Turkey ready to fly

The Gazette (Montreal)
October 9, 2004 Saturday
Final Edition

Turkey ready to fly


Something important happened this week, and hardly anyone here seemed
to notice. While our media were covering the U.S. election, fire in a
submarine and the shutdown of NHL hockey, the European Union in
Brussels gave the go-ahead to Turkey’s application for membership.

Mind you, it was but a first step in a journey of many leagues. The
executive of the 25-country EU has recommended only that negotiations
begin with the Turks. That decision must be endorsed by the leaders
of all the states at a crucial meeting in December.

If that hurdle is crossed, the parties will sit down sometime next
year to begin discussions likely to last a decade or more before an
agreement on full membership is signed. If it ever is. The obstacles
to final accommodation with this giant (71 million people),
grindingly poor, overwhelmingly Muslim nation remain formidable.

The Turks are not universally beloved. Valery Giscard d’Estaing,
former president of France, once said Turkish membership would mean
the death of Europe. The current president, Jacques Chirac, has
indicated France might hold a referendum on the matter. Other
European politicians are trying to shunt the Turks aside by proposing
some sort of association short of full membership.

Behind these moves lie fears about waves of poor Turks invading
European economies, not to mention Midnight Express notions about a
brutal oriental culture that does not fit with Western civilization.
Such prejudices fade during a visit to bustling, fascinating,
crumbling Istanbul, one of the great European cities, but not
everyone makes that trip.

Then there is the small matter of religion. Given the rise of
fundamentalist Islam around the world, is there truly a place within
the EU for a Muslim nation?

Ironically, Turkey’s supporters turn this into an argument for
admission. At this critical moment, they say, Turkey is treading the
path of liberal democracy, showing the way to other Islamic
countries. Acceptance into the European club would send the best
possible message.

Conversely, “a no to Turkey could have catastrophic consequences,”
argued a recent editorial in The Economist. “It would be widely
interpreted in the Muslim world as a blow against all Islam.”

A significant element in the situation is the fact Turkey is the most
secular of Islamic countries, a legacy of Kemal Ataturk, founder of
the republic in 1923 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Even
today, Turkey proscribes the head scarf for females in schools,
universities and the public service. A decade ago, it had a female
prime minister, Tansu Ciller.

The country’s current leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is an embodiment
of Turkish contradictions. A devout Muslim, he leads an Islamist
party and his wife defiantly wears a headscarf.

When I last visited Istanbul, in the late 1990s, Erdogan was the
controversial mayor of the city, charged with inciting hatred by
reciting this daring poem: “The mosques are our barracks,/the domes
our helmets,/the minarets our bayonets,/and the believers our
soldiers.” In the end, he served five months in jail and a period of
banishment from office.

Yet today, two years after his party won national election, he is a
liberalizing leader whose package of reforms greatly influenced this
week’s EU decision in Brussels.

The Erdogan program has included easing up on the Kurdish minority
(the language of these former “mountain Turks” can now be used in
schools – imagine), abolishing the death penalty and loosening
restrictions on free speech (although Human Rights Watch notes an
individual who states an Armenian genocide took place during the
First World War can still be jailed for 10 years).

The military seems more comfortable in barracks, weaned from its
predilection for coups and dictatorship. Turkey’s traditional enemy,
Greece, has become a close ally. Torture is, if not abolished, at
least officially frowned upon.

There was a flap recently when the government proposed to criminalize
adultery. European officials cried shock-horror, EU negotiations
teetered in the balance, and the proposal was shelved.

Clearly, the time is ripe for another trip to Istanbul, where you can
escape the insane traffic by sipping dark Turkish coffee beside the
Bosphorus, as boats slip by between you and Asia. With the lira now
at more than a million to a Canadian dollar, capacious pockets will
be required.

It does make the head whirl when you slap down a few million and tell
the waiter to keep the change.

Norman Webster is a former editor of The Gazette.