Published in Turkish Policy Quarterly no 3 2004


Turkey´s cultural and religious heritage - an asset to the European Union

Av Ingmar Karlsson

Ever since Turkey concluded an Association Agreement with the then European Community in 1963, it has, apart from Bülent Ecevit´s period as prime minister in the 1970s, pursued its ambition of joining the European Union. Turkey entered into a customs union that has been in force since 1996 and its candidacy for membership of the EU was confirmed in Helsinki in 1999.

The rediscovery of the 'Turkish peril' in some quarters in Europe is therefore surprising. The basic principle of Roman law - pacta sunt servanda - is part of the European cultural heritage. Anyone who ignores this principle with regard to Turkey loses political credibility and flouts official EU policy, according to which Turkey is to be treated like any other candidate. Accordingly accession negotiations should start as soon as the country meets the Copenhagen criteria.

The arguments against a Turkish EU membership that have been used so far have lost much of their force in view of the rapid reform process launched by the Erdogan government and the result of the referendum in Cyprus. Consequently, those who are opposed to Turkey's membership now talk less about the country's "EU maturity" and the fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria. Instead they argue that EU cannot absorb a new member of the size of Turkey, that a Turkish membership would cause serious geopolitical and strategic problems and, last but not least, that EU is a community based on Christian values.

The absorption capacity of the EU

With 25 members the EU is said to be an over-extended structure, and that further geographical expansion can only take place at the expense of a deepening of political cooperation.

This line of argument - that Europe is not powerful enough to absorb Turkey - can only be described as political tactics. If there was any truth in it, it should have been deployed over ten years ago when the EU's eastward enlargement process started. In those days the main opponents of Turkish membership - the CDU/CSU in Germany - were the keenest advocates of enlargement.

The project of building a strong United States of Europe on the American model is no longer on the political agenda after the accession of ten new members on May 1 2004, and will be even more passé by the time Bulgaria and Romania join the EU in 2007. A united Karolingian Europe must now be built up again by Paris and Berlin. The new enlarged EU will for the foreseeable future be a political and economic union with variable geometry, concentric circles and different speeds. What objection is there to Turkey's incorporation into such a union, particularly in view of the fact that, with its geographical location, its size and its decades-long membership of NATO, Turkey is a strategically important partner which by itself would enhance the role of Europe in global politics more than the ten new members combined? The accession of Turkey - at the beginning of a new budget period in 2014, say - would increase the population of the Union by 12 per cent. There must be something seriously wrong with a union that cannot absorb such an expansion. Demography, after all, is one of the most serious problems facing the EU, not least in Germany, and Turkey, with its large, youthful population, could help to solve this problem.

Security and geopolitical arguments

The geopolitical and strategic arguments that were used in favour of the accession of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and the Baltic states are valid for Turkey too, in fact even more so than was the case in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Some day the enlargement process will come to an end, but terminating it without admitting Turkey would be a serious mistake and an unwise policy. Those who are opposed to Turkish membership seem to think of the EU as an "island in the sun", a Switzerland surrounded by good, friendly neighbours. But Europe's geostrategic location is far from idyllic. Europe must stabilize its own periphery to ensure that it is not affected by the problems that exist there. Turkish membership of the EU would strengthen Europe on its most vulnerable front.

Turkey now faces three geostrategic choices: affirmation of its European identity, rapprochement with the Arab and Muslim world, and integration with the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia.

There is no doubt that the present Turkish government has chosen the first of these three options and that the country's political and economic elite are playing the European card. If this fails because the EU defers its decision or refuses to admit Turkey to the Union, both the other options would become more feasible. In that case, the friends of modernization would probably not be able to persist in their pro-European stance.

Both the pro-Islam and the pan-Turkic option would entail serious consequences for the stability of Southeastern Europe. Even though Turkey is not likely to achieve a dominant position in the Central Asian republics, the mere attempt to do so would have a destabilizing effect and also exacerbate the existing problems in the Caucasus. It is in Europe's vital interests to see to it that the problems in the Middle East, including Iraq, and the southern periphery of the former Soviet Union do not converge. There is an obvious risk of this happening if Turkey were to play the pan-Turkic card.

The second option, i.e. rapprochement with the Arab and Muslim world, would have an adverse affect on Europe too. One argument against Turkish membership is that in that case part of the EU's external frontier would abut on the most crisis-ridden and troubled region in the world and that Europe should at all costs keep away from the problems of the Muslim world in general and the Middle East in particular.

But we cannot escape this part of the world and its problems, and therefore the opposite conclusion is the most credible one, i.e. a rapprochement between Turkey and this region would bring its crises closer to us. The idea that a Turkey excluded from the European Community could be a firewall against the crises in the Middle East is politically naïve. All the crises in the Middle East so far have directly affected Europe, and they will affect us even more in future. If Turkey were a member, this would increase the EU's opportunities for pursuing a proactive policy in the Arab world. This is not without risks, but if Turkey remains outside the Union this will have serious consequences. A stable democracy in a Muslim society, on the other hand, could stand as a model for a Muslim world that badly needs such models. The Turkish membership of the EU would demonstrate the falsity of the argument that Islam and democracy cannot mix and help to bring about favourable changes in the Islamic world's attitude to Europe.

A no to Turkey in December would on the other hand have a radicalizing effect both in the Muslim world at large and within Turkey itself. It will strengthen the argument of the fundamentalists that the Muslim world must turn inwards because the rest of the world conspires against it and it will strengthen those in Turkey who question the reform policies of prime minister..

The identity factor - is the EU a Christian community?

The resistance to Turkish membership is not only motivated by fears about the EU's lack of absorption capacity and about the risk of importing problems and disturbances, but also by vague qualms about a culture that is regarded as alien. One argument that is now gaining ground, especially in Catholic Europe, is linked to identity, namely Europe's Christian values, which are mentioned as a reason for keeping Turkey out. In that case it might just as well be argued that Greece should not have been admitted to the EU because of its Eastern Orthodox roots, that "semi-Orientals" such as Romanians and Bulgarians should be kept out too and that Albania and Bosnia are forever doomed to be Muslim ghettos in Europe.

What will happen if the secularization process in Europe continues? Where do the limits of identity go? Will a secular country such as Sweden have to leave the EU in the not too distant future when the number of Muslims who go to mosques for Friday prayers is larger than the number of churchgoers on Sundays?

The Justice and Development Party has emerged as a result of the transformation of Turkish Islamism and has come to power in free elections. Turkey is now undergoing a historic reform process that is mainly motivated by the prospect of EU membership. Prime Minister Erdogan wants to transform the AKP into a modern European party - a Muslim version of a Christian Democratic Party - and he needs Europe's support for this process.

There have never been any religious criteria for membership of the EU. To refuse Turkey admission on religious grounds would send a false and dangerous signal, especially after 11 September 2001. Such a decision would ignore the fact that Islam is a mainstream religion in Europe today. As late as the end of the 1960s Europe was a net emigration area. But nowadays 10-15% of the population in most Western European countries were born outside their present home country, and a growing percentage of them were born outside Europe. More immigrants arrive in Europe every year than in the USA. There are today at least 15 million Muslims in the EU, which is more than the number of Protestant Scandinavians, and the number will increase as immigration continues.

The trend towards a multiracial and multiconfessional Europe is therefore unstoppable. This trend will be further strengthened by current demographic trends in Europe. Today, the birthrate among Muslim immigrants in Europe is three times higher than in the non-Muslim population. If this trend continues the Muslim population will, given current immigration patterns, have doubled by 2015, while Europe's non-Muslim population will decrease by 3.5%. Some estimates of the number of Muslims in Europe in 30 years' time are as high as 65 million. Three-four decades ago the Muslim immigrants were coming to Europe looking for work and they planned to return home as soon as possible. They therefore remained marked by their culture of origin, Indo-Pakistani, North African or Turkish. The parents tried to protect their children from the unfamiliar European environment rather than integrating them into it. But most of these immigrants never went back. Their children were born in Europe and became better educated than their parents. This led to new ways of thinking and now we can see how some kind of silent revolution is taking place among the younger Muslim population in Europe. European Muslims are now Muslims and not North-African, Indo-Pakistani or Turkish Muslims and a European Islamic culture is slowly developing. Islam is thus already today an integral part of Europe and a European religion and as we have been talking about Eastern Christianity we will soon be talking about Western Islam. Islam must therefore be recognized and regarded as a "domestic" European religion. There is nothing which intrinsically prevents a Muslim from being as good a Swede as a member of the Pentecostal Bretheren or an adherent of the Jewish faith, or that mosques cannot become as natural a feature of Swedish cities as churches have always been in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul or Cairo. Only a depoliticized and liberal Islam can be integrated into Europe, and such an integration is only possible if it is paralleled by economic and social integration. A future Europe with a flourishing Muslim presence and an open European identity must therefore be based on self-criticism, a permanent and open dialogue and a respect for diversity. We must realize that Muslims can make a positive contribution in the construction of a new Europe. Their presence should be seen as a source of enrichment and not as a problem. Young Muslims in Europe now mobilize for recognition, identity and survival. They often look upon themselves as a new force distancing themselves from traditional and international bonds, wanting to be a European face of Islam. They are not only born in the West by Muslim parents. Some of them have grown up in mixed marriages and they know both a Muslim and a Christian way of living. They speak the languages and are born citizens of European states and their common language is English, German, Dutch, French or Swedish. They are using Islam as a way of establishing the universal values they have in common with those around them. Defining their own identity as Muslim thus is a way of interacting with the rest of society. With the sociological change there will be an ideological change as well. In Islam law and ethics are identical. If you change the ethics you thus change the law. Through the principle of "ijtihad" (to develop, interprete and apply Muslim doctrines to contemporary situations) there will be a new interpretation of Islam. The integration of Europe´s Muslims depends on the adoption of a form of Islam that embraces the principal Western political values; pluralism, tolerance, the separation of church and state, democratic civil society and individual human rights. We are already today witnessing the emergence and creation of a several European Muslim identities, German, French, British, Swedish, Dutch etc. Interviews with Swedish Muslims show that they are more and more focusing on their presence, role and future in Sweden: What kind of multicultural Sweden do we as Muslims want to have in the future? What kind of multicultural state do we think is necessary to safeguard the long-term survival of the Muslims as a cultural, ethnic and religious minority group in Sweden and what can we as Muslims do to bring this about? They thus want to draft a new brand of Islam, one that aims to reconcile the basic tenets of the faith - such as the five pillars, social justice and submission to the will of God - with the realities of contemporary European life. For this new generation "Euroislam" is not a zero sum game. They see no contradiction in being Muslim and European at the same time. In a report from the Swedish Muslim Youth Association you can read: "The goal for young Muslims should be to accept, understand and respect differences but also to understand common values and goals and try to implement them. Young Muslims should form a bridge between the European and the Muslim countries". If immigrants are integrated in this way, the Islamic communities in Europe can become a bridge between Europe and the immigrants' countries of origin. "Euromuslims" will then be able to set an example, and transfer democratic approaches and liberal ideas and reforms to their native countries. This would enable a fruitful triangular relationship to develop between the Islamic communities, their native countries and their new home countries, since many people living in the Diaspora want to maintain close contacts with their origins.

A no to Turkey on religious and cultural grounds would be disastrous for Europe since it would send an immediate and strong message to the fastest growing segments of the European population that they will always be considered unwelcome and second-class citizens also if they chose a secular way of life. Sending such a message could, before we know it, lead to the emergence of a ghetto Islam in Europe instead of a modern tolerant European Islam. Radical mullahs all over Europe are already doing their best to exploit Muslim immigrants' psychological, cultural and material problems for their own purposes, and this message would only make their work easier.

If this happens, we might soon witness a 'clash of civilizations' in Western Europe, not in the form of a military showdown between the West and the Islamic world, or as envisaged by Samuel Huntington, the proponent of the clash of civilizations theory, but in the form of a continuous guerrilla warfare in ghettoized suburbs of our cities.

Against this background the decision taken in the Netherlands in December this year will be fraught with consequences for the destiny of Europe.

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