A Perfect Storm Threatens to Swamp Turkey
A version of this article appeared in the May 8, 2007, Chicago Sun-Times
May 9, 2007
by John O'Sullivan
In the movies they call this kind of thing "the perfect storm."
Scene One, the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Ankara: Abdullah Gul, Turkey's foreign minister in the country's "Islamist"government has just withdrawn his candidacy for the Turkish presidency following heavy hints from Turkish generals that they would stage a coup if he was elected. They want to protect Turkey's "secularism" against creeping Islamicization.
New parliamentary elections, set for June, will presumably decide both the presidency and the future direction of Turkey—if the generals don't overturn the result.
Scene Two: The European Union HQ, Brussels: Alarmed by the Turkish Army's hints, the EU Commission warns that a military coup would end any chance for that country to join the EU—a bi-partisan national aim in Ankara for forty years.
Scene Three: Nicholas Sarkozy's election HQ in Paris: Sarkozy is elected on a campaign that includes opposing Turkish membership of the EU. Among his remarks: "I want an integrated Europe . . . that has borders. Turkey is in Asia Minor." Ankara and Brussels both issue nervous statements.
Those scenes occur before and during the credits. But the perfect storm is only just beginning to build. The "Islamist" AKP party has presided over a strong economic recovery.
It represents the new, important and rising class of Muslim entrepreneurs. It has removed the earlier fears of many voters that it would introduce sharia law. So the party could well win the forthcoming election with a substantial majority.
Meanwhile, as a newly-elected president presenting a controversial program, Sarkozy wants to look like a man who sticks to his guns.
Controlling immigration, especially by Muslims, and opposing Turkish entry were among the most popular items in his manifesto.
Yet if Turkey were to join the EU, seventy million Muslims would enjoy an automatic right of residence in France.
So a French veto on Turkey's admission is possible, even likely.
Such a veto, however, would remove Europe's last restraint on the Turkish military. Not only generals but also ordinary voters would feel that Turkey had met every single test of democracy and reform laid down by Brussels—and then been rejected anyway. Why continue to pay attention to its hypocritical lectures?
In those circumstances a military coup against a newly-elected AKP government could not be ruled out.
Some Western observers think that this might be a good thing. They distrust the AKP as a Trojan Horse of radical Islamism; they regard Turkey's secularism as the hope of the Islamic world; and they see the Turkish armed forces as its constitutional guardian. These opinions are all superficially reasonable, but also fundamentally mistaken.
Today the AKP, though harboring some Islamists from its past, is the Muslim equivalent of a socially conservative Christian Democrat party in Western Europe. It has enjoyed a massive parliamentary majority since 2001 without making any moves towards sharia law. It has governed Turkey well in that time. It recently embarked on a campaign to stamp out "honor killings." There is no evidence that it intends to abolish secularism as such. But Turkish "secularism" is misnamed. It is really the control of Islam (and other religions) by government—even to the point of Ministries writing sermons for the mullahs every Friday and banning any public expression of religion (such as women wearing Islamic headscarves) on official occasions.
This extraordinary degree of government control is today breaking down. Kemalist secularism can no longer be imposed on a society where the vast majority of people are Muslims, where more and more Muslims are observant, and where democratic ideas and institutions are increasingly meaningful. And even if it could be imposed by main force, it would not be the useful model for the rest of the Islamic world that its supporters believe.
For the same reason the Turkish armed forces can no longer retain their role as a sort of armed Supreme Court. They have played that role well in the past—something that the EU should recognize—intervening to protect secularism and then restoring democracy afterwards. But the Turkish notion of secularism now needs to change and a new constitutional guardian found for it.
That is AKP policy. If the AKP is re-elected, it will presumably continue seeking, in effect, to replace the Turkish army with the EU as the guardian of a new secularism in Turkey.
Again, some Westerners affect to see this policy as a clever deception. But why? It is an aim that makes perfect sense for a socially conservative Muslim party since the European Union's secularism is more tolerant than Kemalism towards the public expression of religious belief.
If an AKP government were to lead Turkey into a Europe where the rules restrain both armies and Islamists from imposing their wishes on the society, that would be a benign end to the developing crisis—the calm instead of the storm.
Unfortunately, a perfect storm looks more likely at present. With or without Sarkozy, Europe simply does not want the numbers and kinds of immigrants that Turkish EU membership would allow. That is probably sound policy for France and Europe, but it threatens to push Turkey towards a military coup and maybe a new nationalist identity hostile to Europe and the West. Can it be that Turkey is simply an insoluble problem in a purely European context.
If so, why not widen the context? Last week in Washington President George W. Bush for the U.S. and Chancellor Angela Merkel for the EU agreed on moves towards a new transatlantic economic community that would embrace free trade and regulatory cooperation but not free emigration.
This opens up all sorts of possibilities. If non-EU countries in Europe such as Turkey, Switzerland, and Ukraine were to be admitted to this vast new market and its accompanying institutions, that would soften the blow of postponed EU membership.
Chirac would have vetoed any such proposal on the grounds that the EU was supposed to be a rival to the U.S. As America's new best friend in Europe, however, Sarkozy might well give a fair wind to this new Atlantic cooperation and, quite coincidentally, help to solve the Turkish problem that he has helped to create.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.
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