View Full Version : Turkey's EU Membership's Impacts on Islamic World

News Update/Yingi Heverler
09-01-05, 14:45

Journal of Turkish Weekly, Turkey January 5. 2005

* Turkey's EU Membership's Impacts on Islamic World

View: Dr. Sedat Laciner

Unquestionably, one of the greatest impacts of Turkey's EU membership will
be on relations between the Islamic world and the EU. Over the last 15
years, in a unique fashion, Turkey has remarkably improved its relations
with almost all Moslem countries; from Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to
Egypt, Malaysia, and Albania. In addition to this, Turkey has augmented its
prestige due to its policies towards the Iraq War. It is an omen of
regional satisfaction that the Syrian Prime Minister has labeled Turkey's
policies as "shrewd." Acting independently despite offers of territory
(Northern Iraq) and money ($ 30 billion), Turkey's advocacy of Iraq's
security and regional stability even in contrast to its national interests
has instigated great sympathy from the countries of the region and other
Moslem countries. In short, Turkey has broken its long inertness towards
the region and has become an influential country. Bearing in mind the
Ottoman heritage of the region, Turkey's importance for the Islamic world
is almost self-evident.

Second, Turks have represented a significant interpretation approach of
Islam within the Islamic world. While the role of the Republican legacy is
indisputable, the difference goes back to Ottoman, even Seljuk times.
Turkish Islam, in line with the characteristics of the Turks' Central Asian
past and their environment, evolved to represent a more liberal and
tolerant form than Iranian and Arabic interpretations of Islam. Emerging as
the most powerful Moslem state, the Ottoman state found itself poised to
stay close to all interpretations of Islam, enhancing its tolerance. With
the 19th century, it was the Ottoman state that first felt the conflict
between modernity and the Islamic world. As other Moslem communities had
not yet attained statehood or were not independent per se, the relations
between the state and religion acquired a different nature.

Ottoman intelligentsia was compelled to deliberate the relationship between
their backwardness and religion, the compatibility of religion and
modernity, Islam's association with the needs of modern life, the
connection between democracy and religion, and multiculturalism long before
other Moslems. For example, the Ottoman state was the first Moslem country
to experience a parliamentary system. The Ottomans were the first to debate
notions such as democracy, parliament, elections, and legislation in the
Moslem world. Establishing checks and balances over political authority
other than religion found its first somber examples in the Ottoman Empire.
As a result, it was the Istanbul (Turkish) approach that lived through the
troublesome confrontation of modernity-Islam and the integration of
religion into the democratic system, causing it to diverge from other
Moslem territories. It can also be said that because it was not colonized
by foreign powers, Turkish Islam was much more self-critical, could not
blame external factors for its deficiencies and as a consequence, was
intellectually more productive. The Moslem territories were mostly
colonized during the 19th century. The Ottoman Empire protected a large
part of the Muslim world from colonization for a long time. Yet along with
the collapse of the Ottoman State, the Muslim world as a whole gradually
fell under the imperial domination of the European powers. As Fuller and
Lesser put it, nearly every portion of the Muslim world, from Indonesia to
Gibraltar, up into Central Asia, and down into sub-Saharan Africa, at some
period became the colonial possession of a host of European powers:
England, France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Russia. Only
Turkey, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia were exception. However though Saudi
Arabia and Afghanistan were independent in terms of international law, both
of them were economically and politically dependent on the great powers,
and these two countries never enjoyed a fully independence and
self-confidence as Turkey did.

As a result, in most of the Muslim countries, the agony of backwardness and
hostility towards Western powers were almost merged and efforts were made
to solve problems by anti-Western ideas. Because there was a difficulty in
creating a national caste of intellectuals and administrators, a balance
was not struck between religion and politics on the one hand, and religion
and modernity on the other. Thus, Islam and politics radicalized each other
in these countries. In contrast to the Turkish approach, while Islam was
barred from coexisting with modernity, causing problems to ossify,
reactionary, radical and violence-prone approaches rose to prominence.
Numerous Moslem countries,where nation-building was incomplete, resorted to
religious motives for the formation of the nation and encouraged those
aspects of religion that were bent on war and conflict. In this light, it
is extremely hard to distinguish national struggles from Islamic struggles
in North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Accordingly, it dubious
whether religion is utilized for political causes, or whether deeds are
committed because of the commandments of the religion. On the other hand,
during the Turkish War of Liberation, while there was some religious
inspiration and that religion was used as an important motivator, the war
was primarily carried out to save the nation, and the army in question was
the Turkish Army. Many clerics took part in the war, assistance was
received from Moslems of other countries and religious orders were
announced by clerics saying that it was hallowed to partake in the war. But
the war was an earthly war first and foremost. All non-religious groups
(leftist, secular, liberal, etc.) fought in the war together with religious
groups and did not perceive the war as a religious effort. Neither did
they perceive the war as an instrument of vengeance. While fighting to save
their country, they were fully aware that they were the chief source for
their troubles. It was for this reason that with the conclusion of the war,
Turkish leaders endeavored to strengthen the nation through reforms and the
relations with the former belligerents were elevated to a status of normality.

Another attribute that must not go unmentioned is that Turks have been the
Moslem nation closest to the West. With the advent of the Ottomans and
thereafter, Turks sustained their relations with the West on the basis of
two equals. On the other hand, the relations in other Moslem lands were
either preponderant (Western supremacy) or were not as intense.

Unfortunately, the points depicted above did not alter significantly after
the Second World War. While Turkey accelerated religious and political
reforms with the founding of the republic in 1923, the rest of the Islamic
world failed to follow suit. For, with the exception of Turkey and
partially Iran, the Islamic world was either under occupation, colonized,
or under an immense influence of a foreign power. Furthermore, internal
disputes and economic problems eliminated any chance of a renaissance or
renewal. Notwithstanding that many Moslem countries gained their
independence in the context of the Cold War, the problems in these
countries are not solved and the reactionary and radical elements of
religion are amplified by political motives.

But the truly dramatic effect was the Israeli question. Israel grew amidst
Arabs by land purchases and by way of arms. This growth came about by
incessant wars and Israel was supported to that end by the United States,
the USSR, and Europe, or so was the image that Arabs had. As a result, in
Arab countries, which failed to halt Israel's growth and to attain
nationhood, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict assumed a harmonizing role and
placed anti-Israeli thinking and religious solidarity at the center of
nation-building. However, there are many Palestinians who are Christians
and Israel does not treat them any differently than Palestinians. Until the
1990s, the Israeli question heightened to the point where human rights
violations became visible even to the ordinary citizen. Furthermore, the
impression that international law did not fully apply to Israel spread
among Arabs. Events where overwhelming UN decisions were vetoed by the US
furthered the sense of injustice and wrongdoing among Moslems. As a result,
not seeing the power to fight the US and Israel in themselves, the younger
generations understood that the West was using double-standards, taking
advantage of law to its own benefit and disregarding Moslems. Was this a
reality or an illusion? That did not matter. This was the way these people
saw the world and unfortunately Western countries failed to see the arrival
of that perspective and ignored it. In Moslem countries, where
nation-building was incomplete and the time and means to attain maturity
was in scant, aggravation increased with the events in Chechnya, Bosnia,
and Kosovo. On top of these factors, it must be added that some entities,
acting in the name of Western countries and as a dictate of realpolitik,
approached the region with double standards. The collaboration between
governments and these entities that involved transporting natural resources
to the West and importing finished good worked to the detriment of the
people and accordingly, democracy and liberalism did not become the most
revered values. This further increased anti-Western sentiment in Moslem
countries, along with violence and reactionary groups.

On the other hand, despite experiencing some problems with the West (such
as Cyprus), Turkey has been an economic, political, and military member of
the Western bloc. Membership in NATO, OECD, Council of Europe, and
associate membership in the EU is the most visible proof to that point.
Turkey was a member of almost all European institutions during the Cold War
and still demonstrates a strong desire to join the EU. In addition, in
contrast to other Moslem countries, Turkey did not feel a sense of
inferiority in its dealings with Europe and the West. Even though they felt
being treated with double standards, Turkish governments and Turkish public
opinion has had confidence that it could depend on its own power in its
relations with the West. From this perspective, a sense of hopelessness and
desperation similar to that in Palestine has never prevailed in Turkish
public opinion. For example, while believing that European countries were
siding with Greece in its past quarrels with Turkey, Turkey neither felt
weak nor gave up on its prospects of EU membership. In the case of Cyprus,
despite protests from some EU countries and the explicit threats from the
US Congress, Turkey moved forward with its policies in Cyprus and still
succeeded. In other words, in defiance of its disputes, Turkey did not
perceive itself outside the West and did not consider the West as a
distinct civilization, a form of "other." Furthermore, Turkey nurtured a
nexus of legal and political relations with Western countries on the basis
of equality. Consequently, the widespread feeling of despair and weakness
did not gain a hold in Turkey. Turkish Moslems did not regard their
religion as an instrument of reaction. To put it differently, religion did
not become a weapon. In relations with the West, a difference of interests
rather than religion was emphasized.

Another aspect of Turkish Islam is its worldliness. Even at times when
religion demonstrated its effect on government most intensely, religious
references were not the only factor determining daily life and politics.
Worldly needs and worldly sources of power were prevalent as much as
religious references in the Seljuks, the Ottomans, and of course, the
Republic of Turkey. There are many historical and cultural reasons for that
and require analysis beyond the scope of this book. What must be noted here
as the most important item is that Turks were always the ruling class in
the Ottoman Empire and confronted mundane problems in their most lively
form. In other words, the administration, aiming to harmonize diverse
religious, ethnic, social and economic groups found itself obliged to act
pragmatically and devise practical solutions in a geography so wide and at
times so difficult. Functioning as the ruling military class for centuries
caused a pragmatic mindset to develop among Turks and this spilled over to
the understanding of religion. As a result, people found a middle way
between the decrees of religion and the needs of daily life. The advantage
of this mindset was that even when in conflict with religious rules, it
allowed free thought and respect for others. Another important agent in the
development of practical and pragmatic thought is that Turks' nomadic
origins and life style in ancient times hindered the rise of deep-rooted
philosophical currents, unlike some Moslem communities. This way the
differences over the dogmas and principles of Islam were not fostered.
However, philosophical groups, prevalent in the Iranian and Arabian lands,
attributed their distinction to the religion, giving way to sectarian

As a result, both the masses and the administrators observed the sanctity
of religion and some religious principles even became an integral part of
official discourse. However, the boundaries between the mundane and the
sacred were preserved. The effort was to retain the balance between reason
and dogmatic rules in religion shaping daily life. Even though this
situation did not reflect the ideal society for those looking from
different perspectives, religious or secular, it nevertheless thwarted the
possibility and the rationale for the destruction of different approaches.
The administration left religious groups alone unless they politicized and
in turn religious groups did not feel the urge of violence and radicalism
except for a few instances and upheld the state and the existing order.

Another aspect of Turkish Moslems is that they do not equate Christianity
with Europe and Judaism with Israel. For Turks have lived with the people
of these religions for centuries and have mostly retained the position of
administrators. Thus, through the viewpoint of present-day Turkey, Israel's
mistakes cannot be attributed to Judaism just as Europe's and America's
mistakes cannot be attributed to Christianity.

Another peculiarity of Turkish Islam is the hold of clerics in
society.Masses believe that religion is sacred and that religious matters
must not be "tarnished" in quotidian disputes. Taken in its ideal form,
this approach does not sack religion from life categorically. On the
contrary, if religions rules are endorsed by society, it finds grounds for
sustenance. But religion must not be a party in daily disputes. Religious
scholars should discuss matters in their own circles, reach a consensus and
then promulgate their common positions in appropriate venues. Especially in
the realm of politics, such matters should be completely avoided. The
mosque and politics must not be intermingled. Since politics attracts great
skepticism, even very conservative groups in society approach the mingling
of politics and religion with great hostility. As a natural outcome,
clerics have stayed out of politics in the Turkish tradition. Many clerics
looked upon their duties as sublime to politics and did not even feel the
need to engage in politics.

But in the Arab and Shiite traditions, religion and state are much more
intertwined. Many clerics are politicians at the same time. Difference over
religious affairs plays a great role in political factionalism. Especially
in the Shiite sect, the line of demarcation between the mosque and politics
has almost withered and the mosque has been transformed into some sort of
political rally. Many important armed political groups in Palestine,
Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq also claim to be religious groups.

Another aspect of Turkish Islam is that it is not artificial. While Iran's
Islamic Revolution and the Wahabi sect contain a certain amount of Iranian
Shiite and Arab Islam interpretations, both are artificial in a sense,
molded by certain groups and individuals. Social needs have certainly been
influential in currents like these. In spite of that, both in Iran and
Saudi Arabia, a particular politico-religious group has led these religious
approaches. There are similar cases in other Moslem countries such as
Egypt, Algeria, and Afghanistan. Factions that come to power with the help
of conjunctural and narrow-based actors deny a chance of living space for
other denominations. Alternative groups either try to affect/alter
authority through violence or retreat to the underground until the time is
ripe. But the interpretation of Islam in Turkey today is the collective
product of an experience unlike any other place. No historian or
sociologist can ascribe Turkish Islam to a single political or religious
party. The interpretation labeled as "Turkish Islam" is not a construct but
the end result of an evolution. It has not penetrated into power or other
realms of life through coercion. For that reason it did not and still does
not defend itself by using violence. Indeed, it was blamed for being
pacifist, coaxing with those in power. While open to criticism, it is
evident that it has a stabilizing element and is open to renovations. It
demonstrates the necessary flexibility no matter what sort of revolution,
clash, social and economic crisis erupts, and renews itself by inexplicable
concepts and means following extraordinary times.

Of course, the era in question spans hundreds of years and many exceptions
have occurred in the mean time. The properties mentioned below are general
characteristics. In this light, caution is needed when assessing them.
Despite the pitfalls, we might summarize Turkish Islam in the light of the
argument so far: - Turkish Islam did not evolve in a conflict environment.
- Self-confidence towards the West is a striking characteristic of Turkish
Islam. - Turkish Islam is more critical. It is remarkably apt in seeing
its own deficiencies at the root of its problems. - Turkish Islam is more
liberal in interpreting religious dictum. - Turkish Islam has an embracing
attitude towards other branches of Islam. - Turkish Islam ruled over other
religious groups in accordance with Islamic principles quite vividly and
intensely until recently. - Turkish Moslems do not equate Christianity
with the West and Judaism with Israel. They have learned through experience
that religion has a larger meaning than political factions. Since a
significant proportion of the population was Christians and Jews during
Ottoman times, these religions are not alien to Turkey. - Turkish Islam
does not interpret worldly affairs solely through religious dogma. The
Turkish tradition is noted for its pragmatic and practical approach. -
Turkish Islam was the first mainstream Islamic interpretation to contact
modernity. - Turkish Islam was the first mainstream Islamic interpretation
to witness the conflict between modern political thinking and religion. -
Turkish political life is demarcated from religion. While clerics do not
intervene in politics, the latter views religion as a realm mostly to be
respected and to be protected. - Turkish Islam is not the result of a
project. It is not artificial or fabricated by certain individuals or
groups. It has evolved over a long duration and as a result of certain
geographic and historic developments.

It can be seen that there lies a great distinction between Islam's Turkish
version and its versions elsewhere. The explanation of the distinction can
be prolonged. But when examined in the light of the relations between the
EU and Turkey and the EU and other cultures, Turkey's importance in its
understanding of religion-culture-civilization proves itself to be a great
fortune at these perilous times. In comparison to other versions of Islam,
Turkish Islam has a feature that is receptive, agreeable, and stabilizing.
In an age that the Clash of Civilizations is being promoted, if "Western
Civilization" cannot establish a meaningful unity with "Turkish Islam", it
is almost impossible to reconcile its differences with other Moslem
societies. If Turks also get the impression that the West has double
standards and place a sense of hopelessness at the center of their
politics, East-West relations will be more troubled than ever. From this
perspective, it can be said that European security is closely associated
with the success of Turkish Islam in the Islamic world. Especially
following Turkey's full membership, Turkish Islam and European Islam will
clearly demonstrate that organizations like Al-Qaeda cannot represent Islam
and Moslems, gradually replacing the sense of despair and hopelessness by
peaceful means and processes. The absolute approval of Turkey as an equal,
free, strong, and esteemed member of the Western world will send a strong
message from Palestine to Indonesia. This message will declare that Moslems
can interact with the West economically, politically and through other
peaceful ways following Turkey's example. So, while Turkey's EU membership
will strengthen Turkish Islam and help it find more adherents around the
world, the prime reason, the feeling of victimization that radicalizes
Moslems and leads them to marginal groups will be weakened. And this can be
taken as the first step to dry the terror swamps among the Moslems.

What needs to be stated at this point is that the "expansion" of Turkish
Islam to other countries cannot follow the example of Communist Russia or
Iran's Islamic Revolution. It was previously said that Turkish Islam did
not come forth as a social engineering project. Nor did its spread in
Anatolia and to other Ottoman lands emanate from coercion. Volunteering and
evolution were its principal features. For that reason, with US's project
to democratize and liberalize Moslem countries, Turkey's EU membership and
the spread of Turkish Islam connotes a different alternative. America's
Greater Middle East Project illustrates, as in the cases of Iraq and
Afghanistan that change is to be brought about by force and coercion and
the application of this plan so far proves that the chances of success are
quite low. American officials, first and foremost President Bush, regularly
exhibit Turkey as a role model to other Moslem countries, indicating that
they seek Moslem countries like Turkey. But their actions so far indicate
that the American administration has grasped neither Turkish Islam nor the
Turkish model. As a matter of fact, Turkish Islam is composed of ways and
means diametrically opposite to what the American administration is doing.
First, it does not embody coercive measures, and utilizes social, cultural,
and economic tools rather than political and military action. In this
framework, Turkish Islam and Turkey invigorated by EU membership would not
constitute a pole, contrary to the presumptions of the Greater Middle East
Project. In contrast, it will come into closer contact with other Moslem
communities and interpretations and have a greater say in the problems of
the Islamic world.

Increased relations, from Palestine to poverty and from religious questions
to economic relations, will foster much faster interactions. This should
not merely be taken as a naive guess. Experience shows that Turkey has been
able to influence every Moslem country that it has engaged. Moreover, this
has been the outcome even when it was not intended. The most important
reason for this being so is that Turkey is more advanced than many other
Moslem countries in many respects. Turkey's economic and political power is
a source of inspiration for many Moslem countries. Consequently, it will be
an inescapable reality for Saudi Arabia or Pakistan to pursue more liberal
and democratic agendas at home as interaction with EU-member Turkey
increases. The latest summit of the Conference of the Islamic Organization
(CIO) proves this point. Until this summit, the secretaries-general of the
CIO were "chosen" by bargaining among the members. For the first time in
its history, the CIO appointed a Turk, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, its
secretary-general through elections. The elections were the most important
in the CIO's history. For the electoral procedure was motioned by Turkey
and despite the reluctance of some members led by Saudi Arabia, Ihsanoglu
won the elections with the support of 32 of the organization's 57 members.
This shows that democratic procedures are keenly desired by CIO members.
Democracy is a system whose merits are understood with more practice. For
this reason, it will not be too hard to predict that in CIO's future
businesses democratization will speed up. As Turkish Foreign Minister
Abdullah Gul opined during the discussions about the elections, "We will
hold elections and determine the secretary-general. This demonstrates that
reform movements and democratization will start from within the
organization." Along with the new secretary-general's bold statements in
favor of democratization, there is much room for hope.

To summarize, the Turkish interpretation of Islam has a potential to spread
quickly with Turkey's relations with the Islamic world. Contrary to the
Israeli and American approaches, the Turkish approach uses voluntary
cooperation rather than coercion. Other Moslem countries follow the Turkish
example not because they are forced to, but because they find themselves
compelled to do so by the circumstances. This process, which may come about
slowly at first, can yield much quicker and stronger results at the final
instance than the other alternative.

Another advantage with spreading the Turkish model and Turkish Islam is the
Turkish world. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan are
countries with predominantly Turkic populations where Turkish is spoken. In
a similar fashion, in Afghanistan and Russia, along with many other Central
Asian, Caucasian, Balkan and Middle Eastern countries, a significant
Turkish population exists. With the addition to the Turkish Diaspora living
in Europe, Australia and North America, one encounters a Turkish world of
over 150 million. It is interesting to note that even though they are newly
independent and encounter multiple political and economic problems, Islam
observed in Central Asian Turkish Republics and other Turkish communities
have strikingly similar features with Anatolian Islam. It is possible to
say that different models of Turkish Islam lives among these communities
especially with respect to the relations between the state and citizen,
pragmatism, a practical mindset, the distance between religion and
violence, between religion and politics, respect towards other religious
beliefs, tolerance, etc. This further strengthens Turkey's position among
Moslem communities and eases the spread of the Turkish interpretation of

In the light of these facts, it can be argued that the contribution of
Turkey's EU membership to the EU will be the sense of easiness that will
affect the relations between Europe and the Islamic world and the solution
of instability and conflict in the latter. This way, many of the problems
that threaten European security will either be solved or subdued, the
problems between civilizations will not transform into clashes. For many
Muslims, the experiences in Israel, Iraq and in many other territories left
no room to hope, and the radicals abuse this fact. In words of Navroz Udwad,

"Turkey's impending accession to the EU has the power to bridge the chasm
between Islam and Christianity and bring hope to millions in the Islamic
world - Within this tortured context, surrounded by a seemingly endless
wave of dark news, the outcome of Turkey's efforts to enter the EU are
vitally important - not just to Turkey and the EU, but to us all, citizens
of the world as we may be - The symbolism of a large Muslim population
knocking patiently on the doors to the hitherto exclusive Christian club
that is the EU should not be overlooked. In an age aching for
understanding, for a rise above suspicion, enmity and loathing, the
possibilities offered by the ascension of Turkey to the EU would be

In addition to these benefits, the EU's acceptance of a strong and
respectable country like Turkey as a full member will positively affect the
EU's relations with many Asian and African countries and Turkey's
membership will show that Western nations have no insuperable prejudice
against Islam. As natural result, economic, cultural and political
relations will improve between the EU and these countries. Improving
relations will definitely make contribution to common security matters.
Moreover, Turkey's accession will confirm Turkey's Muslim heritage is fully
compatible with democracy, and Turkish case will be a model for other
Muslim countries in democratization and their integration with the global

January 2005

Sedat Laciner: Director, International Strategic Research Organization
(ISRO), Ankara.