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Turkey's European problem

Gilles Kepel
14 December 2004

The European Union announces on 17 December 2004 its historic decision on whether to admit Turkey to accession talks, opening the way to EU membership for this secular, democratic state whose population of 70 million is overwhelmingly Muslim. This is the culmination of a process of discussions between Turkey and the European Union that has been underway since 1963.

The Turkish government that is both waiting and pressing for this decision is dominated by a reformist Islamic party, the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development party, AKP) whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, achieved notoriety (and imprisonment) in 1998 for quoting in a political speech a poem which likened the minarets of his country’s mosques to bayonets and their domes to helmets.

Also in openDemocracy from Gilles Kepel :

  • “The trail of political Islam” (July 2002)
  • “Tightrope walks and chessboards: an interview” (April 2003)
  • “The war for Muslim minds: an interview” (November 2004)

If you find openDemocracy’s coverage of political Islam valuable, please subscribe for £2/$3/€3 a month and gain access to easy-to-read PDFs of these and other articles

But the past six years, two of them in office (since the November 2002 elections), have changed the political prospects of Erdogan, his party, and his country – and created for Europe the possibility that its Muslim population will increase from around 15 million in 2004 to over 85 million within a decade.

In short, 17 December is – following the enlargement of the European Union by ten states on 1 May and the signing of its new constitution on 29 October – the third in a sequence of momentous dates in Europe in 2004, and arguably the one that may have the most profound long-term consequences.

In assessing what these consequences will be, how Turkish entry to the European Union might affect the continent and the world, a crucial factor is the present balance of political and religious forces inside Turkey and the kind of Islam that could establish greatest influence among its citizens.

The European magnet

The AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be Islamic in name, but it represents a significant departure from its predecessors in the febrile world of Turkish Islamist politics. The most prominent of these, the Refah (Welfare) party, lambasted the European Union as a Judaeo-Christian club; its abrasive leader, Necmettin Erbakan, unfavourably compared the G8 (the group of eight richest countries) to the M8 (the eight leading Muslim states). Erdogan, by contrast, has not only taken Turkey closer to EU membership but has gained the authority to “modernise” Turkey’s Islamists. To a large extent, he is using the European magnet to defuse the intransigence of Islamist ideology.

Europe’s attraction to Turkey is more than economic (even with Turkish average GDP per capita of €2,700, around 10% of France). The political and economic elites in Turkey have for decades been not just pro-European but themselves largely of European stock, “white Turks” as they were once known. What is new is that their compatriots, the millions of Turks from Anatolia – many of them from rural backgrounds, few of whom see themselves as in any way European – are now being guided along this European trail on behalf of the elite, by (of all people) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist party.

This process, if it comes to fruition, will make Turkey the European Union’s most populous country, and bring tens of millions of new Muslims into the heart of the continent. Some in Turkey (among them, the militants who destroyed the British consulate and attacked other British and Jewish targets in Istanbul in November 2003) may see Turkish entry as a jihadist Trojan horse to enter Europe’s citadels. Will the Turkish people as a whole – despite and against their European elite – share allegiance to such anti-European forms of Islamism, or will they absorb and be absorbed into European values and standards? This is the crux of the matter; the answer will determine Europe’s future for decades to come.

The Turkish fork

Several significant elements within the AKP, both traditional and radical, see Turkish entry into Europe as an opportunity to make Europe much more open to Islam’s influence and presence. Their figurehead is Bulent Arinc, speaker of Turkey’s parliament, who was instrumental in the government’s failed attempt to criminalise adultery in September 2004.

Erdogan sought to appeal to the same audience during his visit to France in October, when (in an echo of Erbakan) he said: “We have to know whether Europe is a Christian club or not!” Erdogan has dropped the first, “Judaeo” part as too complicated. But he is saying: “If Europe doesn’t want to be a Christian club, then it has to accept Islamic Turkey as it is”.

The Turkish prime minister also chose this moment to comment on the controversy, especially acute in France, over whether state schoolgirls should be allowed to wear a hijab (Islamic headscarf). Erdogan said that his own daughters have been forced to study in American universities because they were forbidden to wear the hijab in their Turkish university.

These incidents and rhetorical forays, however, represent only one side of the Turkish argument. Another side – which includes the bulk of the middle-class support of the AKP, members of the Turkish elite, and large numbers of Turkish Muslims already in Europe – suggests that such wilful acts by prominent actors on the political stage are not at all sure to prevail.

openDemocracy illuminates Turkish politics, Islamism – and film:

  • Werner Schiffauer, “Democratic culture and extremist Islam” (October 2002)
  • Deniz Kandiyoti, “Where is Islam going? Responses to Werner Schiffauer” (October 2002)
  • Murat Belge, “Turkey – normal at last?” (November 2002)
  • Murat Belge, “The Turkish refusal” (May 2003)
  • Murat Belge, “Bombs on Istanbul” (November 2003)
  • Reinhard Hesse, “Turkish honey under a German moon” (March 2004)

To guarantee access to these and related articles, please subscribe to openDemocracy for £2/$3/€3 a month

The influence of Turkey’s modern history on the Turkish present is evident here. The “white Turks” were long hampered by the dominant Kemalist ideology (deriving from the republic’s founder, Kemal Atatűrk) in their desire or ability to Europeanise the country in depth. Kemalism had introduced cultural Europeanisation to Turkey, whilst maintaining a strong nationalist identity – seen as vital for breaking with a decadent Ottoman past. Today, the AKP is beginning to break this pattern. Many of its voters are “Anatolian tigers” – people successful in construction or transport who have benefited from the boom in the Turkish economy, who identify with the socially-aspiring ideology of the AKP and who see Europe as an opportunity to develop their output and market reach.

These groups harboured some resentment against Necmettin Erbakan for his abortive promise to open up Muslim markets in Indonesia or Nigeria. Now, they are pushing hard for Erdogan’s agenda to be undeviatingly pro-European.

For Erdogan himself, this Europeanness is a means to two quite distinct ends. First, it enables him to ally with a Turkish elite often suspicious of the AKP; on this issue at least, the opposition is compelled to fall into line behind the governing party. Second, it is a tool that enables him and his followers to fight their old Kemalist enemies. European-style religious freedom, for example, is a way of pressuring the Turkish military to allow veiling in universities or schools, effectively an instrument of Islamism against Kemalism.

The attractive effect of Europe on Turkish society should not be underestimated. This has already had an important impact on the ideological platform of the AKP, which is increasingly diluting its “political Islam” credentials and adopting a more European mould. This is the battle that is raging now: will Turkey’s Europeanisation lead to the dissolution of the AKP’s Islamist credentials, or will it fuel the country’s Islamist politics, aiding the defeat of the Kemalist establishment and providing radical Islamists with a platform to advance into Europe?

The field of battle of Turkish politics has moved onto a European sphere. In this sense, the decision of 17 December is only one stage in a wider campaign for hearts and minds – Turkish, Muslim, and European.

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