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Turkish Islamists and the EU

Who in Turkey wants to join the European Union?

November 1, 2002

Who in Turkey wants to join the European Union?

Given that many Europeans think Turkey is too "Muslim" to join this hitherto "Christian" club, who would have thought that Turkey's pro-Islamist parties are some of the country's most outspoken advocates of EU membership?

In December 1999, Turkey became the first Muslim country candidate for full EU membership. Before joining the illustrious club of the European Union, however, it will need to meet economic and political requirements.

In view of Turkey's present financial and economic crisis, this is not good news. The IMF has been called in — yet again — to provide a massive rescue package.

Given this scenario, there is a lively debate in Turkey about the benefits — and drawbacks — of EU membership. The Turks realize that their country would make an odd addition to the EU — due to huge cultural and social differences with the other member countries.

Some have turned bitter — and believe that Turkey would be admitted primarily to provide a convenient buffer zone between the EU and the poor regions of the Middle East.

Still, EU membership for Turkey would mean support from some of the world's largest economies — and thus, over time, the promise of economic growth and prosperity. Little wonder then that around 70% of Turks are in favor of joining the EU.

Interestingly, though, not all Turks appreciate the EU for the same reasons. While the bulk of EU membership proponents in Turkey presumably hope for economic benefits, the country's religious conservatives have their eyes fixed on something else — required democratic changes.

This is precisely where Turkey's pro-Islamist politicians and activists enter into the EU debate.

Why would Turkey's Islamist politicians want more democracy? The main reason is that Turkey's government has been fiercely secular — in essence, anti-religious, ever since Kemal Atatürk founded the country in its present shape in 1923.

In his endeavor to modernize Turkey, Atatürk pushed Islam to the sidelines and ensured that the state would have absolute control over religious issues.

As a consequence, the appointments of up to 80,000 clerics in the country are made by the government. In fact, Article 24 of the Turkish constitution states that "instruction in religion and ethics shall be conducted under state supervision and control."

Women are not even allowed to wear head scarves in state offices or universities in Turkey. Naturally, many religious Muslims resent this. To counter these state-imposed restraints and for other reasons, pro-Islamist parties have been on the rise in Turkey since the 1970s.

The country's pro-Islamist parties are the ones who have been pushing the hardest to get the democratic reform process going.

Early in August 2002, they had reason for celebration. The Turkish Parliament approved a reform package containing far-reaching reforms.

The country would abolish the death penalty, allow the Kurdish minority to broadcast — and teach — in the Kurdish language. It also agreed to ease restrictions on the freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate.

In addition, abolishing penalties for criticizing state institutions and other restrictive laws will enable the pro-Islamists to present their agenda more forcefully again.

And that is what explains their push to press ahead with EU membership — and the necessary political reforms. After all, on the EU level it would be impossible for Turkey to continue restricting religious freedoms.

Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union states, that "everyone has the right to […] manifest religion of belief." That would include wearing the scarf in state offices — and other manifestations of religion in the state sphere.

Within the EU, France has already created a major controversy with its ban of head scarves in the country's schools.
Many Muslims in France consider this a violation of their right to practice their religion.

That is a right granted by the EU's Charter of fundamental human rights.

Yet, it is not only in Turkey that Islamists are looked at with apprehension. The EU is ambivalent about a Turkish entry, too. After all, if the country becomes a member, it would significantly upset current power structures within the union.

With around 67 million people, Turkey would be second most populous member nation. And with over 600,000 soldiers, Turkey's army is almost as large as the combined forces of the EU's military 'giants' France and Germany.

But before Muslim phobia strikes Europe with visions of a second Ottoman siege of Vienna, one should be careful about Turkey's imminent Islamization.

First, in their desire to join the EU, the so-called Islamists are in good company with about 70% of Turkey's population. Coincidently, that number is the same number of people who consider themselves 'devout Muslims' — fasting during Ramadan and attending mosque on Friday.

The fact that so many Turkish people resent the state's tampering with their religion does not mean that they — or the more extreme elements of Turkey's pro-Islamists — are just waiting to introduce sharia, the Islamic law code. Under EU regulations, that would not be possible anyway.

Article 4 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union states that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman […] treatment." That evidently excludes the harsher forms of sharia such as chopping off hands and the death penalty.

Nobody suggests that religious extremism need not be watched in any given country. One should, however, be more careful about what can be labeled as such.

If the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Turkey's other pro-Islamist parties wish to make sure that their religion can be freely practiced and fully endorse EU requirements for membership, Turkish entry will enrich the EU.

If, on the other hand, the EU finds that Turkish religious extremists are trying to hijack the EU membership debate for a hidden agenda, the Turkish people will be very disappointed — not least the 23% who would vote for the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party.

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