Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Islamist paradox in Turkey

The Bosphorous Straits: Where Europe meets Asia

David Cameron’s recent remarks in Turkey aroused some interest in my household, because we are currently planning a trip to Istanbul.  In preparation, various books with a Turkish theme are strewn here and there.

Our hastily assembled reading list is often, unsurprisingly, preoccupied with competing European, Central Asian and Middle Eastern influences which are brought to bear on the country.  It is the territory of Orhan Pamuk’s fiction and a recurring motif of his memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City.

Burke’s Corner has hosted a debate on Turkey’s European credentials in recent days.  Brian is insistent that the country’s cultural and religious heritage sets it apart from the rest of the continent, but his contention has met stiff resistance from some commentators.

In Christopher de Bellaique’s Rebel Land, which examines Turkey from the wilds of the south-east, bordering Iraq, the author concludes that it ’contains, in a big rectangle, both a ’we’ and an ’other’’.  It is an interesting reflection in an interesting book.

De Bellaique, a British journalist fluent in Turkish, was convinced by Turkey’s secular bona fides when he lived in Istanbul.  Indeed he even described himself as a Kemalist.  Moving to Tehran, he became smitten by Persian culture and defends the Islamic republic against its fiercest critics.

Given this history of caprice (he was previously a denier or the Armenian genocide), I wonder whether his commentary on Turkish minorities is entirely reliable.  Certainly, an unseemly sympathy for Islamism and Kurdish separatism occasionally creeps into the book.  The author’s objection to the PKK seems to lie with its authoritarian tendencies, rather than its terrorist tactics.

However, toward the end of Rebel Land, an interesting paradox is suggested.  Under the moderate Islamic regime of Prime Minister Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, Turkey’s hopes of EU accession may have been bolstered rather than undermined.

Ironically, the belligerent secular edge of Turkish republicanism repelled, rather than attracted, Brussels.  To the Justice and Development Party, the bond which fellow Muslims share is more important than civic claims of the state.  It has therefore relaxed policies on minorities and overtly religious displays which often courted international disapproval.

Despite its brand of Islamism appearing an anathema to Europe, an Islamic party, rolling back prohibitions against the religion, may have made Turkey a more realistic proposition for EU membership.


andrewg said...

The Turkish "paradox" is an interesting turn of events. It is not religion that falls foul of EU principles, but authoritarianism. The measures that the AKP is introducing to Turkey would not be controversial in any EU state, provided one substitutes "Islam" with "Christianity". The removal of the ban on headscarves in public buildings (for example) is not a pro-religious move, but pro-freedom. By contrast, it is countries such as France - once proud defenders of individual freedoms - who are now moving in the opposite direction by banning veils.

Gaw said...

If you haven't come across it I recommend 'Lords of the Horizon' by Jason Goodwin.

Chekov said...

Cheers Gaw. It is recommended in the Rough Guide to Istanbul. Must get a copy. Next up though 'The Turkish Labyrinth' by James Pettifer.