Securing Turkey for secularism and democracy

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Last month a foreign ministerial summit was scheduled to take place in Istanbul, bringing together representatives of the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The event, the second of its kind, was to be a symbol of harmony and understanding, and a rejection of the clash of civilizations thesis. In this venture Turkey was to play the role of host and convener, at last plausible in its oft-claimed role as a bridge between two worlds.

This conception of Turkey as a country that straddles, that is both Muslim and democratic, lay behind another move in October, the decision of the European Commission to recommend that accession negotiations begin with Ankara. That recommendation is expected to be confirmed by a full EU summit in mid-December. Sure, there will be strings of liberal conditionality attached. But these are intended to ensure that there is no backsliding. The prospect of EU membership after 10-15 years is designed to secure Turkey for secularism and liberal democracy in the way that the southern enlargement of the late 1970s guaranteed civilian democracy in Greece, Portugal and Spain.

From the European side, a raft of easy assumptions accompanies this process of binding Turkey closer to the EU. A commitment to enlargement that embraces a predominantly Muslim country is seen as a signal to the EU’s ten million or so Muslim citizens that European values of liberal humanism are blind as far as cultural background and religious faith are concerned. In short, that there is no barrier to their enjoyment of full rights.

Externally, Europe’s Turcophiles assume that Ankara’s convergence with the EU will send out a powerful signal to its Mediterranean neighbors that the union is flexible and enlightened enough to offer the prospect of genuine partnership. Whether in the area of free trade, democratic reform or human rights, the EU will be able to pursue such objectives without facing charges of a hidden agenda of neo-colonialism or of seeking to subvert indigenous value systems.

While all of these conceptions may make the Europeans feel good about themselves, the importance of which should not be under-estimated, whether they will shake down in such a smooth way is debatable. The ambivalent feelings of Europe’s Muslims are more likely to be reflected in Turkey than to be allayed by its closer ties, especially over such potentially combustible issues as the right of women to wear headscarves in schools and colleges.

In the political geography of EU foreign policy, Turkey is likely to be an active and strident advocate of its own interests in the Middle East, rather than a supporter of the bland platitudes favored but weakly pursued by Europe’s majority. In the same way that Spain has led on the EU’s relations with Latin America, and France on policy toward North Africa, so Turkey will demand to make the running on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and, at least to some extent, Israeli-Palestinian relations.

What will be the defining character of this Turkish policy toward the Middle East in a decade’s time? Most likely the pursuit of economic self-interest, as the motor of the Turkish economy begins at last to fire on all cylinders in the wake of the transformation being engineered by the IMF. For Turkey it is more likely to be the large markets of its Muslim neighbors that prove to be attractive rather than proselytizing on behalf of liberal democracy.

All of this, of course, presupposes that the long frustration of ten or more years to attain EU membership does not prove too much for the prickly dignity of the Turks. While convergence is certainly more likely than divergence, it is not inevitable. With agreement on the desirability of membership now extending to the post-Islamist government, the moderates in the military and the centre left of the political spectrum, in all arguably some 70 percent of the population, there is no mainstream opposition left to the union. So any faltering in the EU membership process will likely result in a backlash from which only ultra-nationalists, hard-line Islamists and xenophobic Kemalists can prosper.

While it can be argued that in the end Turkey is too firmly lodged within the EU’s field of gravity for any other multilateral grouping to displace it, such creepy elements, with their talk of solidarity fronts with Iran and Russia, have the potential to create turmoil in the event of any future difficulties. After all, it should be pointed out that in the end the EU-OIC meeting in Istanbul last month did not take place, a casualty of an old fashioned diplomatic spat between the EU and Turkey over the formal status of the northern Cypriot delegation. With stubborn inflexibility consuming both sides, the noble goal of inter-civilizational solidarity was easily ignored.

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