The Magazine

Thanksgiving for Turkey

From the December 27, 2004 issue: Europe moves east, and Turkey moves West.

Dec 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 15 • By MUSTAFA AKYOL
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WITH LAST WEEK'S vote in Brussels, the admission of Turkey to the European Union has come one step nearer. Yet some still suspect that the accession of an overwhelmingly Muslim nation to the E.U. will signify an alarming new intrusion of Islam into a continent already uneasy about its Muslim minorities. Some fear--to put it more provocatively--that Turkish membership in the E.U. will turn out to be an Islamic Trojan horse.

Indeed, if one sees Islam as a monolithic faith, and reckons its influence simply by counting its adherents, the doubters could well be right. If, however, the reality is more complex, it may be that Turkey's accession to the E.U. will help remedy, not aggravate, Europe's Muslim problem. To see this, it is necessary to appreciate the distinctive nature of Turkish Islam.

Compared with the Arabs, the Turks were latecomers to the Muslim faith. The former were politically and intellectually more advanced until the 13th century, when the Arabs' brilliant civilization was nearly destroyed by one of the most devastating conquests ever, the Mongol catastrophe. The Arabs never recovered, and the leadership of Islam passed to the Turks. The Turks flourished, especially under the Ottoman Empire, the global superpower of the 16th and much of the 17th centuries. Although it then entered a steady decline, the Ottoman Empire survived as a powerful state until World War I.

The political power of the Turks, and their continual interaction with the West, gave them an important insight: They learned to face facts. While the Arabs stagnated in their closed tribal universe, the Turks had to rule an empire, make practical decisions, adopt new technologies, and reform existing structures. This praxis helped them develop new religious perceptions, too. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), for instance, the sultan's head of Islamic affairs, Ebussuud Effendi, authorized the charging of interest by foundations working for the betterment of society. This is still a revolutionary idea in the Islamic world, where banking is generally associated with the usury denounced in the Koran. To this day, legal and theological gymnastics are required to make Western banking and investment acceptable to most Muslims.

During the 18th century, the Ottomans started to reform their age-old sharia laws. A big step was the abolition of slavery. While this was a nonissue in many parts of the empire, there were strong reactions from the Arab Middle East, whose tribal social structure still relied on slaves. The fiercest resistance took the form of a revolt in the Arabian peninsula--led by none other than Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eponymous founder of Wahhabism, the fanatical sect that is breeding most Islamic terrorists today.

After World War I, Turkey became an independent nation. Here again, its experience differed from that of the Arab world, which was colonized by the British and the French. The colonial experience of the interwar period gave rise to an anti-Western nationalism in nearly all the Arab states, to which Turkey was immune. After World War II, when most Arab states became allies of the Soviet Union, Turkey again took a different path and aligned itself with the United States and NATO.

ALL THIS HISTORY infused Turkish Islam with a far more friendly outlook toward the West. During much of the 20th century, the No. 1 enemy for Turkey's pious Muslims was "godless communism," and the United States was perceived as a valuable ally against that hated threat. Probably the most influential Islamic sage in Turkey in the last hundred years, Said Nursi, repeatedly called for an alliance between Christianity and Islam against communism and its underlying materialist philosophy. Some of his followers proudly joined in the Korean War.

Turkish Islam has been free of anti-Semitism, too. The Ottoman Empire welcomed the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and ever since, Jews have lived peacefully in Turkish lands. The Arab-Israeli conflict, although it has generated sympathy among Turks for the plight of the Palestinians, never created widespread hatred of Israel, let alone Jews in general.