Sunday, July 15, 2007

Open your eyes Europe, open your gates

Despite its censorship, torture and interfering army, Polly Toynbee in Istanbul finds reasons why Turkey is ready to join our club

Friday December 13, 2002
reposted from The Guardian

It takes 10 minutes to cross the Bosphorus in one of the water buses ploughing back and forth in the shadow of Ataturk bridge - a short ride from Europe to Asia, within Turkey yet across a continent. If the snow was falling on church spires and not minarets, this breathtaking sight might be Venice. The Golden Horn and Istanbul's mighty history are deeply woven into Europe's fabric.

Once it ruled an empire from the Danube to the Euphrates, once the Ottomans reached the gates of Vienna. Here now are bazaars and Benettons, mosques and McDonald's, Turkey's "synthesis" of east and west. Yet is this really Europe?

Last night in Copenhagen the EU was debating Turkey's admission - a defining moment for Europe too. For Turkey this is the climax of 80 years intent to be modern, democratic and, yes, western. The sick man of Europe - sick maybe, amid its economic crash, but European?

Barely a voice in Turkey does not want to join, from the hopeful, "Of course we are Europeans! How could they say no?" to the angrily pessimistic, "They will never take us into their Christian club, whatever we do. Seventy million Muslims frightens them. Why?"

In an apartment up a steep Istanbul street, Haluk Salin surveys the Bosphorus from his window. A leading intellectual, liberal columnist of the Radikal newspaper, academic and TV political interviewer, his most famous book is It's Not Easy Being a Turk. He reels off the history of Turkey's European credentials, no different to the Greeks. "Europe's coldness towards us hurts," he says emotionally. "Yet we have always defended European ideals - and defended Europe in the cold war. Now, you say you don't need us any more?"

Decision time

Deftly, he turns the argument back. "This is Europe's time to decide, not ours. What do you want to be? Multicultural in a globalised 21st century, or shrink back to a little 19th century Christian enclave? I don't want to join the Europe of Giscard and Stoiber anyway, but a civilised, social democratic, outward-looking union. Think what will it do to you if you turn us away. It will create the clash of civilisations, instead of proving it nonsense."

He attacks Europe's holier-than-thou attitude towards Turkey. Democracy? Corruption? Look at Berlusconi and Bush. Peasants? Rural Poland or Bulgaria are the same. Trouble with ethnic minorities, such as the Kurds? Yes, but it is improving and what about the Basques? Look at Polish anti-semitism or Czechs and Romas. Prisons? Britain has many more in jail per capita than Turkey. And, incidentally, Granada under the Ottomans was tolerantly civilised compared with the Catholic rule of Ferdinand and Isabella. "But yes," he says, "of course Turkey has to take giant steps before we can join. Just give us a date."

But powerful reasons why Turkey is not politically or economically ready are icily laid out in the EU's latest report.

Talk to people from all parties and they agree mountains are still to be climbed and this new government wears strong crampons. In the past year the death penalty was abolished, Kurdish were allowed in education and broadcasting, and zero tolerance of torture was announced, even if these are more symbolic than actual. (Kurds, 20% of the population, get two hours' TV a week.)

Torture is endemic in police stations, just the Turkish way of law and order. Arrest someone and confession is easier than investigation. Falanga is extreme reflexology, beating the soles of the feet. There is submarino, holding the prisoner's head under water. Sandwiching between two blocks of ice is popular, as are old-fashioned electric shocks to the genitals. Almost everyone I met had been arrested and beaten or worse at some time. Human Rights Watch has found 55 cases since February, but it says torture has declined sharply and the government is trying to stop it.

Freedom of speech is arbitrary. Sanar Yurdatapan, a Marxist rock composer and writer now in his sixties, has just won the Human Rights Watch prize for his campaign. Whenever a small publisher is arrested, he gathers together powerful writers and republishes the forbidden work, challenging the authorities to arrest important men: they always back down.

At least 500 articles on the statute book forbid certain topics: all criticism of Ataturk or the military is taboo, with a catch-all law against "insulting the institution of the state". The problem is the chaotic state of the law - a tangle of contradictory laws invoked arbitrarily. As a Marxist, Yurdatapam is suspicious of the EU: "Big capital wants it," he says with a shrug, but adds that trying to join is forcing progress on rights. "Yet we must want rights for ourselves, not just for the EU."

The question is whether Tayyip Erdogan's new, clean Islamist Justice and Development party feels strong enough to remove sacred laws protected by the might of a military that controls a shadowy national security council which meets monthly to approve or refuse what parliament has decided.

The EU demands that the million-strong military withdraws to a constitutional role under the thumb of the minister of defence. But although it has conducted four coups since 1960, it is not an altogether bad force, the only body recognised as uncorrupt, guarding against the very rise in Islamicism that most frightens the EU.

In 1997 it removed a weak coalition led by a 20% minority Islamic party that was turning against "the unbelievers of Europe, imperialism and Zionism". New elections were called.

The guarantor of secularism, the army is keeper of the flame lit by Ataturk, the autocrat who in 1923 created a nation from Ottoman ruins by turning westwards. At a stroke he changed the Arabic script to the western alphabet, changed the calendar, imposed trousers, banned the headscarf and the fez declaring: "I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea".

Since then, Turkey has tried to face west. With bad neighbours such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Russia, they ask, where else? Even the army wants to join the EU, although that will remove its power.

With the army disarmed, might Islamic fundamentalism rise up red in tooth and claw? Everywhere there is emphatic denial. Although the new government has "Islamic" in the title, its leader still trapped in a politically motivated legal ban for reciting an Islamic poem, even the Marxists give him optimistic support.

A leading Islamic intellectual and Koran translator, Ali Babuc, describes Turkish Islam as like modern Christianity: "We interpret the deep meaning of the Koran, not the literal words." Ancient Middle Eastern tribal customs - stoning and hand-chopping, unfree women - are no more relevant than Christians obeying the weird laws of Leviticus. He too is passionate about joining, "to show the Islamic world that democracy and Islam are compatible".


What of the headscarf issue? Old Ataturk laws prohibit them in schools, universities or state buildings, effectively banning devout women. Few things in Turkey are what they seem. Atheist feminists join those pressing for women's freedom of dress: imagine banning crucifixes for women in US universities, they say. Mr Babuc says all can be resolved: "The French allow adult women over 18 to wear the headscarf in education. That will do."

Up a narrow stairway high above Istanbul's fish market, Amargi is a small feminist enclave engrossed in 1970s meta-feminist philosophy of patriarchy. How are women in Turkey? The laws are egalitarian, the reality wretched. In public men everywhere, women less visible and insecure but secular: no more black chadors here than haunt Oxford Street. Courts still ignore domestic violence with a lethal old Turkish saying: "A husband can beat you and love you." But what's new? It is familiarly like any macho southern European country of the 1970s. Let us join you, say the feminists too.

Some EU enthusiasts fear Turkey as a US stalking horse. America has behaved outrageously - and counter-productively - in pressing Turkey's application in exchange for using its bases and borders to invade Iraq. It makes pro-US governments - Spain, Britain and Italy - look like US lackeys in urging Turkey's case.

Passionate Huttonite Europeans see the danger: at best the US doesn't give a damn about Europe's unity, at worst it wants to weaken the EU into a mere free-trade union, never an alternative superpower.

But that is not the way Turks see it. Everyone I met wants to join Europe to escape US hegemony. Turkey will be a leftwing, not a rightwing, force in the EU and all parties echo Mr Babuc's warm words about Europe's social democratic capitalism, with instinctive revulsion against "the cruel capitalism of the US".

If the French and Germans succeed in destroying Turkey's application through delay until the new 12 can veto it, they will not strengthen but weaken Europe's future.

"Europe must be the democratic beacon for countries like us!" said one writer. "Open your gates!"

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Tuesday December 17 2002

We incorrectly extended the Ottoman empire to include Spain in this article. It was a Muslim north African army, led by Arabs allied to the caliphate of Damascus, that conquered the Iberian peninsula from 711. It reached the Pyrenees in 719 and was halted between Tours and Poitiers in 732. But like the Ottoman empire, Moorish rule in Iberia was noted for its ethnic and religious tolerance. It came to an end in 1492 with the capture of the last citadel, Granada, by the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella.

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