Recep Tayyip Erdogan, photo: AP

The Test of Seculiarism

Many Turkish columnists believe that Europeans oppose Turkey's membership to the EU because they believe an Islamic country can't belong to a community whose values have been shaped by a Christian tradition. By Arian Fariborz

Many Turkish columnists believe that Europeans oppose Turkey's membership to the EU because they believe an Islamic country can't belong to a community whose values have been shaped by a Christian tradition. Arian Fariborz comments.

photo: AP
Recep Tayyip Erdogan

​​There is a difference of opinion within Turkey itself regarding the decisions made at the EU expansion summit last December in Copenhagen: Some see the promise of possible accession negotiations at of the end of 2004 as an historic opportunity – an important next step along the stony path toward Europe.

Those within the EU who are skeptical of permitting Turkey to join now find themselves "with their backs to the wall", as it seems increasingly unlikely that the Europeans will retract their offer – particularly since the new leadership in Ankara underscored at the summit meeting its willingness to fulfill the Copenhagen Criteria. Support by the Germans, the French and even the Americans has lent additional weight to Turkey’s wish to join the European Union.

So it’s not surprising that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the head of Turkey’s ruling AKP party, expressed satisfaction with the results of the Copenhagen summit – in which the European Union clearly signaled that it "is not a Christian club," he rejoiced.

But other voices are also being heard in Turkey, voices that speak of EU diplomats "beating around the bush" in dealing with their country. Although it has repeatedly expressed its willingness to reform, Turkey continues to be kept at arm’s length by the EU. Even after 40 years of efforts to join the EU, Turkey’s candidacy remains on hold indefinitely.

Indeed, a concrete date for accession negotiations has yet to be set. The EU is employing a double standard and risks losing the trust of the Turks in the long run, according to Turkish press reports appearing after the summit meeting.

As a result, the enthusiasm for Europe now held by a majority of the population threatens to sway in the opposite direction. Turkey is also casting a skeptical eye on the stability criteria and the economic development of other – presumably weaker – candidates for EU membership such as Rumania and Bulgaria, which have already received the green light from Brussels for 2007, and with which Turkey believes itself capable of keeping up.

So if economic and political factors do not prove to be the real hindrance to Turkey’s integration into the European Union, what is holding up the country’s desire for candidacy?

Several Turkish columnists have posed this question, and they believe they know the answer: The Europeans oppose Turkey’s membership in the EU because they believe an Islamic country doesn’t belong in a community whose values have been shaped by a Christian/Western tradition.

And unfortunately, many European politicians, publicists and Middle East experts have expressed agreement on this point. Europe is haunted by a frightening vision of "the Turks storming the gates in Brussels"; increasingly, stereotypical views of a gap between the cultures of the orient and the occident overshadow any pragmatic, political discussion of Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership.

For example, historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler of Bielefeld, Germany, speaks of the "risk of political suicide for the EU" should Turkey become a member, he speaks of the "political masochism" involved in "accepting a Middle-Eastern nation of 90 million Muslims, among whom radical Islamism is making inroads, as the largest member of the EU."

And as if that weren’t enough: Europe and Turkey represent "two cultures that could hardly be more different from one another, separated by a deep chasm," Wehler writes.

And the president of the EU constitutional convention, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, believes granting Turkey membership "would be the end of the EU." The harsh conclusion: The country that controls the Bosporus Straits is not a European nation.

This view is also taken by former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. In his opinion, religious roots in particular are the reason why Turkey does not belong in the EU:

"The decisive and essential developments that formed European culture – the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the separation of clerical and political authority – are missing from the Islamic tradition," writes Schmidt, and he receives prompt confirmation from Germany’s Christian Democrats, who are categorically opposed to Turkey joining the EU.

Taking the lead in this view is the Bavarian prime minister Edmund Stoiber, who has written that Turkey’s "historical and philosophical background differs considerably from that of the EU." At best, he said, one could conceive of "partial membership" and increased cooperation on the subjects of security and defense policy.

The German government, on the other hand, even after the Copenhagen summit, has continued to advocate offering EU membership to Turkey. Speaking before the Bundestag, Chancellor Schröder warned the opposition Union party (incorporating the Christian Democrats and Bavaria’s Christian Socialists) of a "cultural struggle along the lines of: the Christian western civilization versus Islam."

The Greens, currently part of Schröder’s ruling coalition, accused Stoiber of isolating from the West, merely because they did not participate in the European Enlightenment.

The party strictly opposes such a "battle of the cultures," according to Rainder Steenblock, a Green member of parliament. Other renowned scientists and intellectuals such as Bassam Tibi and Faruk Sen also reject as invalid such allusions to cultural heritage and Turkey’s Islamic nature as the main barrier to EU membership.

They maintain that the debate about which culture Turkey really belongs to is both totally irrelevant from a legal standpoint and extremely counterproductive from an emotional point of view.

"Because, first of all, the Helsinki Agreement has already been put into effect by all national parliaments, and secondly, in the case of NATO and the Council of Europe, the question as to whether Turkey belongs in Europe was never posed," argues Faruk Sen, director of the Center for Turkish Studies.

The only question relevant to candidacy for EU membership is whether Turkey has managed to fulfill the required Copenhagen Criteria. Besides, Turkey is one of the few Islamic countries that is open to democracy and the separation of church and state, Sen says – even though secularization was decreed by Atatürk and not achieved through sociological developments in civil society, as Bassam Tibi allows.

Still, a form of Islam with a European face already has a legitimate place in the European Union, even if Erdoğan’s AKP party needs to prove the credibility of a Europe-compatible brand of Islam during its term in power. At any rate, Euro-Islam is already established within the European community.

For some 40 years now, the European Union has been home to 3.6 million Turkish immigrants, of which 1.2 million are citizens of the EU. For them in particular, excluding Turkey on the basis of cultural differences is like a blow to the head.

After all, the argument implies that the Islamic population is not accepted as being part of Europe – a point of view that seems detrimental to European identity and integration.

Another expert on Islam, Navid Kermani, also clearly opposes those who would refuse Turkey’s bid for EU membership on the basis of cultural and religious arguments.

In his view, Europe sees itself as a fundamentally secular project. And precisely because these Western values are secular, they are not bound to a particular religion or ethnic background, according to Kermani.

"By speaking of the Christian western civilization and declaring Islamic countries un-European by definition, one makes a religion out of Europe. It comes close to being a racial question, and perverts the ideals and purpose of the European Enlightenment."

Kermani regrets that Europe is increasingly defining itself through its actual or perceived roots rather than through its secular tradition, which is no more indigenous to Christianity that it is to other religions.

Arian Fariborz, &copy Qantara.de 2003

Translation from German: Mark Rossman

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