Turkish Prime Minister in Germany: Compliments and Controversy

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Turkish Prime Minister in Germany

Compliments and Controversy

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Emotions ran high in the German city of Ludwigshafen at the beginning of February when a fire in an older apartment building claimed the lives of nine Turks.

The fire on Feb. 3 had Turkish newspapers writing about arson as a possible cause and wondering whether emergency personnel in Ludwigshafen had responded quickly enough to the blaze. Dramatic film footage captured parents throwing an infant out of an upstairs window to save the child’s life.

German officials immediately began work on determining the cause of the fire, which most likely was the result of an electrical short circuit in the basement of the building.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, already scheduled to open the annual Munich Conference on Security on Feb. 9, decided to visit Ludwigshafen on his way to Munich. About 2,500 people gathered in a prominent square to hear Prime Minister Erdogan’s comments on the disaster. With the cause of the fire still undetermined, one person in the crowd held a sign with the words “Yesterday the Jews, today the Muslims,” implying that the fire was arson.

In the charged atmosphere following the fire, Erdogan’s speech in Ludwigshafen had an immediate calming effect. He said that Germans and Turks were united in their sorrow, and he made a point of publicly thanking German authorities for their quick reaction to calls for help. His acknowledgment effectively defused earlier criticism of what was perceived to be a delayed response.

In light of Erdogan’s later comments during his visit to Germany, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble defended Erdogan’s words, praising his “considerable contribution to de-escalation” of the tense situation following the tragic loss of life.

No “privileged partnership” for Turkey

Two days after his visit to Ludwigshafen, Erdogan’s speech officially opened the annual Munich Conference on Security. Erdogan wasted no time in stating his country’s position on the question of EU membership. As his foreign minister had done two weeks earlier in Davos during the World Economic Forum, Erdogan again rejected the notion that Turkey would accept a “privileged partnership” as an alternative to full membership in the European Union. “We know where we want to be,” he emphasized, “and that is full membership.”

The fact that Erdogan even had to mention the “privileged partnership” option reflects the current state of the ongoing negotiations on membership. “Privileged partnership” has long been the talking point for Germany’s conservative “Christian” parties. However, with the formation of the current grand coalition government comprised of the Socialists and “Christian” conservative parties—normally traditional opponents vying for power—the “privileged partnership” option was downplayed.

Although French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been less vocal on the issue in recent weeks, he made headlines after taking office last May with his strong opposition to Turkish membership. Sarkozy argued that Turkey, being a predominantly Muslim country, really does not belong in Europe. With Sarkozy’s reservations on Turkish membership, Germany’s “Christian” party leaders have again been talking about an alternative to full membership.

In his Munich speech, Erdogan referred to the negotiations on membership by saying that it is unfair to change the rules once the game has started.

Since Turkey is largely responsible for the slow progress, Erdogan’s criticism seemed odd. After Turkey refused to provide access to its ports for unrestricted trade with EU member Cyprus in 2006, the EU froze negotiations on eight chapters of the negotiation package. Presently Turkey has initiated talks in six of the 35 policy areas that are a part of the membership negotiation process.

Erdogan also attempted to deflect concerns over a non-Christian country becoming part of the EU. In what appeared to be a direct reference to the different viewpoint expressed by Pope Benedict in September 2006, Erdogan described Islam as a religion of “peace and tolerance,” adding that no one needs to fear a Muslim Turkey in the EU.

In a later speech at the conference, Christian Socialist Union (CSU) party leader Erwin Huber was compelled to respond to Erdogan’s remarks. Huber emphasized that his concerns about full membership for Turkey were not intended to discriminate against the Turkish people.

According to Huber, the EU has about exhausted its capacity to integrate new members, which is the main reason for his desire to see Turkey accept the offer of a “privileged partnership.”

Integration without assimilation

The day after his speech in Munich, Erdogan spoke before a packed house at the Cologne Arena. About 16,000 Turks from Germany and even a few from Belgium and the Netherlands filled the arena to hear his plea not to lose their Turkish identity. According to Erdogan, integration within the host country’s society is acceptable, but assimilation is not.

German news media later wondered why Erdogan doesn’t accept a similar status for the Kurdish minority in Turkey. Erdogan had earlier voiced support for having Turkish-language schools and even a Turkish university in Germany.

His speech in Cologne drew strong criticism from party leaders across the political spectrum in Germany and again heightened concerns about a “parallel society” of Muslims coexisting in Germany with German society. Germans are not the only Europeans who fear the entrenchment of an Islamic “parallel society” in Europe.

That fear may be deeper than some analysts realize. Most political leaders in the European Union pay lip service to the prospect of Turkish membership, provided that Turkey meets all criteria for admission. Those politicians who do voice reservations over the impact of Turkish EU membership are considered to be well right of center, but their opposition also resonates with voters who are not right-wing.

One example would be Dutch parliament member Geert Wilders, whose film on Islam has even drawn a warning from Iran. Wilders is in favor of refusing permission to build any new mosques in the Netherlands, and wants to see an end to Muslim immigration.

Wilders proclaims he has nothing against Muslims themselves, but he can’t stand their religion, which he calls an ideology instead of a religion. Wilders is Roman Catholic, and he wants the Dutch government to offer payment to induce Muslim immigrants to return home.

Pros and cons of Turkish membership

If Turkey’s bid to join the European Union is successful, ideas like those proposed by Geert Wilders will be finished, as far as Muslim Turkey is concerned. In opening negotiations with Turkey, the European Union is at a crossroads that may well determine Europe’s future.

Those who favor Turkish membership see it obligating Turkey to be permanently aligned with Western cultural values and Europe’s legal system and approach to human rights. They also emphasize the “bridge function” that Turkey could play between the non-Islamic majority of Europe and the Islamic Middle East, symbolized by the two bridges across the Bosporus in Istanbul.

Those who have concerns about Turkish membership argue that the issue in admitting Turkey is not its potential bridge function to the Islamic world, but rather cementing a growing Islamic minority as an integral part of European population. Turkish population is expanding at 1.6 percent annually. With its high birthrate, Turkey would replace Germany as the EU’s most populous country by about the year 2020.

The day that Turkey enters the European Union, the Muslim portion of the EU’s total population would jump from a current 5 percent to 20 percent. The population of nearly all EU countries is currently on the decline. Turkish membership would therefore mean that the overall EU population decline would slow but not cease. By contrast, the percentage of Muslims in the EU would steadily grow.

Restrictions on the EU’s freedom-of-movement arrangement for EU citizens would likely be in force for the first years of Turkish membership. However, Turkish citizens would eventually be free to live and work wherever they want within the European Union, a prospect that does not appeal to many Western Europeans, who feel that there are already enough Turks in their countries as it is.

A secular, democratic Turkey?

Turkey has had associated status with the European Union since 1963, when it first applied for admission. Since then other nations have been admitted to the EU, even though they applied for membership after Turkey.

In 1993 the EU attempted to standardize the criteria that all candidates for admission are required to fulfill. In Turkey’s case, that part of the “Copenhagen criteria” long considered doubtful includes the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the respect and protection of minorities.

While Turkey has clearly made progress in those areas, recent developments give some observers cause for concern. Since the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 under the leadership of its first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the principles of “Kemalism” have included the separation of church and state. The state does not interfere in religious affairs, and religion—the Islamic faith—does not interfere in the affairs of the state.

In today’s Turkey this means that the wives of the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and recently elected President Abdullah Gül are not allowed to attend official state receptions. The reason? As Muslims, they both wear the traditional Muslim head covering for women, and wearing the head covering would be viewed as religious influence at an official state affair.

Until this year, young women in Turkey were also not permitted to wear the head covering at Turkish universities, the result of a 20-year-old court decision interpreting the Turkish constitution. In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper, Erdogan once described the ban on head coverings as a political issue that needs to be resolved so Turkey can be like countries in Western Europe where Muslim students are permitted to wear a head covering at universities.

Erdogan’s argument that Turkey should have a similar policy as in Western Europe ignores the fact that Turkey is quite different from Western European countries. Those Muslim students wearing a head covering at universities in Western Europe are a minority of the total student population. Muslim students there who wear a head covering have little or no influence on other Muslim women who decline to wear the head covering.

By contrast, Turkey is a predominantly Islamic country. Some Turkish university professors believe that in smaller communities the lifting of the ban will lead to a situation where a majority of Muslim students would wear the head covering, forcing those women reluctant to do so into donning the veil to avoid being ostracized socially. Their concerns appear justified in a country where even unfounded rumors can lead to beatings or even the murder of young women considered to be immoral.

In January a constitutional amendment lifted the ban on head coverings at Turkish universities. While some feel this minor change is insignificant, others believe it will lead to greater Islamic influence in Turkish society.

Prime Minister Erdogan and Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül are both from the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which some see as having a closet Islamic agenda. The wives of both men wear the Muslim head covering, which prompted the Turkish military to issue a warning about departing from the Kemalist doctrine when Gül’s candidacy for the presidency was announced. The chief of the Turkish General Staff did not attend Gül’s inauguration following his election as president last August.

The last intervention by the Turkish army in Turkey’s domestic politics was in 1997, resulting in the resignation of the country’s first Islamist prime minister since the founding of the Turkish Republic. Any future intervention to counter a perceived move toward an Islamic republic would put negotiations with the EU on Turkish membership on hold indefinitely. The same would apply if Turkey were indeed to move toward greater Islamic influence. Either scenario would make Turkey’s ability to provide for “the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy” questionable.

Oddly enough, a failed bid to join the EU could turn out to be a catalyst for greater Islamic fervor in Turkey. If rejected by the EU, Turkey would also likely turn to its historic realm of influence: the Middle East. With a competent, well-equipped military, Turkey could provide a measure of stability in a region poised to be destabilized by future U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. Like a rejected suitor, Turkey might also become a thorn in the side of the European Union as part of a Middle East whose most potent weapon lies under the sands of Arabia: petroleum.  WNP

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