Turkey

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

The more Europeans criticize their culture, the more insular Turks may become

ADNAN R. KHAN October 17 2005
Turkey

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

The more Europeans criticize their culture, the more insular Turks may become

ADNAN R. KHAN October 17 2005

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

The more Europeans criticize their culture, the more insular Turks may become

ADNAN R. KHAN

Turkey

FINALLY, HERE’S something radical Islamists and right-wing Christians can agree on: Muslim Turkey does not belong in the European Union. It’s an odd communion, but somehow apt, given the brief history of modern Turkey. Unholy alliances have abounded in this country that not only straddles two continents but also a variety of often conflicting visions of the world. In the 1970s, Islamists and ultra-nationalists banded together against an encroaching Communist threat. More recently, capitalists and moderate Muslim groups have worked closely to push Turkey, a poor nation of some 70 million people, into the EU—while for Islamists and ultra-nationalists Europe has replaced Communism as the common enemy.

Accession talks between Turkey and the European Union got underway last week, but it was hardly an auspicious beginning. Last-minute demands by Austria that the negotiations be limited to partnership and not full membership underscored the strong anti-Turkish sentiment that exists throughout the EU. And while Austrian objections were overcome, thanks to an agreement to also begin talks with Croatia, a close Austrian ally, the llth-hour furor overshadowed another developing trend that may yet scuttle the talks: the strengthening of antiEU sentiment among Turks. Maclean’s Contributing Editor Adnan R. Khan is based in Istanbul. He filed this report on the debate now underway in Turkey.

As EU accession talks get under way in Luxembourg, dissenting, disparate voices may be about to join together in opposing what they see as a path to the destruction of Turkish identity and culture. “Turks may have different ways of seeing themselves in the world,” explains Tolga Baysal, a 33-yearold filmmaker in Istanbul’s hip Beyoglu district. “But they will always be Turks first— Islamists, moderates, fascists, it makes no difference.” Sipping sugary black tea in one of Beyoglu’s many crowded outdoor cafés, Baysal adds that Turkey’s various radical groups will have no difficulty with working in unison. “If they think the nation is threatened, they will come together.”

In the witch’s brew of political perspectives that is the Turkish republic, the EU either represents social progress, or feeds the dark paranoia of ultra-right-wing sensibilities. It all depends on whom you ’re talking to, and where. In Istanbul, a city of some 20 million, support for joining the EU is strong in Beyoglu, which is the bastion of Istanbul’s secular ideal. A short 15-minute drive away, in the ultra-conservative Fatih district, cafés are sparse and the streets are populated by veiled women wearing the full-body chador so common in theocratic Iran. Here, homes radiate out from the Fatih mosque, the heart of this deeply religious community. In its outer courtyard, a preacher rails against the dangers to Turkey’s Islamic identity if it becomes part of the EU. “We are not European,” says one of the worshippers. “Europe is a Christian club. We are Muslims.”

At a teahouse adjacent to the mosque’s southern wall, 61-year-old Ismet Keskin, a retired ferry worker, adds his voice to the growing chorus of conservative Muslims who see Turkey’s possible inclusion in the European Union as a threat to Islam. “It’s already happening,” he says. “My children refuse to live the lives of Muslims. They say, ‘We have democracy—we don’t have to do this or that.’ If Turkey joins the EU, it will get worse.” Other older, bearded men nod in agreement, while across the street a group of kids, one of them wearing a T-shirt with “France” emblazoned on the front, plays soccer.

Suspicion of the EU is also strong among those who do not identify themselves as staunch Islamists—but who do understand that Islam plays a role in Turkish identity. “The problem with the radical Islamists is that they look to the Middle East for political guidance,” says Burak Saracoglu, 34, an ad agency executive. “They are interested in political Islam, not European democracy. Moderates like me worry more about the loss of Turkey’s Islamic identity.” For Saracoglu, EU membership is inevitable—although he says he would vote against joining. “We have to make the best of it,” he says.

Coskun Tozen, 33, Saracoglu’s business partner, is a former member of the ultranationalist and militant militia group the Grey Wolves. “The Turkish government is selling out the country,” Tozen says, adding that the more radical members of the Grey Wolves, an organization he abandoned in 1996 but to which he still has some ties, believe joining Europe will contaminate Turkey’s genetic and spiritual foundations. “It is a form of political, economic and cultural colonization,” he says. “For the Islamists, it’s religious identity that’s at stake. For the ultranationalists, it is ethnic identity.”

For now, both Saracoglu and Tozen insist there is no co-operation between Islamists and ultra-nationalists. But Turkey’s road to Europe is not set to open any time soon—the negotiations are expected to last at least a decade. The playing field will inevitably change in that time, given the political, economic and social reforms EU member countries have already demanded from Turkey, and will continue to insist on (as part of the criteria for beginning membership talks, Turkey has, among other things, improved its human rights record and taken steps against corruption). French President Jacques Chirac gave some indication of the scope of what will be expected—

and how fractious the negotiations may prove to be—when he said last week that Turkey may have to endure “a major cultural revolution” to become a full EU member. Chirac said he was not at all sure the process would be successful. “I cannot say,” he told reporters. “I hope so—but I am not at all sure.”

Many of the reforms will be painful for ultra-nationalists and Islamists, and will likely increase antipathy not only toward the EU but also the Turkish government. “We regret we have to be patient—for now,” says Ahmet Kales, a cobbler working just

‘IT’S ALREADY happening. My children refuse to live the lives of Muslims. If Turkey joins the Ell, it will get worse.’ outside of the Fatih mosque. “But only for now.” Kales is a member of Milli Gorush, a radical Muslim organization based primarily in Germany whose stated goal has been to overthrow Turkey’s secular governmental system and replace it with an Islamic regime based on sharia law. In his tiny workshop, he openly condemns the current government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former disciple of Necmettin Erbakan, the one-time Islamist prime minister of Turkey, as traitors. Like many of Turkey’s Islamists, Kales feels betrayed by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002 on a religious platform but has since softened its faith-based rhetoric.

Erdogan’s government has worked hard to ensure the start of Turkey’s EU membership negotiations. But its Islamist leanings are evident in Ankara, the capital. Female civil servants, for example, are banned from wearing trousers in parliament. And, reportedly, Erdogan’s party successfully lobbied the German government to prevent Milli Gorush from being designated a terrorist organization (some security experts say Ankara is, in fact, quietly sponsoring the group). Such sensibilities remain a stumbling block for many of the reforms Turkey will need to make before its full inclusion in the EU.

And, meanwhile, Islamists and nationalists can take some comfort in the numbers: since 2004, support for EU membership among Turks has dropped from 73 per cent to 63 per cent. Part of that can be attributed to the uncertainty that followed the rejection of the EU constitution by both the French and the Dutch in referendums earlier this year; with the future of the EU under a cloud, many Turks began to question the benefits of joining a club in crisis.

But anti-Turkish sentiment among Europeans—according to some polls more than half oppose Turkey’s EU membership bid—may also be serving to anger Turks, and feed a rising aversion to anything Western. The more Turkey’s culture is criticized by voices in Europe, the tighter Turks may pull the blanket of national and cultural identity around themselves. Ultimately, the real danger to Turkey’s bid for EU membership may not lie in the difficult negotiations ahead in Luxembourg, but among those Turks who believe they will never really be accepted in the EU club—and who say good riddance.