9 December 2004
A recurrent hypothesis about Turkey's relations with the West is that Turkey can serve as an example to the East, especially to the Islamic world and in turn can contribute to Western security. However, when policies are observed, it can be seen that Turkey can serve as an example not only to the East, but also to the West. While focus is always on intolerance and bigotry in Moslem countries, similar practices in other cultures are overlooked. For, China, Israel, India, countries in Africa, America and Europe are not an exception to the said intolerance and bigotry. A case in point is the host of the recent summer Olympics, Greece, which was occupied with the construction of a mosque in Athens. Even though most important churches of Orthodox Christianity are in Moslem countries, it was only with the Olympic Games that the question of constructing a mosque in Athens, the only European capital without one, was raised. The puzzle of having a place of worship for Moslem athletes divided the country. Those who did not want a mosque in Athens had their way with the decision that the mosque be built at a distant location outside the city. This way Athenians were to be saved from the ’disturbing' scene of a mosque. However, this solution caused another predicament. Because the proposed site was on the highway between the city and Athens international airport, the "danger" was that the mosque was going to be the first scene that the visitors were going to see on their way to the city. Those protesting the mosque were concerned that this place of worship might lead people to think that Greece was a Moslem country, hurting its image.
Unfortunately, examples are not restricted to Greece. Slovenia is just another case. Although historically Slovenia did not have contact with Moslems and for that matter was not invaded by Moslems, Slovenian opposed mosques. Opinion polls indicate that Slovenians are overwhelmingly against the construction of a mosque in the country. Ljubljana city councilman Michael Jarc, speaking for those who oppose the mosque, argued that there was no space for a mosque in the capital, which was overwhelmingly Catholic. He even gathered the necessary 12,000 signatures for a referendum. Had the Slovenian Constitutional Court not stopped the motion on grounds of unconstitutionality, Slovenia was to go down in history as the first country to prevent the construction of a place of worship by referendum. By the way, it must be borne in mind that Islam is the second largest religion in Slovenia.
It is possible to exemplify the point even further. Today, in many EU countries religious and ethnic discrimination is at a paramount and among the victims are millions of Moslems. The situation stands as a disgrace and paradox for Europe that prides itself as being the land of democracy and liberty. Such a picture is especially hard to conceive when looked from Turkey. It must not be forgotten that even though Christians constitute much less than one percent of Turkey's population, almost every province, even small towns, have a church. There are synagogues in many of the cities. Not a single individual has left Anatolia for the past 1000 years under Turkish rule because one cannot practice his/her religion freely. Moslems probably grumbled over this even more. The holiest Christian shrines were under Ottoman rule and worship was carried out with great autonomy and peace. Ottoman rule did not interfere in religious affairs and churches were free in establishing their own administration while applying their own legal system over their members. All the important Orthodox churches continued their practices in Ottoman lands. The most important of these, which were in the capital Istanbul, worked quite comfortably and still do to this day. In a similar fashion, the holiest churches of other Christian confessions stood intact in Anatolia and Jerusalem without any political pressure.
This was also the case for Judaism. Facing the threat of extermination in Spain, Jews were invited to the Ottoman Empire 500 years ago by Sultan Bayezid II and Jewish migration continued thereafter. As one of the friendliest groups of Turks in the Empire, Jews were many times protected by the state in their disputes with Christians. It is no surprise that Jews, who endured assault, libel and defamation in Europe, did not witness such events in the Ottoman realm until the end of the Empire. With the exception of those emigrating for economic and personal reasons, not a single Jewish Ottoman citizen left the Empire because of oppression. This legacy was also bequeathed to the Republic of Turkey. Turkey was the only continental European country that did not hand Jews to the Nazis. During the era, many Jews sought refuge in Turkey and worked here for long years. Again Turkish diplomats saved many Jews from the Nazi terror. Even though Turkey was in close commercial relations with Germany at the time, it did not support Germany's racist policies and in a sense saved the pride of Europe.
Looking at this picture, it can be seen that Turks have a peculiar experience in managing the coexistence of people of different religions. The EU must take advantage of this experience. Its problematic relations with its Moslems necessitate this.
Turkey's contribution to the EU would help the EU in its approach not only towards Moslems and Islam, but also towards other cultures. Passed down over the ages, European tradition is rather culturally discriminatory. The white and Christian regards the rest of the world through a narrow frame as two different poles.
The ’myth' of civilization is indeed the story of ’us' versus ’them'. Cowboys and Indians, the relations with the people of Africa and other colonies, and lastly the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that Christian Europe has difficulty in interacting with other races and cultures. The entry of Turks, who were regarded as the ’other' for many centuries, into the core of the EU family will be a great leap forward for the EU. This way, the EU will reflect the radical change in its outlook towards the world. It will prove that it has consolidated its self-identity on constructive principles rather than on threats and ’others'. In this manner, Turks who do not separate themselves from other cultures will significantly embellish the EU.
Sedat LACINER: Director, ISRO and IR Lecturer Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University.