Turkish Islamists used to dismiss the European Union as a “Christian club.” Their claim has acquired greater plausibility now that EU leaders have appointed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Europe’s refugee gatekeeper, bolstering his Islamist government in order to keep Muslims out of Europe. Such was the import of the agreement the two sides reached last November, in which EU governments promised to pay Turkey three billion euros over two years to cover the costs of detaining and accommodating asylum seekers.
The days preceding the agreement saw the assassination of one of the country’s most important lawyers and the arrest of two of its most prominent journalists. These were related events, whose import stretches beyond Turkey’s domestic politics.
Tahir Elçi was President of the Diyarbakır Bar Association and the country’s foremost legal advocate for Kurdish resistance to Turkish state violence. He had successfully brought a number of cases against Turkey before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), most famously winning the court’s condemnation of the military destruction of a village in the 1990s. Shot in the back of the head shortly after giving a speech in defense of an historic minaret recently damaged in a shoot-out between militants and security forces, his murder galvanized lawyers nationwide in defense of their profession.
No less significant for the Turkish opposition is the case of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, arrested on November 26 in Istanbul on account of accusations of espionage that could carry life sentences. Dündar and Gül’s offense was to investigate claims that the intelligence services (MİT) had shipped weapons to jihadist forces fighting in Syria in January 2014. A seasoned journalist with a long career of examining Turkey’s “deep state,” Dündar is the general editor of Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest and most prestigious newspapers and the journal of record for the secularist opposition. During his brief tenure at Cumhuriyet Dündar has become known for turning the paper away from its hard-line Kemalist stance and adopting a more sympathetic posture toward the Kurdish movement. Dündar and Gül, imprisoned for 92 days till February 26, will face trial on March 25.
Europe in Turkey
Both Elçi and Dündar represent forces indispensible to a Turkey that might claim to embody “European values” if these are to mean anything at all besides the injunctions of the capitalist market. By giving priority to border security over solidarity with dissidents defending their democratic rights, EU leaders betray the legacy of their involvement in the country, which has had positive repercussions for liberal democratic norms in Turkey.
However forcefully one must criticize the politics of EU expansion in the context of the labor movement and social security, in the domain of individual liberty much of the legacy of the EU’s fitful courtship of Turkey has been beneficial. During Erdoğan’s first term as Prime Minister, the death penalty was abolished and rape in marriage criminalized because of EU pressure. Though the full enforcement of this latter measure by the AKP’s police and prosecutors is questionable to say the least, still such legislation sets a cultural precedent for what rights citizens can expect to see defended in the context of a liberal democracy.
While Turkish law automatically assigns women their husbands’ family names upon marriage, women are gradually winning the right to retain their pre-marriage last names due to a series of rulings by the ECHR. Though the EU cannot force Turkey to implement that court’s decisions, recorded violations enter the public record and contribute negatively to the country’s standing as an applicant for membership. In recent years Turkey’s high court (Yargıtay) has been quietly reversing a history of rejecting such “maiden name” petitions offhand, perhaps saving space on the list of ECHR infractions for more urgent cases.
One such case appeared last fall, when the ECHR decided in favor of Alevi plaintiffs objecting to the mandatory Sunni religion classes first instituted in public schools by the coup regime of the early 1980s. In its push for a new constitution to replace the one drafted by the generals and approved by a non-transparent public vote in 1982, the AKP government has presented itself as a democratic front fighting to erase the legacy of military dictatorship. Yet in the case of the mandatory religion classes — as in that of the 10% barrier for party representation in parliament — the AKP has defended the junta’s heritage tooth and nail and shown itself willing to risk tension with its EU counterparts.
The conflict over these religion classes, which the current Education Ministry has worked to expand, cuts to the heart of the AKP’s ideological project. Though the ruling party’s international legitimacy relies on its claim to advance civilian rule in the face of a presumably secular-nationalist “deep state,” internally it has long been evident what the AKP has in mind for Turkey: the transformation of the constitutional republic into an authoritarian democracy whose principal point of reference is Sunni Islam.
An education reform law passed in 2012 enabling pupils to substitute “distance learning” for school attendance after the fourth grade has verifiably led to significantly declining enrollments for girls, in line with conservative parental preference for sex segregation and early marriage. This is not surprising, as an association of Imams that advised the parliamentary commission drafting the law explicitly called for sex segregation after the age of puberty “in line with religious principles.” The reform has emboldened some AKP loyalists in the Education Ministry to call for an end to coeducation altogether.
Erdoğan’s Turkey is a country with separate blood banks for observant Muslims and others; whose government has registered pupils from secular and even non-Muslim families in Sunni religious schools without their consent; where the mayor of the capital city has called on female rape victims to commit suicide, while a member of the Constitutional Court has counseled them to marry their rapists; where the Education Ministry declined to discipline a female educator after she told her students that girls who do not wear headscarves deserved to be raped and murdered.
Under Erdoğan the symbolic language of Turkish politics has changed. Young men now crowd to the front of AKP rallies wearing shrouds to express their willingness to die (and kill?) for their leader. The change has brought with it a normalization of support for fundamentalist groups including the Islamic State (IS). At Istanbul University, the police have protected pro-IS student demonstrators while cracking down on their pro-Kurdish rivals on campus. It is no longer surprising to read about local IS members threatening to eliminate the Alevi community of the city of Gaziantep, or about an office in the same city staffed by the “caliphate’s” sympathizers caught on videotape selling Yezidi women as slaves.
For all that, one must give credit where it is due. Turkey has done more than any other country to feed, clothe, and house Syrian refugees, in large part because no other country besides Lebanon has done anything appreciable for them at all. One should acknowledge the work of Turkish charitable organizations, including some with AKP ties, that have provided genuine help to refugees. Yet there can be little doubt that Ankara has also exploited the displaced Syrians to further its foreign policy agenda.
While Turkey hosts the refugees, Erdoğan and his allies have been working overtime to overthrow their government. Syrian rebel groups have office space in Turkish cities, protected by security details, and according to many reports have sent agents to the refugee camps along the border to recruit refugees to go back into Syria and fight. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s decision to identify the Sultanahmet suicide bomber as a “refugee,” for instance, is disingenuous, given the fact that, if “refugee” and “fundamentalist militant” are porous categories in the AKP’s Turkey, the government bears at least some of the blame for that fact.
Meanwhile many Syrians are reduced to sleeping in parks and living twenty-five to a room in western Turkish cities, begging and prostituting themselves while their more enterprising kin board desperate vessels wearing “life jackets” full of straw sold to them by local businesspeople. As landlords in the southeast exploit the presence of wealthier émigrés from Syria’s merchant class to raise the rent on their properties, nativist resentment has led to countless street fights and even provoked locals to set fire to refugee homes.
To be sure, in a financially strapped country with its own deep political divisions some tension is bound to accompany the arrival of two million foreigners. Yet whether the dire plight of most Syrians in Turkey is due to the broader regional realities or more directly to AKP policies, a “good European” would no doubt step in to diffuse the tension by taking some of the refugees off Ankara’s hands. That the EU has instead opted for a cynical deal with their gaoler demonstrates that it does not see Turkey even potentially as part of Europe, whatever vague promises of future partnership it may dangle in front of the government tasked with selling the deal to its population.
What benefits will the agreement bring for Turkish citizens? The two EU promises to make the headlines are a reopening of stalled talks for EU membership and the prospect that Turks might enjoy visa-free travel to Europe starting in October of next year. This second promise is contingent on a long set of conditions that Ankara must meet by then, but for the moment let us take the most optimistic spin and assume that the visa requirements will be relaxed.
Lifting the expensive, exhausting visa rigmarole would be enticing to many. It would be nice to sail past those forms aimed at verifying property ownership or an acceptable income level, and assuring that male applicants have done their military service (so as to ferret out those seeking refuge from this obligation abroad). Then again, civil servants and their dependents already have special “green passports” that enable them to travel to the EU visa-free, so in effect many or even most of the culturally westernized Turks already enjoy this privilege.
Alongside this storied “secular elite” there has developed over the last two decades a new Islamist bourgeoisie, facetiously called the Nurjuvazi after the religious revivalist Nur or “light” movement inspired by the Islamic thinker Said Nursi. How many of the Nur-geois would like to take advantage of the new travel regime is hard to say, given the increased opportunity for travel to spiritually welcoming locations in the Gulf States, which this sector’s newfound wealth and business ties to the region affords it. It seems most realistic to assume that if the visa deal in fact goes through, the new tourists Europe will win from Turkey will still be from among those who look, dress, and to some extent think most “European.”
What European tourists will experience in the new Turkey is increasingly uncertain. Some doubtless got a taste for the changing times in a recent incident in one of the spots most heavily frequented by foreigners. A mob of over fifty men attacked people sipping wine at the famous café surrounding the Galata Tower in Istanbul, shouting Erdoğan’s name and proclaiming that people could not drink alcohol publically because “this is Turkey.” Presenting religion as territorial, these gangs resemble a mirror image of PEGIDA activists declaring Muslims unwelcome in western Europe, including those who have lived there for generations.
The Huntington Problem
This fall a youth organization spreading AKP propaganda on social media declared its intent to cut down olive trees wherever it found them, since “the olive is a Jewish tree.” Such rhetoric is chilling when one recalls how easily, in the summer of 2013, the government made the transition from cutting down trees to killing people. Yet so is the plan of Denmark’s Justice and Immigration Ministry to confiscate jewelry belonging to refugees as they enter the country, in order to make them pay their own way as wards of the state: Nazi Germany did the same with its own camp inmates.
As the rhetoric of the “war of civilizations” between Islam and the Post-Christian West intensifies, it also swallows other conflicts whose original logic lay elsewhere. Turkish officials who suggest that PKK fighters are uncircumcised, and send fundamentalist gangs as special forces to occupy restive Kurdish cities, have recast the long-running national conflict between Kurds and the Turkish state in religious terms. Something similar is at work in the statements of US politicians and some European governments who showed little interest in seeking a diplomatic solution to the Syrian war as it decimated minority communities, yet now specify that they want to receive only Christian refugees. Anti-Muslim hostility in Europe is likely to intensify, now that the spotlight shone on the sex offenders of Cologne may ignite a moral panic affecting all residents of Middle Eastern descent, refugee or otherwise.
The worsening climate of xenophobia confronting Muslims in western countries has its analogue in Turkey, in a rising discourse of hate directed against those who resist the conservative norms and practices imposed by political Islam. These elements could be a locus of support for western progressives, but that is a hard feat to pull off if your state is committed to viewing anyone who leaves the region as a potential terrorist or rapist. The monolithic rejection of the Muslim world punishes progressive citizens of Muslim countries more than their conservative or fundamentalist cousins.
To be sure, hermetically sealing off the world of Islam from the West is not really possible under a global capitalist order that continues to bind them together; yet a “culturalist” rhetoric that claims to perform such a separation can still go a long way toward bolstering reactionary currents on both sides of the religio-cultural border.
It is telling that one of Europe’s most well-known anti-Muslim web sites is called “Gates of Vienna.” Some critics of the European idea have always maintained that “Europe” is that which is not Turkish, excluding forever the heirs of the old Ottoman enemy from membership in the European family. Even and perhaps especially if this is the case, Europe will always need Turkey in order to define its own borders.
It is hard to take seriously the idea that Turkey now has improved chances of getting into Europe on the basis of a promise to keep other Middle Easterners out. What the recent agreement formalizes is rather Turkey’s status as Europe’s doorstop. The neo-Ottomanists appear pleased with this role, based on the spatial separation of Islam and the West. It is one principle on which Turkish and European leaders can now agree.
Justus Links is a writer and educator in Turkey.