Debating Turkey and the EU

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Debating Turkey and the EU

Turkey. — In the past two years, the suburbs of Paris have twice
witnessed violent clashes between non-native French citizens and the
police. Whether religious and cultural differences or poverty,
unemployment and racial discrimination are the root causes of these
incidents is open to debate. But what’s interesting is that in
September 2006, before he was elected president, Nicolas Sarkozy
visited Washington and argued that then the first French riot stood as
one of the reasons he opposes Turkey’s European Union membership.

“[I] have often been asked about the place of Muslims in France, because of
concern in the United States,” Mr. Sarkozy said at an event organized
by the French-American Foundation. “My dear friends, let’s be
consistent. What’s the point of worrying about our ability to integrate
Muslims in France or in Europe if at the same time, and just as
forcefully, the United States asks us to accept Turkey in Europe? Even
if you consider that we have a problem with Islam, in which case, you
have to give us time to find the ways and means to create a European
Islam and reject an Islam in Europe. But don’t then give equal support
to the integration of a country like Turkey, with 75 million
inhabitants. Consistency is part of the relations between Europe and
the United States.” Indeed, Mr. Sarkozy’s point of view is shared by
many Europeans.

It’s true that Turkey is becoming more Muslim than
European — particularly since the Islamic-rooted Justice and
Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002. Since then, 2006 the Pew
Global Attitudes poll found out that 51 percent of Turks define
themselves first as Muslim. Being religious is not the problem, but
there is a lack of sincere debate about what exactly scares people when
they are faced with Islamic practices taking a role in governmental
life. If freedom of religion is measured by allowing headscarves in
governmental buildings, would it also consider new interpretations of
those practices by others? Or whether AKP’s understanding of secular
government is consistent with European secular rule?

Mr. Sarkozy is
right to say that he needs time to “find the ways and means to create a
European Islam.” But it is also a fact that Europeans allowed political
Islam in Turkey to make headscarves the one and only problem with
freedom of religion; now, it’s time they look deeper into the issue.
Turkey’s most trusted public opinion survey group, KONDA, led by Tarhan
Erdem, yesterday announced the results of a new survey that shows a
significant rise in numbers of covered women. According to this survey,
in the last four years, there are a million more Turkish women wearing
headscarfwhile the ones with turban, which is a sign of political Islam
has quadrupled.

Unfortunately, Turkey’s secular and liberal elites
have denied the role of religion in public life in such a way that they
have created a huge mess by not investing in theological education to
allow an open-minded approach to matters — understanding what Islam
means in the modern world, rather than a strictly literal
interpretation. There are a limited number of those theologians, but
they are not enough to change a traditionalist mindset.

insistence on traditionalist practices like the headscarf stands as
proof that it refuses to allow open debate on religious
interpretations. Mr. Sarkozy may have strange bedfellows with respect
to his concerns about Turkey’s EU membership; secular Turks may also be
worried about their future.

If the AKP is proud that Turkey has
opened accession talks with EU on its watch, it is now disinterested in
moving forward with reforms of governmental institutions. The European
Commission reported “limited progress” in Turkey’s political reform

According to the Pew Global Attitudes poll, the EU’s
favorability rating in Turkey dropped from 58 percent in 2004 to 27
percent in 2007. There are a number of thorny issues in Turkey’s
relations with the EU — including Cyprus, the Armenian genocide
allegations and the Kurdish dilemma. Yet not all of the EU’s issues are
related to those matters. And while the AKP is determined to keep
Turkey on track to join the EU, it is sending a number of paradoxical
signals. These raise concerns, as the AKP is a relatively new party and
it is almost impossible to judge how its rule will affect Turkey. The
Turkish scenery, however, looks in absolute chaos for the time being.

all the odds it seems that Mr. Sarkozy understands that Turkey’s
Westernization process is not only limited to its borders and its
politicians’ responses; it is very much a European project. Yet he may
take a more constructive approach in dealing with Turkey. Still,
although Mr. Sarkozy said he would end Turkey’s accession talks with
the EU when he was elected, he has done no such thing. Yet he continues
to express his opposition loud and clear, which is only fair it
represents the sincere opinion of some of the European population. But
the outgoing and the incoming EU presidents, Portugal and Slovenia,
continue to express full support to Turkey’s membership.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.