The Magazine

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Don't hold your breath for Turkey to enter the European Union.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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On October 12, the Swedish Academy announced its award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. He is the author of several books that have attained worldwide bestseller status, the most recent in English being last year's Istanbul: Memories and the City. The gifted Pamuk is read widely in the West--perhaps even more than in his native country.

Indeed, inside Turkey, political issues almost immediately intruded into discussion of Pamuk's prize, which he will formally accept in Stockholm on December 10. Many in the Turkish cultural elite took a sour view--one symptomatic of aspects of the political culture that threaten to keep their country out of the European Union.

Sophisticated observers might have seen in Pamuk's honor evidence that Turkey has attained a certain cultural parity with other leading countries--surely a favorable sign for the E.U. accession to which so many Turkish citizens aspire. Or they might have construed Pamuk's selection as a cultural gain for Muslims generally. Some in the West pointed out that Pamuk had differed with his country's rulers on several occasions, making him one more in the line of literary dissenters rewarded by the Swedish Academy.

Instead, Turkish political and media circles treated Pamuk's Nobel prize as simply another skirmish in their endless war with the ghosts of Armenians killed on their soil during the First World War. Last year, Turkish authorities charged Pamuk with "public denigration of the Turkish identity"--under a law enacted after his alleged insult occurred. The supposed infraction came in comments made in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger about historic massacres of Armenians and Kurds by the Turkish authorities. At the beginning of 2006 the legal case was dropped, but only, it seems, as a sop to European sensitivities.

The tragedy suffered by up to a million Armenians at the end of Ottoman rule is not contested by serious historians anywhere, including inside Turkey. Pamuk himself exaggerated when he claimed that "nobody but [him] dares talk about" the subject. A Turkish leftist, Taner Akcam, published a lengthy volume on the atrocities against Armenians, A Shameful Act, in Turkish in 1999 (now available in English). But Turkish nationalists labeled Pamuk's prize a European reward for his comments on the Armenian question.

It is easy to assert that Turkey has no place in the E.U. because it is Muslim, and that Europe should define itself by its Christian heritage. But would Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or an independent Kosovo be eternally excluded from the European Union because they have Muslim majority or plurality populations? Very likely not. The truth is that Turkey is handicapped in its approach to Europe much less by its majority faith than by three aspects of its political culture that mainly reflect the legacy of radical secularism. These are the state ideology of Turkishness, the systematic denial of minority ethnic and religious rights, and the excessive influence of the military within the government.

In addition, to be sure, Turkish politics has taken an Islamist tilt in recent years, with the ascent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, current prime minister and leader of the AK or Justice and Development party. Although opposed to the petrified and crumbling national-secularist heritage, Erdogan's orientation indicates a path of less, rather than more, speed toward full political reform, including individual and minority rights. Erdogan and his colleagues have made some concessions to the European Union--mainly changes in the legal system (they abolished the death penalty) and gestures toward conciliation on occupied Cyprus--but the AK party's enthusiasm for rapid progress soon faded. The latest assessment from the E.U., published last week, chastised Turkey for dragging its feet on Cyprus as well as on the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

And it's worse than foot-dragging. Turkey has lost ground. The Turkish Republic has adopted, in the last two years, laws regulating speech and written discourse based on an official definition of Turkishness. Turkishness is defined entirely politically, and with reference to historical events. It is officially "anti-Turkish" to engage in frank discussion of the history of the Anatolian Armenians or, one presumes, the standing of the Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey, represented by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeus. The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the ecumenical patriarch scheduled for the end of November seems bound to stir new controversy, for the simple reason that his church has almost no rights in Turkey: It cannot operate a seminary or publish religious literature. This is not the European model of mutual respect between faiths (much less the American model of free exercise of religion).