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Europeanness and Turkey

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


The following article is anonymous and does not necessarily reflect my personal opinion.

Certain groups claim that Turkey’s full membership to the European Union will profoundly damage ‘Europeanness’ to the point that the notion of European will no longer exist. For instance in the Declaration of the ‘No Turkish Membership in EU’ Campaign the opponents argue that Turkey belongs to the East and Islam, not Europe: “Turkey is not a European country. The Orient and the Islam are until now not really part of Europe, and we don’t want to change that.” Obviously, according to this claim, Turks are not European. But who is European? What is Europe? and where is it? As a matter of fact, from the medieval perspective, even though Turks lived on the lands that were a part of Europe, they cannot be considered to be living in Europe. For, they contradict Europeanness and Turks have had a special role of the ‘other’ in shaping European identity.

Geographically, there is no such place as Europe. Europe is one of the greater peninsulas of the Eurasian continent, such as the Arabian or Indian peninsulas. When looking at the Europe of the ancient times, it can be seen that the Greek or Roman civilizations did not regard themselves as a ‘European civilization’, but that a Mediterranean identity dominated the scene. From the same point of view, neither Christianity nor Judaism was spawned in Europe.

Conceptually, attaining an identity of a political and distinctive civilization for Europe came at a rather recent time with the rise of Islam, with Islam subsuming the south of the Mediterranean Sea, and the upsurge of a pressure to the north. Islamic raids encroached the Christians of Europe from the sea, the Iberian Peninsula, and Anatolia, virtually imprisoning them to a specific geography, the north of the Mediterranean Sea. Converging for a common cause in desperation, these people began to address their common characteristics in the face of a common enemy. Then again, a convergence due to the raids from the steppes of Central Asia, resulting with the razing of many Roman and European cities, was experienced centuries ago. However, these assaults proved to be temporary, moreover, did not evolve into a civilizational defiance. On the contrary, the raiding tribes virtually melted within the lands they invaded. In spite of this, the ‘barbarian raids’ were still fresh in memories, and Moslem incursions were identified with those raids. With the emergence of Turks, some of the entrapped peoples in Europe withdrew even further.

The conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) by Turkish armies in particular caused a great shock. Bernard Lewis argues that this shock has never been repaired: “For most Europeans, the loss of Constantinople is a great historical disaster, a defeat of Christendom which has never been repaired. In spite of the present friendly relations between Turkey and the West, there is still a reserve of mistrust, and even at times of hostility, with roots deep in the European Christian past.” The Ottomans, in full control of the Balkans, converting the Black Sea into an ‘Ottoman lake’, establishing dominance in the Mediterranean, began threatening all of the continent of Europe, including present-day Germany, Italy, and France. The Ottomans constituted such a military power that it soon turned out that it was impossible to fight them without uniting against them. During this era, the Ottomans’ push from the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea against the Christians of Europe cornered them to such a narrow confine that they felt besieged. These Christian nations looked upon the seas as the only way out and in that regard the Ottomans hastened the Explorations. Being entrapped geographically, religiously, and culturally, Christian Europe felt a more unique and distinguishing identity with the coalitions that it forged against the Ottomans.

In short, the Turks have played a special role in the formation of European identity, and the Christian Europe has mostly defined itself with the Turkish threat. However, it should not go unnoticed that even at times of great wars, Turks were part of the European order. The Ottoman State was always a part of the European balance of power, and the Ottoman Sultans consider themselves as European. They called themselves ‘Islam’s and the Eastern Rome’s Sultan’. Contrary to China, India, and Latin America, Turks had a notion of Europeanness and that they sided with the nations of Europe against others. Furthermore, the Ottomans had regarded their future lying not in Central Asia or the Middle East, but in Europe. Thus, an anti-European sentiment never existed among the Turks neither during the medieval times, nor afterwards. They saw it fit to fight European nations, when need be, just as they did with Iran. In this respect, even though the idea that Turks represented the antithesis of European identity is admissible, the European identity in question was based on the principles of the Medieval Ages, which are archaic and unacceptable by today’s standards. A weak sense of justice, principally in the form of religious bigotry and a conflict-based understanding of politics, while comprehendible for those times, deteriorated over the centuries. The French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the world wars, modernization, etc., all had a profound impact on the concepts of Europe and Europeanness.

Even though Turks still function as the “other” in the understanding of Europeanness subliminally, the values and principles that represent Europe today are not religious differences and the conflict culture but liberalism, democracy, the expansion of individual rights vis-a-vis governments, women’s and children’s rights, and civil society. The list can be expanded. From this point of view, there is a deep chasm between the Europe of the 21st century and of the Medieval Ages. Medieval Europe was only a phase in the formation of contemporary Europe and it must not be idealized but dealt as such. If this is not the case and that the attributes of the past are implemented in the present, present-day Europe will be harmed. For old Europe is an enemy of new Europe, not its friend. A return to the past is a sacrifice of today. Indeed, Europe’s culmination to its present stage is a process involving continuous renewal. Europe has evolved to its current form by constantly questioning its values and replenishing them. The French Revolution was the product of the clash between monarchy and republic. The struggles between bourgeoisie and aristocracy, capitalism and communism, Catholicism and Protestantism, authoritarianism and democracy, racism and egalitarianism are a result of Europe’s reconsideration of its old principles and Europe attained new principles at the end of each struggle, ridding itself of great burdens such as the Holocaust, racism, and fascism. It is time for another great conflict.

On what principles is Europe going to be established on? Over the obsolete religious bigotry of the past or the modern values of the 21st century? Therefore, a Europe that embraces Turks and Moslems would finally be liberated from the encumbrances of the past. With the inclusion of Turks, the definition of Europeanness will not be based on the “other”, but on more constructive values. These values ought to be human rights, just share of welfare, freedom, democracy, and liberal economy. Whether Turkey is accepted into the EU or not, there cannot be a new and stronger Europe without the EU getting rid of this burden. The Europe that was disentangled from the Crusades and religious intolerance through secularism, from monarchy through popular movements, and from the cataclysms of Fascism and Nazism through a great war can only avert an intended clash of civilizations by welcoming the power that it considered the ‘other’ for centuries.

The EU moves toward a stronger Europe with every new member. But any expansion excluding Turks and Moslems is to recreate Medieval Europe. Any idea of expansion that does not involve Turks and Moslems is indeed a form of retraction and reflects the shallow ideals of the Medieval Ages. Now is a moment of destiny for Europe. ‘European Islam’ and Turkey When analyzing Turkey-EU relations, the element of religion is seen as a more obstructive item, a significant difference between the two parties. Many skeptics in EU argue that Turkey’s accession to the European Union would bring a huge Muslim population into the EU, and this would harm the European identity. This statement is based on the presumption that Europeans are mostly Christian, and that Turks are Moslems. On the other hand, the population of Moslems living in the EU is close to 20 million. Along with other Moslems living in non-EU countries, excluding Turkey and the former Soviet Union states, that number reaches 30 million. This figure exceeds the populations of many EU countries by wide margins, such as Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The combined Moslem populations of Germany, France, and Spain exceed 12 million. Many of these people are immigrants and originate from a variety of geographies and cultures. Their latest problem is the conflict between their religion on the one hand, and the countries they live in and modernity on the other. These people, who feel alienated from the societies they live in due to the so-called Clash of Civilizations, which breeds a clash between Islam and Christianity, do not receive adequate support from their country of origin neither. It is true that there are economic and political questions involved. Especially with the second and third generation of immigrants, Moslems of Europe have created a life-style and understanding of religion that can be called European Islam, one different from the Islam in their county of origin. The problem, nevertheless, is that their governments do not address their needs sufficiently while barring them from much needed political and administrative leadership for their religious affairs. Immigrant Moslems, in addition to homesickness for their old countries, face an additional risk of assimilation. Wishing to sustain their cultural and religious values just like their neighbors, but unable to express their opinions, they have strove to keep their faith through their own means. These individuals have become more religious than they were in their country of origin on the one hand, but on the other, have created a stronger sense of their mundane world with the influence of the new country.

Especially the new generations are fully aware of the technological innovations and cultural richness of the West. It can be said that these people, who are better educated, more affluent, and more powerful than the Moslems of other countries are also more tolerant. In fact, Moslem communities demonstrate the lowest ethnic hostility among immigrant communities in Europe and North America and have the lowest crime rates. However, a lack of leadership proves to be a great difficulty for European Moslems in spite of these advantages. Even though in a more favorable position in terms of living standards, education and economic power than Moslems elsewhere, these people are devoid of religious and political institutions to guide them. The political organization of EU countries like Germany and France cannot cover that deficiency. EU institutions cannot adequately respond to any of the demands of 20 million Moslems living in member countries. In that case, Moslems get caught up in the religious currents in the host country or follow the lead of an imam of a particular mosque, as it is often the case in Britain and France. Misleading as generalizations might be, these mosques and religious currents imported from the motherland cannot fulfill the needs for the host country. It is extremely dubious as to what degree reflective of Islam these currents are, unaware of modern life and representative of the subcultures of the old country. Nonetheless, helpless masses, European Moslems, especially the youth, are aware of their distinctiveness and could end up following the lead of currents and persons that are extremely unrepresentative of Islam. These so-called leaders many times portray the garments of Afghan mountain ranges, Indian villages, and Arabian deserts as “the Islamic garment.” In the same framework, Arab, Hindu, Afghan, and Iranian customs are exposed to the masses as religious customs. This goes so far that proselytizing British, French, and German citizens liken conversion with changing dressing and living in different neighborhoods. Also enter into this framework many European Moslem who go to Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Egypt in order to learn their religion better. Those young Moslems or European converts who cannot find what they are looking for in European cities decide to follow a sheikh or a cult leader. Although this might add color to religious life, an important section continues with the dearth of leadership and healthy guidance even to the point of endangering themselves and the society in which they live.

To summarize, the EU and EU countries are unable to suggest a course of action and to deliver religious leadership to 20 million Moslems. On the contrary, European Moslems find it hard to feel themselves a part of Europe with prominent figures such as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing continuously emphasizing the Christian character of the EU. Accordingly, they tend to view the state that they live in as a Christian one. The marginal groups from both sides intensify this tendency. Even moderate groups and governments induce this through awkward deeds and statements. In Germany and France, for example, the police suspect all Moslem-looking persons for being potential criminals. Performing body searches more freely on people whose dress looks different, the police also attempt to open a file on all mosques. This “madness” has reached such proportions that the filing of millions of Moslems has been proposed. In this case, European Moslems, who are left unguided and protected, but who are more energetic, dynamic, better educated and more powerful than Moslems elsewhere, are left out for corrupt and dangerous groups.

Atop of all these, the ambiguity of European Moslems’ status in the EU context obstructs their access to their basic citizenship rights. For example in Britain, many Moslems do not genuinely know the necessities of their religion. Since this goes for British society and the British state, large masses of people cannot even benefit from health services. Along with religious discrimination and unqualified personnel, all Moslems are dealt with the prejudice against their country of origin. To exemplify, all Moslems in Britain are considered “Asian”, while they are categorized as North African in France. In other words, Moslems have a hard time in viewing themselves as ‘European’, while governments use labels such as Asian, African, Middle Eastern, etc. for their citizens. As a result, intentionally or not, second-class citizens emerge and millions of people within the EU try to solve their problems on their own without state support.

In this context, Turkey’s EU membership will be a major contribution. Turkish Islam, very similar in essence to European Islam, can lead European Moslems and serve as an answer to their questions. With Turkey’s full membership, the population of Moslems within the EU is going to exceed 100 million. It will be understood that the EU is not a mere Christian club, but transcendence into common denominators beyond religious values, enabling European Moslems to internalize the EU and the countries that they live in. In other words, Turkish membership, while saving European identity from decadence into the religious realm thus fortifying integration, would also be instrumental in serving the religious needs of the Moslems of Europe. While this will thwart the influence of dangerous individuals and currents, it will significantly aid European and global security. Moreover, as Karin Wedra pointed out integration of the EU members’ Muslim citizens is a vital question for the EU and an exclusion of Turkey on religious or cultural grounds would send a disastrous signal.

Posted by freedquaker at 9:31 PM

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