At a time when the issues of headscarves, diplomas of imam hatip schools and the use of alcohol in public places are all being debated, today The New Anatolian takes a look at the report “The European Union, Turkey and Islam,” prepared by the The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). The report by this independent advisory body on behalf of the Dutch government says that Turkish membership negotiations should not be “polluted” by misunderstandings about Islam.
Here are excerpts from the introduction of the report:
Why is the question on whether Islam provides an obstacle to Turkey’s accession relevant?
Why still focus on Turkish Islam in its own right? Why not concentrate on the formal accession requirements? The council (WRR) felt it necessary to do so because the wider public debate outside “Brussels,” in countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and so on, will not be restricted to the Copenhagen criteria. Already, there is a wide rift between EU watchers (who understandably focus on these formal criteria) and the broader public on the issue of Turkey. Many people are worried about Turkey’s “Islam factor.” If and when an accession treaty is signed, it will require ratification, either by national parliaments or by popular referenda. We
strongly believe that this ratification process should be based on an informed overall judgement by the European populations, and one that includes a knowledge of Turkish Islam and Turkish Muslims. Therefore, we have addressed these issues explicitly, and we hope this will eventually contribute to a well-informed European public debate on Turkish accession.
The answer to our central question is crystal clear: No, Turkish Islam is not a hindrance to Turkey’s EU accession. However, there are misunderstandings about Islam and Muslims that also impinge on Turkish Islam and Turkish Muslims. For instance, many people believe that Muslims are (potentially violent) fundamentalists who are keen to establish a theocracy and Sharia law. The examples of Sudan, Pakistan and Iran illustrate what this means for democracy and human rights. What people often do not know is that Islam, like Christianity, is a religion of many different creeds and beliefs. The relationship between the state and religion varies widely across the Muslim world.
As we argue in our report, the Turkish constitution and the state apparatus strictly protect the state’s autonomy towards religious communities. This situation did not emerge overnight. It is the outcome of a long process of secular state-building that began long before the creation of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. His reforms can be seen as the tailpiece of more than a century of profound changes. These largely mirrored changes elsewhere in Europe, were based on domestic choices rather than external forces and were supported by the forces of Islam. As elsewhere in Europe, they were heavily inspired by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Thus, the 19th century witnessed the end of absolute rule, the introduction of a constitution and the advent of parliamentary elections. Large parts of the Swiss Civil Code were imported, traditional Sharia punishments were formally abolished (1858) and in 1924 the few remainders of Islamic law were removed. It is no coincidence that when Ataturk introduced a very rigorous separation of state and religion under the new Turkish Republic, he was actually inspired by France’s system of laicite [secularism]. Both France and Turkey periodically experience heated debates on the wearing of headscarves in public spaces which move on rather similar constitutional territories. These examples also illustrate that Turkey is not as different as it is often made out to be.
From Erbakan to Erdogan
This brings us to the rise of Islam-inspired political parties and the position of the ruling [Justice and Development] AK Party. Do these developments represent a danger to Turkey’s secular state? We do not think so. Islam as a politically relevant phenomenon should be seen in the context of its forced marginalizing in the previous decades. Until recently, Islamic parties were met by profound distrust from the establishment in and around governmental institutions, who identify strongly with Kemalist thinking. Both the Constitutional Court and the armed forces have intervened on several occasions and banned such parties. This denial of Islamic identity by the upper classes was never shared by the population at large. Its emergence was underpinned by important socioeconomic changes in Turkey, such as the rise of a substantial middle class in rural areas and in the smaller towns, for whom Islam constitutes a normal part of everyday life.
Islam-inspired political parties such as those of [former Prime Minister] Necmettin Erbakan have never attracted more than 21 percent of the Turkish electorate. Nor have they contested the secular nature of the democratic state. Rather, by insisting on the individual’s freedom of religion and opposing strong government controls on religious communities, they have advocated a different type of secularism than that contained in Kemalist state ideology. While supporting the existing democratic system, moreover, they have fought to make it accessible to religiously-inspired political parties.
The current governing AK Party is still more explicit on this human rights-based secularism. It considers differences in religion, culture and opinion as an enrichment of society, and secularism as one principle of freedom which allows for genuine pluralism. Its concept of human rights is inclusive, by explicitly discussing the equal rights of non-believers. Moreover, it is aware that these concepts, and the measures to implement them, are not simply means of obtaining an EU entry ticket, but are actually essential for the country’s further democratization and modernization. Does all this imply that Islam in Turkey is wholly unproblematic for the EU? We argue there are problems, but not in the sense of a dominant Islamic influence on the state. Rather the opposite is true; the state’s control over Turkish Islam is too large. Turkey has a form of state Islam that is supervised by a state body, the Directorate for Religious Affairs (or Diyanet). Since 1982, its messages combine a strong emphasis on social conservatism and nationalism with a moderate Islam which is mainly propagated through compulsory lessons in religion and ethics and state-controlled radio and television. As a result, the state not merely provides institutional support for one specific brand of religion, it is also actively involved inthe substance of religion. There is no doubt that these arrangements create tensions with the freedom of religion. After all, this basic principle assumes that the state respects the autonomy of religious communities and guarantees that religious believers (and atheists and apostates) face no restrictions in the exercise of their rights.
However, rather than simply condemning this situation, EU member states should also put it into perspective. While Turkey needs to reform its arrangements in the runup to EU accession, it is equally worth remembering that many current member states do not always observe strict neutrality towards religion and religious denominations either. Some have a formal state church, others have created de facto privileged positions for some denominations, for instance by granting one denomination the monopoly on religious education in state schools. Such diverse national arrangements often reflect divergent, historically rooted relations between religion, state and society. There is thus no unambiguous or fixed European standard against which Turkey can be judged. Nor are there a priori reasons to assume that Turkey would not be able to conform with the EU’s minimum standards on the freedom of religion and the autonomy of state and religion. …
Our research explicitly confirms the decision of the Union’s heads of state that Turkish Islam is not a hindrance to Turkey’s membership. We also hope that other politicians will not shy away from making this case before their national publics.
However, to say that Turkey can join is not to argue that Turkey also should join to avoid all kinds of backlashes within Turkey itself or within the Muslim world. Turkey can only really be made to feel welcome if it joins the EU irrespective of Islam. Only then would it send out a clear signal that the West and the Muslim world are not on an irreversible collision course. Unfortunately, such a signal is sorely needed nowadays.
ABHaber 18.12.2005 The New Anatolian