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Thursday, June 07, 2007

The View From the Hellespont

Modern day Turkey stands at a great crossroads. On one side of the Dardanelles, Turkey faces east, towards the oil fields and despotism of the Middle East. Tellingly, however, Turkey’s most important city lies on the European side of the Hellespont, in the old Byzantine fortress of Constantinople or modern day Istanbul. Constantinople, with its footprint in both Europe and Asia, acts as the ultimate manifestation of Turkey’s conflicted nature. With vital interests in both Europe and Asia, Turkey seems a nation turned inwards in search of a true identity. It is in the Turkish quest for identity that the vigorous debate regarding its admission to the European Union reaches its most fundamental question: Should Turkey be Western or Eastern? While Turkey clearly possesses a very different cultural and political background than the rest of Europe, what should—and must—be important to European policy makers is Turkey’s future, not its past. Europeans and Turks must unite around common principles and common dreams and seek to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood before extremist forces on both sides ruin the Western-Turkish entente of the Kemalist era.

Despite Turkey’s ostensibly Western orientation after the reforms of Ataturk, there has been considerable European resistance to its application to enter the EU. European skepticism of Turkey is generally a byproduct of historically minded Europeans recalling the Turks at the gates of Vienna three centuries ago and the perceived threat of Islamic civilization to European values. While recent Turkish culture is secular, the Turkish population itself is overwhelmingly Islamic and recent trends have only accentuated the daily role of Islam in Turkey. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) controls the Turkish Grand National Assembly by a nearly unassailable majority, holding over 60% of all seats, as well as the position of Prime Minister. Certain elements in Turkey and elsewhere are concerned that the President—due to be elected by the parliament in 2007—will also come from the AKP. The AKP traces its origins to the Islamist Welfare Party, founded in 1982. The Welfare Party was radically Islamic, and the AKP was created by a splinter group of moderates in 2001 and thus retains its predecessor’s connection to Islam. However, unlike the Welfare Party, the AKP has repeatedly vowed to uphold secularism and democracy, and the AKP’s invocation of Islam is essentially analogous to the European political tradition of Christian Democracy. Turkish concern over the role of the AKP caused the Presidential Election in early May to end in failure, and a new General Election is scheduled for late July in order to resolve the political gridlock. Paradoxically, the moderate Islamists in Turkey are probably more democratic than the defenders of secularism. While the AKP has always worked within Turkey’s democratic framework, the army has repeatedly threatened to “intervene” to protect the Kemalist legacy of secular government. Such military posturing is clearly antithetical to liberal government, and consequently, the whole Turkish election fiasco has done much to damage Europe’s view of Turkey as a responsible and modern democracy worthy of full acceptance as a member of Europe.

The controversy regarding Turkey’s application to the EU is generally portrayed in the context of Christendom’s self-preservation in the face of Islamic radicalism. In a sense, the Europeans are correct: militant Islam is a fundamental threat to European Civilization. However, the intrinsic conflict between Islamic Fascism and the West makes it imperative and indeed, ultimately unavoidable from a Western perspective that Turkey enters the EU. If we are truly in a clash of civilizations, we must employ every means at our disposal to divide and conquer. If Europe rejects Turkey out of fear of Islam, than it will be sentencing the most Western of all Muslim states to abandonment. Kemalist Turkey has a long and proud tradition of Western policy—but that orientation must not be taken for granted. Ataturk dreamed of a Turkey fully cooperative and in perfect harmony with the rest of Europe. That dream is close to realization with Turkey’s application to the EU. But if Europe turns its back on Turkey, Turkey will turn to other sources for friends and allies—and why shouldn’t she, if after fifty years of cooperation and friendship, her European cousins decided she wasn’t European enough to join the family? Forsaken by Europe, a disillusioned Turkey would turn to the only alternative: the Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Turkey would turn from being a critical ally of the Western world against radical Islam to a supporter of the very Sunni regimes sponsoring Wahabbist jihad. While many Europeans have legitimate concerns about Turkish democracy and the influx of Islam into the public sector via the AKP, the way to influence Turkey’s direction is not to cut it off entirely and let the Arab states gain influence amongst Turkish policy makers, but rather to gradually encourage Turkish assimilation into the European body politic through constructive engagement.

Unfortunately, the prospect for Turkish acceptance into the EU does not appear good—at least in the short term. New French President Nicolas Sarkozy seems to have captured much of the European anti-Turkish sentiment and for the time being, it appears that Europe will continue to stall and delay as it seeks to avoid directly confronting the Turkish question. After all, Turkey did apply for membership in the Common Market all the way back in 1987—and the Turks have been patiently waiting for a concrete answer from the Europeans ever since. While it’s taken Europe almost two decades to finally get around to addressing the Turkish question, the ball is certainly moving and Turkey’s application has moved to the front of the EU docket since 2005. Whatever the delay, eventually, Europe will be forced to admit Turkey or see it switch teams halfway through the ballgame. It might take a decade or two for the strategic importance of Turkey to fully sink in amongst cautious Europeans, but Turkey’s Western orientation—and for the less ideologically driven European—geographic location to facilitate the importation of natural gas from Central Asia into Europe will ultimately pave the road from Ankara to Brussels.