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Turkey’s Impulse for Reform

Turkey is at a crossroads of integration with Europe and fundamentalist Islam. Which way will it turn?

July 14, 2004

Turkey is at a crossroads of integration with Europe and fundamentalist Islam. Which way will it turn?

Samuel Huntington — author of “The Clash of Civilizations” — argues that nearly every country with a predominantly Muslim population is more Islamic today in its politics, its laws, its social norms and its culture than it was a generation ago.

He suggests that even the educated Muslim leaders are turning away from Western values, accelerating the reaffirmation of dogmatic Islam.

Unfortunately for Mr. Huntington and his desire for clear-cut distinctions, Turkey supports the first half of his thesis — because an Islamic party is in power. However, it disproves the other half, since even the Islamic Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan makes Turkey’s membership in the European Union a priority.

Turkish leaders have been working hard to get a date at the EU summit in December 2004 so that accession talks for Turkey to join the Union could start as quickly as possible. Analysts are now predicting the talks might begin in early 2005, but based on past experience that assumption is less than certain.

In order to secure a firm date from the EU, Turkish leaders have worked hard to resolve the Cyprus issue, but were upended by the Greek Cypriots' rejection of a UN-sponsored referendum in April 2004.

Turkish leaders have also passed the required EU reform laws and have demonstrated a sincere desire to implement them.

They are also working to mend Ankara’s ties with the United States, once again securing U.S. support for Turkey's EU membership at the June 28, 2004, NATO summit in Istanbul.

Still, disagreement remains, not least over U.S. efforts to remake the Middle East via a democratic Iraq. Turks believe that their experience in such matters has gone unheeded.

Just one example is Iraq's transitional administrative law, which calls for women to make up at least 25% of Iraq's soon-to-be-elected parliament. That is a laudable goal, even though — having been imposed by an occupying force — it came about in an undemocratic manner.

But Turks feel that they could have cautioned Americans that it is easy to write in a constitution that women will have a 25% representation in the elected Parliament. But it is another thing to implement it and more so, to make it effective.

In the first Parliament after women were granted the right to be elected in modern Turkey in 1934, they had a representation of 35%. Today, the figure is only about 4%.

That number is a symbolic proof that the implementation of Ataturk's Westernization goals for Turkey fell short of changing minds in the patriarchal traditions of the society.

There is also another symbolic proof that suggests there is a traditionalist awakening in Turkish society to strengthen its identity with Islam: The rise in popularity of the “headscarf” — a symbol to remind of the Ottoman days and a symbol that distances the seculars from the Islamists.

European human rights reports in the past have condemned Turkey for not allowing students to go to school with the headscarf.

They didn't do so this year, however, since they were faced with the awkward fact that France had taken similar steps against the wearing of headscarves in public schools, even though France's Muslim population has only reached 8%.

The headscarf has emerged as the key symbol for tying Western secularization to Eastern traditions. It is a delicate and equally provocative issue that has consequently generated a lot of fear and emotions.

These emotions and the symbol of the headscarf cast a misleading shadow over Turkey’s potential future with — and within — the European Union. This issue is by no means an irreversible or insoluble one.

In order to create a healthy and stable environment to open issues such as the headscarf and others up to constructive debate, the European Union can and should approve Turkey’s very real democratic achievements. And it should not allow symbolic issues to overshadow or obscure them.

Nothing, indeed, would give the still massive pro-Western forces in Turkish society a greater boost and sense of revival than a firm pledge by European leaders to give a date for the accession talks to start.

Such a commitment would rapidly dissolve the widespread European fears that an embittered Turkey may turn its back on Europe and the West and instead look east to follow the lure of fundamental Islamists.

When that is achieved, the real debate in Turkey — a debate to open the gates for free thinking about Islam — can start. And once that happens, the former “Sick Man of Europe” can help to avert the rise of radical Islam. But Turkey cannot do so without the West's help.

That is why the EU should make it clear whether they think that having Turkey inside or outside of Europe would better serve their interests and security.

In this context, it is important to draw a distinction between the groups who challenge today’s definition of secularism in Turkey. The first group is the traditionalists who don’t want to question why and how the Qur’an has been interpreted as a patriarchal text.

But the other is the modernists who want to read the Qur’an and reinterpret it as they understand today. Obviously, the impulse for reform is on the side of the modernist group.

The role of Turkey in the Middle East and its relationship with the Western world depends on which group wins out.