Photo by Leander Schaerlaeckens
Pope Benedict expressed support of Turkey this week to the shock of some scholars in the United States.
BY BRENDAN MCGARRY
Pope Benedict XVI’s about-face on Turkey’s accession to the European Union came as a surprise to Turkish scholars Wednesday.
While meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Tuesday, the Pope was reported to have pledged his support for Turkish membership in Europe’s powerful economic bloc.
The EU, nevertheless, recommended Wednesday to partially suspend membership talks because of Turkey’s refusal to recognize Cyprus.
Turkey has tried unsuccessfully for years to join the European community, lobbying as an Islamic model of political stability and economic vitality.
“That seems to me astonishing,” Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey Program at the Brookings Institution, said of the Pope’s commitment. “I’m pleasantly surprised. He’s on record now for supporting Turkey in the EU.”
Taspinar was among a panel of Turkish experts who spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for a discussion on the Pope’s highly publicized trip to Turkey and the increasingly potent force of Islamists on Turkish politics.
Taspinar was joined by Gerald Robbins, associate scholar with the Foreign Policy Research Institute; Dr. Kemal Silay, the Ottoman and modern Turkish studies endowed chair at Indiana University; and John Sitilides, chairman of Woodrow Wilson Center’s Southeast Europe Project.
The Vatican has billed the Pope’s four-day trip to the country as a conciliatory gesture meant to open interfaith dialogues. The Pope inflamed Muslims around the world in September when he made a speech associating Islam with violence.
Tensions in the Middle East over the speech remain high; 25,000 thousand people gathered Sunday in Istanbul to protest the Pope’s visit.
“Reaction to the Pope’s visit in Turkey has been mostly hostile, and threatening, as well,” Silay said. Islamic radicals, he said, suggested the trip would be met with bloodshed.
Turkey submitted a formal application for EU membership in 1987. It was recognized as a candidate for member status in 1999.
Kasper Zeuthen, a spokesman for the EU’s Delegation of the European Commission to the United States, said in an interview that entry negotiations have stalled over Turkey’s failure to recognize Cyprus, which gained EU membership status in 2004.
“We don’t have full-fledged negotiations at this time, but we hope that we can resume the process for doing so in 2007,” Zeuthen said.
Also compounding the membership issue is the increasing influence of Islam on government, the scholars said.
While Turkey is steeped in secular tradition, the poor and disenfranchised are giving increasing power to Islamists in the political system, Taspinar said.
“The gap between rich and poor is extreme in Turkey,” he said. “Income disparity is crucial in understanding political Islam in Turkey.”
A recent poll shows support for political Islamists at nearly 50 percent, while less than one-quarter of the population backs secularists, Silay said.
As evidence of changing Turkish attitudes, Silay said anti-Semitic books linked to the Turkish cultural and tourism ministry were sold at a recent international book fair in Frankfurt, Germany.
“The level of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism is skyrocketing,” he said.
In addition, Islamic factions are cracking down on liberal elements of society, including journalists, professors, poets and businessmen, Silay said.
“There is little evidence that the Republic of Turkey is working hard enough to stop this nightmare,” he said.
Robbins, however, equated Turkey’s contemporary political scene with the “Jacksonian Party” in America, referring to the former president, Andrew Jackson — a polarizing populist who helped shape the two-party system in the 1820s and 1830s.
“It was populist democracy, the guys who came from the other side of the tracks and didn’t have a voice,” he said.
Taspinar said radical Islam won’t take root in the country, largely because of its rich military and state history, democratic and capitalistic interests, growing middle class, popular Sufi sect of Islam that promotes cultural socialization, and ambitions to join the EU.
“We would have a military coup before the Islamists would have an Islamic state,” he said.
Taspinar noted how the Ottoman Empire ruled from Istanbul under a legal — not theocratic — structure. Historically, Jews and Christians enjoyed cultural freedom, although they were forced to pay special taxes and were never given positions in government or the court system, he said.
Taspinar said the country also owes its political stability in part to something it lacks — oil.
“When you don’t have oil, you develop the private sector,” he said.
Yet, Islam continues to push political boundaries. Debate is raging over whether to allow students to wear headscarves in schools.
Despite the presence of 120,000 mosques in Turkey, the government has banned students from wearing headscarves in schools because they’re seen as politically dangerous religious symbols, Silay said.
Turkish secularism isn’t about the separation of church and state, Taspinar said.
“It’s about the state trying to control religion,” he said. “Either Islam controls the state, or the state controls Islam. It’s a zero-sum game.”