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Turkey Turning to the East

By Semra E. Sevi

With Turkey’s prospects for joining the European Union stagnating, the country is reaching out to Muslim and Arab countries as an alternate form of political and economic support. In this light, Turkey can serve as a role model for the Muslim world and for neighboring Arab countries. Although Turkey is not without its problems, it is unique in being a secular, Islamic democratic nation that should set its own course, without looking to the European Union.

Motivated to join the E.U. for decades, Turkey has implemented many democratic reforms to meet the acceptance criteria. Since 2000, the country has passed a plethora of modernization laws to meet the level of international standards, including laws abolishing the death penalty and the reforming of human rights.

Additionally, Turkey has eased its authoritarian restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, while recognizing some minority rights. While all of these improvements represent moves in the right direction, other problems still plague the Kemalist-turned-Erdoganist republic. To take one, ethnic tensions involving the Kurdish and Armenian communities remain, a testament to the current government’s shortcomings.

Despite Turkey’s clear ambition to enter the E.U., Europe’s Christian-majority countries have repeatedly shunned the largest Muslim European country with chapter after chapter of new rules for entry.

These same E.U. gatekeepers now seem to worry that Turkey is turning away from Europe after many decades of implementing social and cultural reforms. Having kept Turkey out of the European Union for so long, one might ask: Is the West justified in complaining? I don’t think so.

The E.U.’s continuous rejection of Turkey is in line with an anti-Muslim attitude spreading across Europe. This can be seen in France’s and Switzerland’s recent bans of the headscarf (Switzerland’s ban still must be approved by the upper chamber of parliament), and Germany’s (former) longtime denial of citizenship to Turkish immigrants—many of them second or third generation Germans.

These countries have been extremely intolerant toward their Muslim minorities. While many Germans indict Turks for not integrating into their culture and society, until 1999 they also denied Turks born in Germany the right of German citizenship by birth, due to the fact that they were not ethnically German. Many Turks in Germany have complained of the difficulties of living between two worlds, speaking of a feeling of being unwanted.

In an essay titled The Fading Dream of Europe, Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel laureate in literature and arguably one of Turkey’s most controversial figures, describes his upbringing in a country that dreamt of entering Europe. Pamuk notes that the dream is fading fast, although no one is willing to admit that Turkey’s hopes of joining the E.U. are nearly lost.

The likelihood of Turkey ever making it is so slim that any discussion on this subject is futile. Turkey’s identity crisis between the East and West is still as prevalent as it was centuries before when it served as a bridge between civilizations. While the country has a foothold in Europe, it is not European at its core.

Possibly due to the onerous hurdles it has faced in its journey to formally join the E.U., Turkey has slowly turned to Islam. The current diplomatic standoff between Turkey and Israel, once an ally, has reached an intensity never before experienced between the two countries, after Israel refused to apologize for killing eight Turkish civilians aboard a Turkish flotilla to Gaza in May 2010. Turkey has since responded by downgrading diplomatic and military ties with the Jewish state and expelling the Israeli ambassador from Ankara.

Furthermore, Turkey has supported the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya while defending the Palestinians’ rights in their bid for statehood in the United Nations. This has many asking if Turkey, once seen as a bridge between the East and West, is a secular Muslim democracy turning religious and Eastwards?

Culturally, today’s Turkey is closer to its Arab counterparts than its European ones. Moreover, it stands as proof that democracy and Islam are compatible. Turkey should not abandon the Western facets of its identity, even though there seems to be no point in continuing in the endless negotiations to join the remnants of Europe’s other empires in the E.U. Rather it should set its own course and stand as a role model for the Muslim and Arab worlds.

Semra E. Sevi is a political science concentrator at the University of Toronto.

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