Is it in Turkey's interests to join this Christian club?

  • From: "" <muslim_affairs@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: news@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 18 Dec 2002 10:30:13 +0000 (GMT)

There was no question of "hostile feelings", the
spokesman said, and every interest in "peace and
cooperation". But, since they represented "different
cultures and different understandings of the world",
there could be no natural union between Europe and
Turkey. It was an unwise and unrealistic plan. 

A common enough sentiment in the Europe of Giscard
d'Estaing and Edmund Stoiber. But this was a Turk, not
a European, speaking, and not just any Turk but the
man who is today Turkey's new prime minister. Abdullah
Gul is now the right-hand man in government of Recep
Tayyip Erdogan - the leader of the Justice and
Development party who, prevented by a legal ban from
standing for parliament, cannot take the office of
prime minister himself. In 1994, Gul was the deputy
chairman and a spokesman on foreign affairs for Refah,
a predecessor of the Justice and Development party.
"Turkey should not join the European Union, we have
said this from the beginning," he told me during an
interview in his office in the Turkish parliament.
"Look at a European city, and then look at Istanbul.
It's not a Christian city." 

Gul's recent pronouncements on this subject have, of
course, been very different. He said a few weeks ago,
for example: "We aim to leave no excuse for the EU to
say 'no' to us at Copenhagen". Senior men in the
party, known as AKP after its Turkish initials, some
time ago began comparing it to the Christian Democrat
movements of Europe, in spite of the fact that the
most substantial opposition to Turkish entry into the
EU comes from within the ranks of such movements. 

Erdogan and Gul have not tried to deny that their
views have changed. That would in any case be
impossible, given the frequency with which in the past
they demanded that Turkey cease knocking on the door
in Brussels, withdraw from Nato, and devote itself
instead to the creation of an Islamic common market
and to its ties with Turkic central Asia. 

They have explained the shift many times. It is
permissible to wonder, however, how completely they
have changed their minds. And it is also permissible
to wonder whether their original position was sound -
representing a real understanding of the limits of the
possible in Turkey as well as a recognition of its
duties, as the most developed and stable Muslim
society, toward its Muslim neighbours and the rest of
the Islamic world. 

There is a hint of the old attitudes in the remarks
AKP leaders have made about what their course might be
if Europe continues to rebuff Turkey. A dramatic
rejection, as opposed to the calibrated reluctance
that will almost certainly come into play in
Copenhagen, as it has on such occasions before, is not
at all likely. Should it come at some stage, however,
it would allow a party like the AKP to turn to the
Turkish electorate and play on its resentment of
Europe, as opposed to its enthusiasm for it, in order
to return to the old line. 

The Islamist party in Turkey, through the various
changes of name forced on it by legal bans, has been
flexible in policy but fixed in its basic aim, which
has been to take society back "from the foes of Islam
who have governed Turkey for almost a century", as a
party paper put it in 1996. 

Flexibility has meant a readiness to shelve or change
policies in order to achieve or stay in office, as
Necmettin Erbakan, the founding leader of the party,
did during his time in power in 1996. The fixed
purpose has been expressed less in international
policy than in the use of office to pack the public
service with party supporters, a process which began
in Turkey's big cities after the Islamist victories in
local government elections in the early 90s and
continued in 1996, when the party came into a national
coalition government. 

The basis for this penetration had earlier been laid
by the growth of imam hatip schools, which was
assisted by several of Turkey's major parties. These
schools, originally for the education of the clergy,
were vastly expanded to form a parallel educational
system for Islamists and a source of the personnel who
began to flood into government offices, where their
arrival could be measured by the number of beards and
headscarves. It was this process above all, rather
than any particular policy at home or abroad, which
impelled the armed forces to intervene in 1997,
bringing about the fall of the coalition government in
which the Islamists were members. 

In preparing for a new attempt to take power, the once
again re-named Islamists moved beyond the flexibility
they had displayed in the past, which was a matter of
proclaiming in opposition what they were ready to drop
in office. They moved instead to steal the clothes of
the secular parties by shifting position on Europe and
Nato. The unavoidable political reality was that most
Turkish businessmen wanted the country in the EU, that
a large portion of the electorate in general
identified "Europe" as code for jobs, prosperity, and
the freedom to travel and work in the continent, and
that the army insisted on Nato and the American

Skilfully combining these positions with a continuing
Islamist message and with not unjustified charges of
corruption and economic mismanagement against the
secular parties, gave the AKP a stunning victory. But
that takes us to the heart of the Turkish problem now
for Europe, which is that the Islamists have used
Europe to take power for what we must still assume are
Islamist purposes. The secular parties, meanwhile, and
much of the Turkish middle class, see in that same
Europe an antidote to Islamism, as well as to the
military authoritarianism of the past. Turkish
liberals are sure that democratisation in Turkey would
be far less advanced had there not been the spur of
Europe's requirements for entry. 

Perhaps the Islamists have really changed. The party
and the movement certainly include various currents of
opinion, and both Gul and Erdogan are from its
moderate wing. Yet it seems probable that two very
different projects are still under way in Turkey, the
one to make the country more Islamic, and the other to
make it less so, and that both have now seized on
Europe as a means to their ends. 

Whether Europe really is an answer for either side is
the question that Gul raised in his earlier
incarnation. The suspicion must be that the Islamists'
hearts are not in it, and that the secularists' need
for both an icon and an ally has led them to overlook
the real obstacles to union with what is indeed a
Christian club. Totting up improvements in human
rights or democratic practice is not the point. Turkey
is an unfinished drama in which Europe's role has
become even more central than it was before. But
whether it will or should end with the country's
incorporation into the EU is an open question. 

Source:  The Guardian

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