Published 30 Apr 09
By Abigail R. Esman
World Defense Review columnist
Should Turkey join the European Union?
Obama says yes. He's wrong.
Suddenly, and in large part thanks to Barack Obama's recent European visit, America's attention has turned to Turkey, and its strategic position in U.S.-Middle East relations. During his visit, Obama took the opportunity to advocate Turkey's acceptance into the E.U. – as if it were any of America's business in the first place, which it isn't, and as if the new conservative Turkish government was one that Europe should embrace, even when it rejected a more secular Turkey in the past.
It should not.
In fact, if anything, Europe should halt all discussion of the matter until a secular government is reinstated, and one that supports Israel – or at the very least, does not insist on demonizing Israel at international conferences, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did last January in Davos, Switzerland.
Recently, I happened to meet with Mat Herben, former leader of Holland's lapsed political party, Lijst Pim Fortuyn – a party that, in its time, was viewed as radically right-wing, though when compared to political events and activities that have emerged since its demise in 2006, would these days be considered "center-right." Herben is also the former vice-chairman of the Dutch Committee on Defense, where, with a Dutch-Turkish associate, he held unprecedented meetings with the Turkish military. For him, the risk involved in bringing Turkey into the E.U. now is clear. "Turkey," he told me flatly, "is the key to the victory of jihad."
These are frightening words, though they do fail to acknowledge the reverse: that Turkey also plays a role, if not in the victory of democracy, than in jihad's defeat. The fact is that both of these are true.
Let me point out that I am a tremendous fan of the Turkish Republic, and particularly of Istanbul, with its glorious architecture and historical heritage, its cosmopolitan sophistication: Istanbul has, in many ways, surpassed any number of European capitals in its cultural life, with assorted new galleries and museums for modern and contemporary art, a sparkling nightlife, and despite the prayer calls that reverberate throughout the city during the day, a Muslim population more secularized than most Muslim communities in the Netherlands or France.
But Istanbul is just a fragment of the country, and its intelligentsia, however powerful, still a political minority nationwide. Under President Abdulah Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan, the country is growing increasingly Islamist. Is that what Europe wants?
Herben believes the issue centers on a single misused word: "negotiation." While Europe and Turkey negotiate Turkey's membership in the E.U., he says, they are entirely overlooking the basic principles of the Union itself: Membership is a privilege. It is earned, not bargained for like a carpet at the Grand Bazaar.
"The question of whether or not Turkey becomes an E.U. state is not based per se on whether it is Islamic or not," Herben says, "but on whether or not it's ready. The process is driven by the 'Criteria of Copenhagen,' whereby you agree to follow the legal, financial and political systems of the E.U. Only then can you join." That agreement, he notes, is non-negotiable: either you do or you do not.
In fact, warns Herben, the use of the term "negotiation" plays right into the hands of Islamist resistance. "Calling it 'negotiation' gives Erdogan the opportunity to say, 'Europe doesn't want us,' when the truth is that Turkey won't accept Europe." Moreover, he adds, while "Turkey is the bridgehead to the Islamic world," those on the other side of the bridge are not likely to cross over. Rather, he believes, "Arabs will say that Turkey has, for the second time, betrayed Islam. And they will attack." Should this happen, it would then constitute an attack by the Arab world on European soil.
Further potential problems, it occurs to me (though they are rarely acknowledged), involve Turkey's conflicts with the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and its border with a still-unstable Iraq. Were Turkey to become a part of the E.U., would antagonisms between those two countries, and with the PKK, extend those conflicts to all of Europe? Would Turkey's need to send troops into Iraq become a war between Iraq and the E.U.?
Herben's biggest fear, however – and it is a realistic one – is that a potential induction into the European Union would inspire – and inspire support for what he describes as "a nationalist Turkish general who takes over the country, as the army of the Shah did Persia. Yet that possibility – of a Turkish military or political leader who unites the Islamist party with a secular army under Turkish nationalism – is a potential the U.S. completely overlooks."
Herben suggests a better alternative: provide Ankara the benefits of friendship with the E.U; support their economy, end all barriers to trade, appreciate and reward their membership in NATO. After ten years, offer the country the opportunity to join the Union. His prediction is that they'll refuse. After all, they will have gained the economic benefits of partnership, without losing their connection to the Arab world. At the same time, increased interaction with Europe may well serve to strengthen, both in power and in numbers, Turkey's secular elite, while an increasingly secularized, democratized Turkish Republic, which still wields considerable influence on its immigrants (and their descendants) throughout Europe, may well have the effect of driving European Turks farther from the Arab stranglehold – one through which, currently, Saudi-sponsored radical imams lecture in the Koran schools and preach from the mosques of Berlin and Amsterdam and London.
"The Turkish nation," Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turk Republic, once said, "consists of the valiant descendants of a people that has lived independently and has considered independence the solid condition of existence." Theirs is a legacy they are entitled to keep – should keep – without interference from American interests. Only then can Ataturk's great dream hold – not just for Turkey, but for us all: "Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh," he wrote: "peace at home, peace in the world."
— Abigail R. Esman is an award-winning author-journalist who divides her time between New York and The Netherlands. In addition to her column in World Defense Review, her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Salon.com, Esquire, Vogue, Glamour, Town & Country, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic and many others. She is currently working on a book about Muslim extremism and democracy in the West to be published by Praeger in 2010.
Visit Esman on the web at abigailesman.com.
© 2009 Abigail R. Esman
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