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Here’s looking at you, Turkey

Will Samuel P. Huntington be proved wrong on the ‘‘clash of civilisations’’ if and when Islamic Turkey joins the Europea...

Written by V P Malik |
January 3, 2005

Will Samuel P. Huntington be proved wrong on the ‘‘clash of civilisations’’ if and when Islamic Turkey joins the European Union (EU)? And will that enable the EU to put an end to the decades old ethno-territorial feud in Cyprus? I was in Turkey in December, 2004 when its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, returned home after attending the EU Summit in Brussels and obtaining a start date for ‘‘accession talks’’ for EU membership. There was much happiness and jubilation, and also some apprehension. The ruling liberal Islamist party, the AKP, organised a huge triumphant rally for the prime minister. There were minor protests rallies too, on the prime minister compromising on Turkey’s support to Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus. After fulfilling EU’s Copenhagen criteria of democracy, human rights and fiscal reforms, and obtaining its approval to start ‘‘accession talks’’ on October 3 2005, Turkey may yet take 10-12 years to become a regular EU member.

Europe today is uneasy about its Muslim minorities. The alarmists feel that Turkish membership could turn out to be an Islamic Trojan horse. They fear that Turkey’s 70 million population, with comparatively lower per capita income, will be a drag on the EU. The optimists, however, bank on Turkey’s moderate Islamic credentials, potential consumer markets, its large armed forces (part of NATO), and most importantly, its geo-strategic location.

As compared to the Arabs, the Turks were latecomers to the Muslim faith. The bi-continental spread of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (13-19th century AD) and their continual interaction with the west enabled them to make practical decisions on governance, adopt new technologies and reform age-old sharia laws. They allowed the charging of interest (denounced as usury in the Koran) and abolished slavery despite strong resistance from the Arab Wahaabis. The Ottomans are credited with having introduced secular laws, a constitution, a parliament, and western style schools and universities in Turkey. But the person who injected the strongest dose of modernisation and moderation was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, in the early 20th century. He abolished all signs of radical Islam. He established and nurtured the democratic institutions that make Turkey a different Islamic country today.

There were many modernist theologians in Turkey who envisaged a comprehensive renewal of Islam and they have had considerable public support. However, since then, political Islamism has made an entry into Turkey. The present ruling party which is pursuing EU membership is also Islamist to an extent. There are no burqas on the streets but the number of scarf-wearing women has been slowly increasing, a trend resented by the modernists, Turkish armed forces and university academics. Turkish religious moderation is very noticeable in Istanbul and Ankara where the malls and bazaars prepare for Christmas like any other Muslim festival.

There is no anti-Semitism in Turkey. Turkey and Israel maintain a good relationship. The Turks sympathise with the Palestinian predicament and yet allow the Jews to live peacefully and enjoy minority community status. Kemal Ataturk may not enjoy the same reverence as he did some years ago, but it will not be easy for any Turkish Islamist politician to completely change the Turkish mindset and way of life institutionalised by him.

The optimists in Europe consider Turkey as the archetype of ‘‘moderate Islam’’. They believe that its membership would be an antidote to radical Islam and not a religious threat to the EU. The alarmists, however, fear the unleashing of a previously marginalised and suppressed Islam and a fundamentalist backlash when Turkey joins the EU.

Turkey’s imbroglio with Cyprus, a million strong nation and a member of the EU since May 2004, started in the 1960s when it began to support Turkish Cypriots in the northern part of the island against the Greek Cypriots. Following a Greek junta coup in Cyprus, Turkey intervened militarily in 1974 and officially ‘‘recognised’’ the Turkish Cypriots. ‘‘De-recognition’’ of Greek Cypriots divided Cyprus into two separate ethnic parts. Since then, Turkey and the internationally accepted Cyprus have had no relations. The latter is faced with the problems of the presence of Turkish troops in the north, and the inability to use sea lanes and air space of that part of the island.

To become an EU member, Turkey will need Cyprus’s support and a normalisation of relations. That would put an end to the long-standing ethnic problem in Cyprus. In Brussels, Erdogan had to promise the extension of the 1963 Customs Union Agreement to 10 new EU members, including Cyprus, before the start date for accession talks. This was short of the Cypriot demand, but not too far from the ‘‘recognition’’ goal. Although the Turkish Armed Forces have made no comments, many Turks resent giving up on ‘‘sacrifices made by Turkish soldiers since 1974’’. Since the accession talks will be open-ended and there is no guarantee of EU membership, Turkey has no choice but to make this compromise.

Geographically, Turkey is more Asia than Europe but it appears to harbour a greater attraction for the West — its modernity, higher economic standards, democratic politics, and with that, the secular ethos. Will the clash of civilisations within Turkey, and the Turks’ decision to make Europe-style progress, abandoning outdated ethno-territorial problems in Cyprus, have some lessons for the rest of the world? We wait and watch.

The writer is a former chief of army staff

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