The Magazine

The Turkey Paradox

From the July 26, 2004 issue: Joining Europe means becoming more Islamist.

Jul 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 43 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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THERE WERE PLENTY of flashy cocktail dresses at the NATO summit reception hosted by Turkey's foreign minister Abdullah Gül last month. There were plenty of headscarves, too--and the most conservative of these belonged to Gül's wife. Hers was a festive, modern, maroon version of what the Turks call a turban, tucked tight under the chin and bisecting the forehead to hide all hair. The cocktail-dress women were joking and cavorting with the wimple women. Mrs. Gül posed cheerily for photos with European and American friends.

There are few societies in which the veil and the cocktail dress coexist for long. One usually drives the other out. It was modern clothing that supplanted traditional Islamic garb--by force of law--when Kemal Atatürk took over the Turkish state in 1923, and launched a ruthless program of modernization and secularization on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. So the juxtaposition of head coverings and Western coiffure is something new. The wife of a Turkish cabinet minister would not have been seen in a headscarf 50--or 10--years ago. But Turkey's brand-new AK party, heir to two banned religious parties, took power in November 2002 and has spent the last two years trying to carve out a place for Islam in Turkish public life. And that it is doing so while trying to deepen Turkey's ties to Europe is not so paradoxical as it might seem.

The world's most rigorously secular state for the past 80 years, Turkey was an early member of NATO. It has sought membership in the European Union since 1963, when the E.U. was the European Economic Community and had just six members. In the intervening decades, the E.U. has turned into a world-government-in-embryo and has admitted 19 new members, including most of Eastern Europe, parts of ex-Yugoslavia, and three states of the former Soviet Union. Even such economic and political laggards as Romania and Bulgaria are slated to join in 2007. Evidently it doesn't take much to get into the E.U., yet Turkey has persistently been shut out. Europeans have always found reasons to refuse to start a normal multiyear accession process: that only 5 percent of the Turkish landmass lies in Europe, for instance, while the remainder is in Asia Minor; or that Turkey's per capita income is only 20 percent of the European average.

The most frequent grounds for rejection was that the Kemalist state, erected as a bulwark against political Islam, was undemocratic. And this is true. It forbade the Islamic veil in schools and among government functionaries (and the tasseled fez everywhere). It tightly controlled religious exercise, and the centralized department of religious doctrine (the Diyanet) composed and distributed the sermons that local imams gave every Friday. What's more, the Kemalist state gave the army a formal role in government. This meant a free hand to shut down Islamist parties and quash guerrilla uprisings in Kurdish areas along Turkey's borders with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Nor was the government fastidious about whether captured rebels were tortured or locked up without due process. Army officers, naturally, were monitored closely for religious enthusiasm, and purged from the ranks if evidence emerged of Islamist sentiment or undue mosque attendance. And this army, for all the help it had given to NATO, could be a headache abroad, too, as when it occupied and partitioned the Greek-controlled island of Cyprus in 1974.

But Turks never thought this was the real reason for their exclusion from Europe. Former Turkish prime minister Mesut Yilmaz accused Helmut Kohl in 1997 of wanting to keep any Muslim state out of Europe's "Christian club." While Turkey has long been a secular state, it has never been a secular society along the lines of the one that has developed in Europe since World War II. In fact, it is quite devout even among Muslim societies, and over the past decade has shared the experience of most Islamic places (and of the United States) in seeing a renewed interest in the religious life and a deepening devotion among its middle classes. Yilmaz's view was at least partly correct. Surely it matters that Turkey is Islamic and Europe is not.