Istanbul

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.

Despite all this, it is true that Turkey has had its own radical Islamist movements, especially since the early 1980s. But they were not homegrown. Arab, Pakistani, and Iranian ideologues of radical Islam--such as Sayyid Qutb, Sayyid Abul-Ala Mawdudi, and Ali Shariati--inspired a generation of Islamists, who found their Turkish Islamic past too pacifist. The political Islamism that would carry Necmettin Erbakan's Refah ("Welfare") party to power in 1996 was also of foreign origin: It was modeled on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and exploited the radicalism of the aforementioned Islamist youth. But in the late 1990s, this movement lost steam. Its more liberal faction gave birth to the AKP, which has been in power since November 2002 and is leading Turkey's E.U. effort more successfully than any previous Turkish government.

Some Westerners, along with some hard-core secularists in Turkey, fear that the AKP's move toward democracy could be a taqiyyah, a tactical deception allowing the party to carry out a secret Islamist agenda. Yet there is not a shred of evidence to support that conspiracy theory. Some recent "evidence," such as the AKP's attempts to make adultery illegal and give religious-school graduates greater access to secular universities, should more properly be seen as the party's effort to appease its conservative voters.

In fact, the decline of radical Islamism in Turkey is no superficial defeat; it is supported by many Islamic thinkers, including some who have renounced a radical past in favor of democracy. Furthermore, Turkey has many modernist theologians who envisage a comprehensive renewal in Islam, and they find considerable support among the public.

In short, Turkey is the archetype of what is called "moderate Islam." Thus, its entry into the E.U. should be seen as an antidote to the radical misinterpretation of Islam, not as a religious threat to the West.

SOME WESTERNERS see a catch in this argument. They think that Turkish Islam is moderate only because it was marginalized and suppressed during the early Turkish Republic, under the one-party rule of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This line of reasoning leads to the suspicion that if Turkey deepens its democracy to satisfy the E.U., it will only unleash the previously marginalized Islam and invite a fundamentalist backlash.

The moderation of Turkish Islam, however, is not a product of the Kemalist period. Rather, it is the product of a long process of modernization of which Kemalism was just one phase. An important phase, to be sure, but still a phase.

Turkish modernization began at least a century before Kemalism. In the 19th century, the Ottomans produced a new secular civil law, a constitution, a parliament, and Western-style schools and universities. They also encouraged sophisticated intellectual debate. Even Abdulhamid II (1876-1909), the most "Islamist" sultan of the later empire, launched an extensive modernization program that included the founding of modern schools where the Young Turks would flourish. In 1895, Descartes's Discourse on Method was translated into Turkish under the auspices of the sultan. Many other Western classics, as well as the political debates of the day in Europe, became part of Ottoman intellectual life. And this was embraced not just by the secular Young Turks, but also by more open-minded Islamists.

That heritage makes Turkish Islam--along with the Islam of the Balkans--a unique manifestation of Islamic modernity. Turkey would introduce this modern Islam into Europe, which is currently troubled by an undesirable version of the same faith. The E.U., then, would be wise to welcome the Turks for its own sake.

Whatever the arguments for Turkish ties to Europe, of course, many Turks attach greater importance to an even more fundamental alliance with the United States.

Actually, Turkey is closer to the United States than it is to Europe in many respects--most notably, the role of religion in public life. Many Turkish conservatives, including me, find the spirit of a "nation under God" much more appealing than the bluntly secular European ethos. It is unfortunate that when the Europeans recently decided to exclude any mention of God from the E.U. constitution, Turkey's liberal intelligentsia, including some public officials, expressed the view that such a secular union would be a better fit for Turkey than one that acknowledged any religious allegiance. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (whose objections to Turkey's accession had earlier alienated many Turks) was wiser when he commented, "It has been said that the European Constitution could not mention the Judeo-Christian roots so as not to offend Islam, but what offends Islam is contempt for God." Conservative Turks couldn't agree more.

As to the Mars/Venus dichotomy between the United States and Europe, we Turks would line up with the Americans on the Martian side. Notwithstanding the controversy over the Iraq war, we realize that, in the grand scheme of things, "Old Europe" has displayed a lack of vision and initiative that is not commendable. We well remember that the same Europe did nothing to save our ex-Ottoman Muslim brethren in Bosnia during the 1990s, and it was the United States that halted the Serbs' ghastly ethnic cleansing.

But the United States is not inviting us to join its Union. Besides, there is an ocean between us. Rather, Turkey's destination is Europe. And if we reach it, the effect will be to change the world. Europeans remember with distaste the Ottoman siege of Vienna. Once the gates of Vienna are open to the Turks, however, and the gates of Istanbul are open to Europeans, the age of sieges will be well and truly over.

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish political scientist and columnist, is director of the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, based in Istanbul.

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