Originally Published 2005-01-06 10:02:50 Published on Jan 06, 2005
Will Samuel P Huntington be proved wrong on The Clash of Civilizations if and when Islamic Turkey joins European Union (E U)? And will that enable the E U to put an end to the decades old ethno- territorial feud in Cyprus?
Islam, Turkey and Cyprus in Europe
Will Samuel P Huntington be proved wrong on The Clash of Civilizations if and when Islamic Turkey joins European Union (E U)? And will that enable the E U to put an end to the decades old ethno- territorial feud in Cyprus? 

I was in Turkey on December 18, 2004 when its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned home after attending the E U Summit in Brussels and obtaining a start date for 'accession talks' for E U membership. There was much happiness and jubilation, and also some apprehension of the skeptics. The ruling liberal Islamist party, the AKP, organized a huge triumphant rally for the Prime Minister. There were minor protests rallies too; on the Prime Minister compromising on Turkey's support to Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus. That was a typical democratic phenomenon. After already fulfilling E U's Copenhagen criteria of democracy, human rights, and fiscal reforms, and obtaining its approval to start 'accession talks' on October 3, 2005, Turkey may yet take 10-12 years to become a regular E U member. 

Undoubtedly, Europe today is uneasy about its Muslim minorities. The alarmists feel that Turkish membership could turn out to be an Islamic Trojan horse. Turkey's 70 million population with comparatively lower per capita income would be a drag on the E U. The optimists, however, bank on Turkish moderate Islamic credentials, potential consumer markets, its large Armed Forces (part of NATO), and most importantly, its geo-strategic location. 

The Turks as compared to the Arabs were latecomers to the Muslim faith. The bi-continental spread of the Turkish Ottoman Empire (13-19 Century AD) and their continual interaction with the West enabled them to make practical decisions on governance, adopt new technologies and reform age-old sharia laws. They allowed charging of interest (denounced as usury in the Koran) and abolished slavery despite strong resistance from the Arab Wahaabis. The Ottomans are credited with having introduced secular laws, a constitution, a parliament, and Western style schools and universities in Turkey. 

But the person who injected the strongest dose of modernization and moderation was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of Turkish Republic, in the early 20th Century. He abolished all signs of radical Islam, and established and nurtured democratic institutions that make Turkey a different Islamic country today. There were many modernist theologians in Turkey who envisage a comprehensive renewal in Islam and have considerable public support.

However, since then, political Islamism has made an entry into Turkey. The present ruling party pursuing E U membership is also Islamist to an extent. There are no burqas on the streets but the number of scarf wearing women has been slowly increasing; a trend that is resented by the modernists, Turkish Armed Forces, and university academics. Turkish religious moderation is very much noticeable in Istanbul and Ankara where malls and bazaars prepare for Christmas like any other Muslim festival.

There is no anti-Semitism in Turkey. Turkey and Israel maintain good relations. Turks sympathize with Palestinians and yet allow the Jews to live peacefully and enjoy minority community status like others. 

Kemal Ataturk may not enjoy the same reverence as he did some years ago, but it will not be easy for any Turkish Islamist politicians to completely change the Turkish mindset and way of life institutionalised by him.

The optimists in Europe consider Turkey as the archetype of 'moderate Islam'. Its membership should be an antidote to the radical Islam and not a religious threat to the E U. The alarmists, however, fear the unleashing of the previously marginalised and suppressed Islam and a fundamentalist backlash when Turkey joins E U.

Here, I would like to quote Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who recently wrote "To modernize an Islamic country based on the shared values of Europe would be almost a D-Day for Europe in the war against terror," because it "would provide real proof that Islam and modernity, Islam and the rule of law . . . this great cultural tradition and human rights are after all compatible." This "would be the greatest positive challenge for these totalitarian and terrorist ideas." 

Turkey's imbroglio with Cyprus, a million strong nation, a member of the E U since May 2004, started in 1960s when it began to support Turkish Cypriots in the Northern part of the island against the Greek Cypriots. Following a Greek junta coup in Cyprus, Turkey intervened militarily in 1974 and officially 'recognized' the Turkish Cypriots. 'De-recognition' of Greek Cypriots divided Cyprus into two separate ethnic parts. Since then, Turkey and internationally accepted Cyprus have had no relations. The latter is faced with the problems of the presence of Turkish troops in the North, and inability to use sea lanes and air space of that part of the island. 

To become an E U member, Turkey will need Cyprus support and normalization of relations with it. That would put an end to long-standing, troublesome ethnic problem in Cyprus. In Brussels, Erdogan had to promise extension of 1963 Customs Union Agreement to 10 new E U members, including Cyprus, before the start date for accession talks. This was short of Cypriot demand, but not too far from the 'recognition' goal. 

Although Turkish Armed Forces have made no comments, many Turks resent giving up on 'sacrifices made by Turkish soldiers since 1974'. Since the accession talks will be open ended and there is no guarantee of E U membership, Turkey has no choice but to make this compromise.

Geographically, Turkey is more in Asia than in Europe but apparently has greater attraction for the West; its modernity, higher economic standards, democratic politics, and with that the secular ethos. Will the Clash of Civilizations within Turkey, and the Turks' decision to make Europe-type progress abandoning the outdated ethno-territorial problems in Cyprus have some lessons for the rest of the world? Let us wait and watch.

Former Chief of Army Staff. President, ORF Institute of Security Studies, New Delhi.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.