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 division.
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 İhsanoğlu, 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, İhsanoğlu 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 Gül 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 special 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/Turkic 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 Islam.
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 ground-breaking…”
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 order.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sedat LACINER, IR Lecturer and Director, USAK
Young Global Leaders 2006
Originally published in 2005 December