Crescent among the stars
Gilles Kepel asks how Turkey will change the face of Europe
On 17 December 2004, the European Union announced its historic decision to admit Turkey to accession talks, opening the way to EU membership for this secular, democratic state whose population of 70 million is overwhelmingly Muslim. This is the culmination of a process of discussions between Turkey and the European Union that has been underway since 1963. The Turkish government is dominated by a reformist Islamic party, the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development party, AKP) whose prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, achieved notoriety (and imprisonment) in 1998 for quoting, in a political speech, a poem which likened the minarets of his country's mosques to bayonets and their domes to helmets.
But the past six years, two of them in office, have changed the political prospects of Erdogan, his party, and his country and created for Europe the possibility that its Muslim population will increase from around 15 million in 2004 to over 85 million within a decade.
In short, 17 December was following the enlargement of the European Union by ten states on 1 May and the signing of its new constitution on 29 October the third in a sequence of momentous dates in Europe in 2004, and arguably the one that may have the most profound longterm consequences.
In assessing what these consequences will be, how Turkish entry to the European Union might affect the continent and the world, a crucial factor is the present balance of political and religious forces inside Turkey and the kind of Islam that could establish greatest influence among its citizens.
The AKP may be Islamic in name, but it represents a significant departure from its predecessors in the febrile world of Turkish Islamist politics. The most prominent of these, the Refah (Welfare) party, lambasted the European Union as a JudaeoChristian club; its abrasive leader, Necmettin Erbakan, unfavourably compared the G8 (the group of eight richest countries) to the M8 (the eight leading Muslim states). Erdogan, by contrast, has not only taken Turkey closer to EU membership but has gained the authority to modernise Turkey's Islamists. To a large extent, he is using the European magnet to defuse the intransigence of Islamist ideology.
But do the Turkish people as a whole share allegiance to antiEuropean forms of Islamism, or will they absorb and be absorbed into European values and standards? This is the crux of the matter; the answer will determine Europe's future for decades to come.
Several significant elements within the AKP see Turkish entry into Europe as an opportunity to make Europe much more open to Islam's influence and presence. Their figurehead is Bulent Arinc, speaker of Turkey's parliament, who was instrumental in the government's failed attempt to criminalise adultery in September 2004.
Erdogan sought to appeal to the same audience during his visit to France in October, when (in an echo of Erbakan) he said: "We have to know whether Europe is a Christian club or not!"
He also chose this moment to comment on the controversy, especially acute in France, over whether state schoolgirls should be allowed to wear hijab. Erdogan said that his own daughters have been forced to study in American universities because they were forbidden to wear hijab in their Turkish university.
These incidents and rhetorical forays, however, represent only one side of the Turkish argument. Another side which includes the bulk of the middleclass support of the AKP, members of the Turkish elite, and large numbers of Turkish Muslims already in Europe suggests that such willful acts by prominent actors on the political stage are not at all sure to prevail.
The influence of Turkey's modern history on the Turkish present is evident here. The elite 'white Turks' were long hampered by the dominant Kemalist ideology (deriving from the republic's founder, Kemal Ataturk) in their desire or ability to Europeanise the country in depth. Kemalism had introduced cultural Europeanisation to Turkey, whilst maintaining a strong nationalist identity.
Today, the AKP is beginning to break this pattern. Many of its voters are 'Anatolian tigers' people successful in construction or transport who have benefited from the boom in the Turkish economy, who identify with the sociallyaspiring ideology of the AKP and who see Europe as an opportunity to develop their output and market reach.
These groups are pushing hard for Erdogan's agenda to be undeviatingly proEuropean.
For Erdogan himself, this Europeanness is a means to two quite distinct ends. First, it enables him to ally with a Turkish elite often suspicious of the AKP; on this issue at least, the opposition is compelled to fall into line behind the governing party. Second, it is a tool that enables him and his followers to fight their old Kemalist enemies. Europeanstyle religious freedom, for example, is a way of pressuring to allow veiling in universities or schools, effectively an instrument of Islamism against Kemalism.
The attractive effect of Europe on Turkish society should not be underestimated. This has already had an important impact on the ideological platform of the AKP, which is increasingly diluting its political Islam stance and adopting a more European mould. This is the question ahead: will Turkey's Europeanisation lead to the dilution of the AKP's Islamist stance, or will it fuel the country's Islamist politics, aiding the defeat of the Kemalist establishment and providing radical Islamists with a platform to advance into Europe?
[i]This article was first published on[/i] www.opendemocracy.net