Bridging The Chasm: A Reconciliation of Civilizations

Turkey’s impending accession to the EU has the power to bridge the chasm between Islam & Christianity and bring hope to millions in the Islamic world. In this column, we take a look at the conditions attached to the accession, the conflicting views held by vested interests, recent developments on this issue and most importantly, the ways in which this event can profoundly affect the political, economic and religious landscape of the world.

I want you to imagine. Imagine a Palestinian or Iraqi or Jordanian boy. A bare education if any, limited or no opportunities, and a deep sense of hopelessness that drives him to contemplate the strapping on of bombs. A grainy television set feeds images of Western peers in schools and malls, playing sports and enjoying rich opportunities, all deepening his misery. Forward ten years. The images flicker on the screen and now the boy sees Turks his age, mixing peacefully with Christians, enjoying opportunities he only dreams of. He sits up. Islam is not the problem, he gradually realizes. It’s his backward looking regime that is.

As the world continued to focus on its daily dose of horror from Iraq and the Middle East last week, few could be blamed for overlooking smaller headlines proclaiming the EU’s latest decision on Turkey’s push for accession. Yet, as is often the case in life, the size of the headline belied
the crucial nature of the news.

We stand today in a world fractured across major fault lines. Whether we wish to accept it or not, Samuel Huntington’s controversial theory, concisely laid out in his seminal work of 1998 “Clash Of Civilizations” argued that going forward, the great fissures of civilization would not form along national boundaries, but rather as a result of fundamental, deep-rooted religious and ethnic tensions. With the benefit of hindsight, Professor Huntington was remarkably prescient. Never before since the age of the Great Crusades, has such deep tension existed between the great civilizations of Islam and Christianity. Never before has each been as misunderstood by the other, motives and missions questioned, attacked, even loathed.

Within this tortured context, surrounded by a seemingly endless wave of dark news, the outcome of Turkey’s efforts to enter the EU are vitally important – not just to Turkey and the EU, but to us all, citizens of the world as we may be. The symbolism of a large Muslim population knocking patiently on the doors to the hitherto exclusive Christian club that is the EU should not be overlooked. In an age aching for understanding, for a rise above suspicion, enmity and loathing, the possibilities offered by the ascension of Turkey to the EU would be ground-breaking. It is then precisely our tragic backdrop that necessitates our generation to pause amidst the whirl of every day life and recognize the importance of the Turkey-EU process and where it appears to be headed.

A Bridge To The
Future: Why Turkish Accession Is
Beneficial To The World

Turkey’s accession to the EU would be ground-breaking in several obvious and not-so-obvious ways.

Linking the East & the West
First, it would not only bring a huge Muslim population into the largely Christian EU, but would also extend EU boundaries deep into the Caucasus Mountains and towards the plains of ancient Mesopotamia. The largely Christian-bordered EU would find itself sharing borders with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Georgia and Armenia, each of the first three states widely considered exporters of Islamic fundamentalism and possessing large Muslim populations. Once the “sick man” of Europe, Turkey would effectively link East and West. A continent of Christianity would, in one fell swoop, be tied more closely to a land of Islamic faith.

There are many who believe – with good reason – that the proximity of these two great civilizations could engender a deeper and more compassionate understanding within each, of the other. It would serve as an effective blow to those on both sides of the divide who seek to drive a wedge between the civilizations and would potentially go some way towards winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. It would foster deeper understanding of the tenets of Islam within some of the oldest Christian civilizations and hopefully, move the Christian world to de-link the word “Islam” from the thought of fundamentalism.

Even more crucially, Turkish accession and the benefits it would bring with it would provide a beacon of hope to the poor and downtrodden youth of backward Islamic regimes – regimes who have controlled their poor populaces precisely through the pernicious argument that Islam cannot be reconciled with democracy. The shining example of Turkey would defeat that and bring light to many.

The Deepening Democratization of Turkey
Secondly, admission to the EU would deepen the ties developed between Turkey and NATO into the more fundamental ties of political association. These ties would deepen Turkey’s commitment to democracy, women’s and minority rights, and the limiting of the influence of the military over civilian rule. A host of positive results could flow from this. First on the list could well be a final rapprochement between Greece and Turkey – and a settlement in Cyprus – both of which most expect to be part of any accession.

Additionally, Turkey’s democratic institutions would be immeasurably strengthened – in fact, this most fascinating process is already underway – providing a most telling and effective rebuttal to those who claim that Islam is a religion singularly unsuited for democracy. The secular nature of Turkish public life, engendered by the great Ataturk would be solidified and provide a framework of understanding and trust through which the West could more effectively reach out the Islamic world both within Turkey as well as, more crucially, beyond Turkey’s borders.

Triumphing over the Past
At a level less relevant to current events in the world, Turkish ascension could also go some way towards effectively burying bloody memories relating to decades-past Ottoman forays into Europe. As a political commentator for the BBC succinctly noted, the EU is designed not to forget history, but to triumph over it, to overcome it. Only recently, the 1683 Siege of Vienna, invoked by a European commissioner to argue against Turkish entry. “The liberation of 1683 would have been in vain,” declared Dutch commissioner Frits Bolkenstein. In that siege, Polish King Sobieski led a force which drove the Turks backwards, inch by inch. Oh how our world has changed – today, Catholic Poland and Muslim Turkey both stand in the same front yard, seeking membership to the same gathering of nations. Surely such membership will – with the passage of time – banish past memories of carnage?

A Bridge Too Far:
Turkey as a
Destabilizing Force ?

Vital as this ascension seems to some, there are others who argue that this is a veritable bridge too far.

Turkey’s Demographic
Common arguments against Turkey’s ascension include the sentiment that Turkey is not really a European country despite its slight foothold on the European continent. Most often heard is the argument that Turkey has the potential to be a destabilizing force within the EU on account of its demographic and the nature of the EU’s open borders. With a population of approximately 70 million, Turkey is only smaller than Germany, which has approximately 80 million citizens. However, the German demographic – like most European demographics – is projected to decline precipitously, while Turkey’s demographic is expected to rise strongly. The thought of Turkey possessing the largest demographic in Europe, with all its attendant considerations of representation at the EU’s decision-making bodies, worries many a European minister. The free movement of goods and people is a founding and immutable tenet of the EU. The prospect of millions of Turks flooding into the EU in search of a better standard of liv
ing is one which easily raises European concerns. Restrictions on such movement for some years might well form part of accession conditions.

A Conduit For Fundamentalism?
Arguably the most pernicious argument states that the Turkish population, despite the influence of the secular Ataturk, remains susceptible to the more aggressive beliefs of Enver Pasha, who sought to unify his state via the doctrines of nationalism as well as religion. One of the “Young Turks” who overthrew the remnants of the Ottoman sultanate, Pasha envisioned extending Muslim rule deep into the Caucuses. This argument tends to overlook the fact that Pasha was inherently secular and drew on the twin artifacts of religion and nationalism simply to drive a greater united state. Still, the prospect of fundamentalist thought continuing to exist in Turkey worries some, as does the prospect of Islamic fundamentalists crossing open borders into Europe. However, others argue strongly that the best way to prevent a Turkish slide towards fundamentalism is to open one’s arms to the state in a trusting but careful embrace.

Recent Developments: A “Qualified” Yes to the Accession
Headlines in newspapers across the world early this month broke news of the EU’s signal to Turkey that it should formally begin talks on ascension. The decision was reached by a “large consensus” among Commissioners, one EU official said, but no vote was taken.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul described the EU’s decision as “historic”. However, the EU decision was one laced with caution – arguing that Turkey still had progress to make on several fronts in terms of its harmonization with broad EU social, political and military norms. In particular, the EU focused on Turkey’s Achilles Heel – its human rights record – and argued that continued forward movement would be subject to further human rights improvements, particularly with respect to minority rights and the rights of women. There was also no recommended date to start negotiations with Turkey. “It is a qualified yes,” EU Commissioner President Romano Prodi told European parliament leaders.

Despite the “qualification” of the “yes”, the decision was widely viewed as a positive development for Turkey and a ballast for continued reform within the state. Over the last couple of years, Prime Minister Erdogan has undertaken and continues to undertake historically broad and deep reforms – economic, social, political and military. Reforms include the curtailing of military influence over government, stronger protection of women’s rights, a ban on honor killings, wider freedoms for the Kurdish minority and the meeting of strict economic guideposts. While acknowledging that Turkey had some way to go in terms of its harmonization with EU norms, Erdogan was quick to underline a widespread Turkish demand to the EU, “We want no more than what was done for the 25 members of the EU – that the same criteria and methods be applied.”

Mr. Prodi said Turkey would have to improve its human rights record if the talks were to succeed and warned that Turkish membership was not a foregone conclusion. It is expected that even if full membership negotiations start soon, Turkey will not be able to join until well into the next decade.

Tellingly, when asked to speculate on a possible date for full Turkish membership, Prodi answered with a shrug of the shoulders and a smile.

Carpe Diem ?
Is Turkey and its ascension something to be left for another year – or century? Can we afford to wait as long as we seem destined to? Can we appear to – as was once famously said – continue to fiddle as Rome burns? For better or worse, standing as we do today on the edge of chaos, Turkey represents our greatest hope in bridging the gaping chasm of understanding and empathy that exists between the two ancient civilizations of Christianity and Islam as well as bringing hope to millions of hope-starved youth in the Muslim world. It is time, as the Latin gods of old would say, to seize the day. For what greater crime exists than to stand by and do nothing when something can be done to make the world a better place?

EU report on Turkey –
Key Points

Key points from the European Commission’s report on Turkey’s progress towards meeting the conditions for EU membership. The report is the basis for the Commission’s recommendation to open Turkish accession talks.

Conclusion: “Turkey has achieved significant legislative progress in many areas … Important progress was made on implementation of political reforms, but these need to be further consolidated and broadened.”

Political reforms: “Political reforms, in line with the priorities in the Accession Partnership, have been introduced by … a series of constitutional and legislative changes adopted over a period of three years (2001-2004).”

Economic reforms: “Economic stability and predictability have been substantially improved since the 2001 economic crisis. Previously high inflation has come down to historic lows, political interference reduced and the institutional and regulatory framework has been brought closer to international standards.”

Military reforms: “The government has increasingly asserted its control over the military. Although the process of aligning civil-military relations with EU practice is underway, the armed forces in Turkey continue to exercise influence through a series of informal channels.”

Judicial reforms: “The independence and efficiency of the judiciary were strengthened.”

Human rights: “Concerning … the respect of human rights and the exercise of fundamental freedoms, Turkey has acceded to most relevant international and European conventions.”

Torture: “The authorities have adopted a zero tolerance policy towards torture and a number of perpetrators have been punished. Torture is no longer systematic, but numerous cases of ill-treatment, including torture, still continue to occur and further efforts will be required to eradicate such practices.”

Women’s rights: “The situation of women is still unsatisfactory; discrimination and violence against women, including ‘honour killings’, remain a major problem.

Children’s rights: “Children’s rights were strengthened, but child labour remains an issue of serious concern.”

Minority rights: “The OSCE [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] High Commissioner on National Minorities could play a valuable role in assisting Turkey to move towards full compliance with modern international standards on the treatment of minorities, including the Kurds.”

Freedom of religion: “Although freedom of religious belief is guaranteed by the constitution … non-Muslim religious communities continue to experience problems.”

Freedom of the press: “Notable progress has been made, (but)… journalists, writers and publishers continue to be sentenced for reasons that contravene the standards of the European Court of Human Rights.”