Turkish Delight: Islam in the West will never be the same

Turkey is not a European country; only part of Istanbul is. Its population stands at some 70 million people, 99% of whom are Muslim. Yet just days ago (on October 3, 2005 to be exact), Turkey embarked on the process of joining the European Union. This is history in the making. And the winners will be Turkey, the EU, and at least 1.2 billion Muslims — or will they?

Joining the EU will not only make Turkey the first Muslim member of the world’s largest trading bloc, but will also extend the EU’s borders into the Middle East and Asia for the first time. This will shape a new Europe — a Europe in which 20% of its citizens will be Muslim.

Turkey can play a major role in bridging the gap between the West and the Muslim world by developing and practicing democratic Islam. This is not wishful thinking, but a real possibility. In 1998, when the Turkish Constitutional Court ordered the Muslim Welfare Party to be shut down on the grounds that it had attempted to erode national secularism, it was the EU that protested.

Many observers believe now that Turkey’s hardline secular establishment will mellow with time as it moves closer to full EU membership. In their daily lives, the Turkish people are overwhelmingly religious and conservative. Thus, religious rights for Muslims to practice their faith, as well as rights for the minority Kurds to be taught in their native language, could be greatly enhanced thanks to European influence. In fact, if Turkey is going to make any progress in its negotiations to join the EU, it will have to implement a wide range of reforms dealing with human rights and freedom of expression.

Turkey’s Islamic political parties will then be able to move closer to the centre of the political spectrum and become the Muslim equivalent of Europe’s Christian Democrats. This experiment in democracy will be watched with great interest and hope, not only throughout the EU itself, but also across the Muslim world.

In 1998, female MP Mervet Kavakci was barred from the Turkish Parliament because she wore the hijab; further, when it was learned she had dual U.S. citizenship, her Turkish citizenship was withdrawn. She was then was denounced for having married a Turk, ostensibly just to regain Turkish citizenship, and within weeks, the government introduced a law stipulating a minimum period of three years before a "foreign woman" married to a Turk could apply for citizenship.

Such punitive hardline secular politics will have to fall by the wayside when Turkey joins the EU, and this can only be good for the Muslim world. In practice, Turkish policy will be obligated to radically change its message — no longer will one have to be anti-Islam to be a democrat.

But today’s hardline secularism still imposes severe restrictions on Turkish religious schools and bans women from wearing headscarves (hijabs) in state institutions, which effectively prevents millions of young girls from attending university. Any attempt to soften or change such discriminatory policies can lead to punitive action from the ever-watchful Turkish military.

Thus, the process of qualifying for EU membership will be long and problematic for Turkey — in fact, negotiations may take 10-15 years — with no guarantees of eventual success. Nor is it just a question of Turkey fulfilling all the formal criteria for accession. Public opinion in the EU so far remains overwhelmingly opposed to Turkey becoming a member, with a recent poll showing more than 95% of respondents saying "no." The stated reasons are mainly, but not entirely, economic ones.

For example, per capita income in Turkey is only one-quarter of the EU average, and many Europeans fear that Turkey will drain the EU’s budget and flood its job markets with cheap labour. Other reasons include racial and religious prejudice against Muslim Turks. Some EU members have even insisted that Turkish membership be decided through referenda, which if held today, would spell a decisive rejection for Turkey.

Although EU membership is still a very popular idea in Turkey, a tiny minority believes that it could come with a heavy price — the loss of Turkish culture and tradition. In fact, Turkish popular support to join the EU has declined from 75% in favour only a few years ago, to 55% now. Analysts believe that the Turkish people fear more conditions will be imposed upon them than on any other aspiring EU member.

Full membership in the EU would also hinge on a definitive solution to the divided-Cyprus problem. Turkey has already agreed to accept a UN unification plan and to cease recognizing the northern half of the island as independent. Within Turkey, some observers believe a nationalist backlash over Cyprus is all but inevitable.

President Chirac of France is among world leaders who say that Turkey must go through a cultural revolution before being considered for EU membership.

Meanwhile, many in the Muslim world worry that if Turkey does become an EU, it will end up as just another mouthpiece state to facilitate the new imperial policies of both the EU and the United States.

This is why so many watchful eyes in both the West and the Muslim world are trained on Turkey, to see how the future will unfold.