend to Israel and the key strategic partner in the region.
The only sensible route for the future of relations between the European Union and Turkey, in my opinion, is to considerably stretch the community's institutional imagination and to come up with novel and flexible patterns of economic integration and political voice. The EU political elites have shown themselves to be remarkably adept at “good governance” schemes.
At the present time the Turkish Republic is carrying out a transition from forced homogeneity of its citizens to actual democratic parity. The current debates over headscarves, the recognition of the cultural and linguistic rights of the Kurds, the admission of Turkey's multicultural heritage through the rediscovery of its traces in Greek, Jewish and Armenian culture – all these are stages in the transition to a mature democracy.
This experiment may be too much for some, as the near-hysteria of the old nationalist elites shows. Ultimately, however, the experiment may also be derailed by the fact that Turkey once again feels excluded by the Europeans, whose motives the majority don't trust in the first place.
© Kulturaustausch / Şeyla Benhabib / Qantara.de 2009 .
Şeyla Benhabib is a professor of political philosophy at Yale University. Her most recent book Another Cosmopolitanism: Hospitality, Sovereignty and Democratic Iterations was published by Oxford University Press in 2006.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire