TALKING TURKEY


How does an Islamic nation, anxious to join the European Union, persuade the people of Europe it constitutes
no threat to their security and livelihood?

Istanbul, November 2005


                  The pep talks began on the way from the airport and continued during the tours through the Old
City over the next few days. The tour guides never missed an opportunity to praise the secular and moderate
nature of Islam in Turkey.  At the end one could have left the country with the firm impressions: Religion in
Turkey is merely a byproduct of daily life; the five times a day prayer sessions is limited to a few pious zealots;
headscarves keep young women warm and, let’s call a spade a space, fundamentalism is a malaise alien to
Turkey.

                  The guides, mainly women, were utterly devoted to this secular agenda.

                   As Turkey knocks at Europe’s door its government knows it must allay fears Islamic
fundamentalists will slip through that door and run amok inside the European Union. The stakes are high.
Turkey’s bourgeoning and westernized middle class views fusion with Europe as the best defense against
the steady advance of the mullahs. Turkey’s concerned intellectuals see membership in the EU as the best
hope to wrest the country out of its chronic poverty, its tribal bickering, its shameful backwardness. Democrats
feel merging into Europe will curb the powers of a putsch-happy military establishment and reign in human rights
abuses, including torture and the habitual police beatings of detainees. And, of course, the merchant class is far
less altruistic: It expects Europe to be the fountainhead of new wealth.

                For all of them it is vital to convince the Europeans Islam in Turkey bears a friendly face.

               This will be a difficult task.  Many Europeans are paranoid about Islamic radicals and suicide
bombers; the legitimized expansion of a non-Christian religion in the heart of Europe; the differences in culture
and ultimately, perhaps foremost though rarely voiced publicly, the threat of a European labor market swamped
by cheap Moslem workers. In the prevailing climate of job shortages, lay-offs and buy-outs the nightmare of an
invasion by millions of Turkish worker haunts the great mass of Europeans - despite constant denials by the
integrationists who attribute this threat to rightwing nationalists.

               The most vocal of my guides was Aisha. Her devotion to Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern
Turkey (leader of the Young Turks) was iconoclastic. After all (so she argued on every occasion when religion
could be expounded) Ataturk not only separated Mosque from State but gave women the vote in the 1920s,
liberated them from wearing the veil and the scarf and outlawed polygamy, a man’s legal right to four
wives.  Now a man can only marry one wife, at a time.

          â€œWhy should I not thank Ataturk every day of my life for what he did for me as a woman?â€� Aisha
asked.  She has a six year old son. Her husband divorced her – to marry a younger wife. It was his third
divorce. By the time his sexual ardor has diminished her husband will probably have married four wives, the
modern way.  Old habits die hard.

      Aisha is a slim vivacious lady in her mid-thirties. Dyed blonde strands run through her chestnut hair, a
symbol of her westernized ways.  She pointed out - as a good example of the continued secular nature of Islam
in Turkey - the government still banned headscarves on girls going to school or women entering public
buildings.  Her eyes blazed when someone suggested according to all news reports fundamentalism in Turkey
was rising steadily at the expense of secularism.  And she huffed at someone else’s interjection the
government, beleaguered by religious zealots, was tinkering with the idea to remove the ban on headscarves
under the pretext that in a truly democratic society everyone has the right to wear what they please, as long as it
is neither offensive nor against moral tastes.

            â€œIt can not happen because it would be a betrayal of the Republican ideals of Ataturk,â€� she
argued.  No, she admitted, she had not read Orhan Pamuk’s novel ‘Snow’ the story of young girls
who commit suicide in a far away city because they are not allowed to wear the headscarf to school. Buffeted
between the exigencies of the fundamentalists and the secular orders the girls take this dramatic way out of their
dilemma. In the novel the headmaster is shot by a fundamentalist assassin for carrying out the government’s
order to ban from all education those girl students who insist on wearing headscarves on school property.

          In ‘Snow,’ Pamuk, Turkey’s most distinguished novelist, raises the question whether the state
is justified in imposing a ban on a religious prerogative. Before he shoots dead the headmaster the assassin asks
him: “ Does the word secular mean godless? No? In that case how can you explain why the state is banning
so many girls from the classroom in the name of secularism when all they are doing is obeying the laws of their
religion?� The assassin continues: “How does all this fit in with what our constitution says about
educational and religious freedom?â€� And finally he argues, just before he shoots the headmaster dead: â
€œDo we really want to push our covered women to the margins of society by denying them the right to an
education? If we continue to worship women who take off their headscarves and just about everything else, too,
don’t we run the risk of degrading our women as we have seen so many women in Europe degraded in the
wake of the sexual revolution?�

        Pamuk, a self-confessed westernized member of Istanbul’s bourgeoisie, is a staunch advocate for
Turkish EU membership. One of the reasons, so he says, is his fear if the door is closed it will create a sense of
national shame and will stimulate nationalism and fundamentalism in Turkey. Pamuk says he could not imagine a
Europe without Turkey or a Turkey without Europe. But then Pamuk is talking from the vantage point of
Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was once called, a city that owes as much to Christianity as it does to Islam.
There was never any doubt the Golden Horn and the Bosporus is as much a part of Europe as it is of the
Orient. In fact it was here, so many travelers have written, that Europe ended and the East began - or vice-
versa.

      Yet Istanbul is not Turkey.  And when the European community assesses Turkey’s application for
membership it does not look at a secular city where covered women and bearded men remain a minority. What
Europeans see in the rest of Turkey - the progress of bearded and head-wrapped religious fervor - caters to
their worst nightmares, nightmares fueled almost daily by the drummed-up threats about imminent suicide
attacks issued by one of our faceless intelligence services.

     Near Sirkeci station a young Italian woman looked at the throng of pedestrians and shuddered: “How
can these people expect to be Europeans. Just look at them. Do they look like Europeans?�

    
     But what does a European look like? The young lady herself, a citizen of Naples, had the green eyes of the
Levant, the high cheekbones of her Magreb ancestors, the long limbs of the Saracens and the thick lips left by a
Semitic gene.
Yet her ignorance and arrogance, her racial misidentification is shared by millions of Europeans who see in â
€˜the other’ the outsider, the different ones, the ones we must keep out. Unfortunately their prejudice will
determine Turkey’s fate.

              No one here doubts the fundamentalists will benefit from the backlash of a thumbs-down sign from
Europe, just as Europe will be loathed and penalized in future for missing this golden opportunity to diffuse the
clash of civilizations now promoted by the neo-cons in Washington. One hopes the Old Continent will not miss
this chance to take an important step towards what is basically the core desire on both sides – peace.