By Allen Wolfe
In early May, the streets of Istanbul were filled with tens of thousands of protestors. The walkways were flooded with red as Turkish secularists waved their country’s flag. This was the third largest secularist protest in a month that contested the Republic’s religious fanaticism. Carrying portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern day Turkey, protestors sent a message to the government that they say is upholding increasingly more Islamic values. Mass mobilization of Turks from rural areas into the secularist urban centers has raised concern among the predominantly secularist citizens that already occupy most large cities. They are concerned that lack of religious freedom in Turkey is the reason why the country was recently excluded from the European Union (EU).
Turkey formally applied for admission into the European Community on April 14, 1987, but was officially recognized as a candidate for accession on December 12, 1999. But the elongated accession process for the Muslim based country has been a point of conflict. Some see the delay as the EU’s reluctance to allow a country with a 99 percent Muslim citizenship into their predominately Christian association. Others refer to the fact that Turkey has denied the Armenian genocide -estimated at 1,500,000 deaths â€“ that was due to religious fanaticism.
In addition to the recent protests in Istanbul, the murders of three Christian missionaries in the east of Turkey add to the tale of religious intolerance that is hard to ignore and far from over.
As to of the recent deaths of Christian missionaries in east Turkey, Hans A.H.C. de Wit, country representative of Turkey/Greece for the Public Relations sector of Maussen Communications, cites European public opinion as a possible reason for why Turkey has not been admitted to the EU.
De Wit offered the following hypothetical response the EU may have toward Turkish membership: “If [the Turkish government] can not even protect a tiny minority of less than one percent of all kinds of other faiths, while we [Europeans] have to tolerate a minority up to 10 percent of Muslims in Europe, how can we accept them into our association?”
De Wit said that the “if we can why can’t they?” mindset is also a common sentiment among Europeans in regard to the problem with religious tolerance and Turkish accession to the EU. He also suggested that Turkey’s accession is being delayed because of their history of denying the Armenian genocide and refusing to recognize the Republic of Cyprus as a sovereign state. If, as a country, “they [the Turkish government] cannot accept the fact that great atrocities have been committed in the name of religion in the past, then how can religious freedom be achieved in the future?,” de Wit asked.
The Armenian Question
During the formation of the modern Turkish nation-state, from 1919 to 1923, there were certain questionable wartime actions surrounding the removal of Greeks and Armenians from Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an army official who founded Republic of Turkey, had the task of creating a unified Turkey at a time when the country was ethnically diverse.
University of California, Santa Cruz Sociology Professor Paul Lubeck said, “Mustafa Kemal led a movement for a modern secularized state. He literally imported the civil code of Switzerland [in their removal of the Greeks and Armenians].” Lubeck is also the Director of the Global Information Internship program and the Center for Global, International and Regional Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Lubeck, having done extensive research on Turkey, attributes Turkey’s actions to the western European tactics of ethnic cleansing they adopted when forming their republic.
“They used a western European script and notions of ethnic purity and nationalism,” he said, adding that the very notion of nationalism “is in essence a western European invention that was exported around the world.”
In this sense, it was the creation of the nation-state that elicited the removal of the Armenians and the Greeks from the area. However, people still debate whether or not it was in fact genocide. The Turks do not use the “dreaded ‘G’ word” for many reasons: to associate the removal of ethnic groups from the area through genocide is almost to equate Turkish identity with genocide, according to Gabriel Brahm, UCSC professor of American Studies.
“It would mean putting what is thought of as the moment of ultimate Turkish pride [the formation of the state by Kemal], into a categorization that is detrimental to Turkish identity,” said Brahm, thinking back on his days of teaching in Ankara.
He said that for the Turks to even theoretically admit to genocide would potentially put the formation of the republic into question.
“It isn’t just a horrible crime that the country committed; it was a crime they committed in order to create the nation-state,” Brahm said. “[It was, in a sense] a ‘necessary crime,’ [and] I put that in quotation marks. It was required that it happen by any means in order to be able to imagine Turkey as an ethnically unified nation, in a region that was actually ethnically diverse.”
According to Lubeck, the republic of Turkey, at its formation in the 1920’s, used western European tactics of modernization and administered a “revolution from above.” A “political class that realized the threat from the west and said we must modernize or else we are going to be conquered” governed the new nation-state. It was this western European assimilation, and in turn the removal of Armenians and Greeks from the area, that brought about the main controversy surrounding Turkey’s EU accession.
Brahm summed up the Armenian question with an anecdote about a Turkish friend trying to talk to her father about that period of Turkish history. Refusing to admit what happened in the past, the father stubbornly stated, “it never happened, there was no genocide and if there wouldn’t have been this genocide, there would be no Turkey.”
What About Cyprus?
According to to Murat Ersoy, Counselor to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., another problem Turkey has to face is the fact that the country does not formally recognize the Republic of Cyprus.
“One of the more visible issues in that regard is Cyprus,” Ersoy said.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was created in the northern part of the island of Cyprus following Turkish invasion in 1974. The TRNC declared its independence in 1983, however Turkey remains the only country to recognize the TRNC as a sovereign state. Turkey did not recognize the Republic of Cyprus as a separate country until 2004 when Cyprus was accepted into the EU and remains the only country not to respect the sovereignty and independence of Cyprus.
In terms of the conflict with Cyprus hindering Turkey’s chances of getting into the EU, Professor Lubeck said, “they are going to have to settle that before they are let into the EU.” There are forces, from both sides, aggravating a smooth transition, but according to Lubeck the “hard-line nationalists are using the Cypriot issue to stir up nationalism to strengthen their position within Turkey and also to reduce the likelihood of entry into the EU.”
Turkey, contrary to its beliefs, has let the situation permeate and grow. Ersoy explained how the Turkish government “allowed the issue to become an impediment regarding the Turkish EU membership” by not dealing with the topic at the appropriate time.
According to a US diplomat in Ankara, the capitol of Turkey, there will be no maintaining of relationships between the EU and Turkey until they learn to accept the past for what it was and move on with the acceptance of the Armenian question and Cyprus.
The U.S. diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, made it clear that the EU “will not officially open negotiations on those chapters until Turkey implements the ‘Ankara Protocol’ which requires Turkey to recognize Cyprus as an EU member,” which can be done by opening up the sea and airports to the Republic of Cyprus for traffic and trade. The diplomat said that when Turkey does not allow trade in Cyprus they step on many economic toes in Europe.
Groups like the influential Christian Democratic Union (the CDU) of Germany, of which Chancellor Merkel of the EU is a dominant member, believe Turkey should not be a part of the EU. Having elicited the Armenian genocide and the recent slaughter of Christian missionaries in Turkey, Ronald Pofalla, General Secretary of the CDU, believes there is abundant religious intolerance in the region.
“The CDU holds the opinion that Turkey should not become a member state of the EU,” he said.
Although Turkey is not opening its ports to the unrecognized nation of Cyprus, the main emphasis of EU debate appears to be the religious intolerance of Turkey, past and present. According to Pofalla and the CDU, “the recent killings of Christians [in east Turkey] show again that freedom of religion is not respected in Turkey.”
Issues of human rights and religious tolerance are only a few of the issues that Turkey must comply with the standards the EU has created for admission.
Even with major reforms in the Cyprus dilemma, religion and the freedom of expression in Turkey are still major issues in the accession process.
“The EU will not accept Turkey as a member until it harmonizes all its laws,” said the U.S. diplomat in Ankara, citing freedom of religion and expression as EU standards all other member countries have had to meet.
“[If they] want to join the EU they have to meet European standards of human rights and European standards of human rights would allow religious parties, much like the Christian Democrats of Germany,” said Lubeck about the immediacy of Turkey’s continued liberalization process as being a step in the right direction. He spoke of out-of-control police and the Turkish army [more like a political party] as other ways that Turkey continues “to commit enormous human rights abuses.”
Ersoy believes the Turkish people have lost faith in the EU and what they believe to be their exclusive admittance policy.
“Nowadays, Turkish people think that the EU does not treat Turkey equally,” said Ersoy. While he does note recent lack of Turkish enthusiasm for the EU, he also sees other factors going into the distorted accession process.
“There have been, and still are, attempts by some members of the EU to misrepresent the negotiation process on the basis of certain political excuses,” Ersoy said.
Brahm, however, believes the accession of Turkey to the EU is probable, especially because of the country’s recent attempts at adhering to the union’s policies.
“It could happen,” he said. “There have been a lot of reforms recently because of the EU pressure.”
He believes that in order for Turkey to see a future in the EU, it must own up to the past and make certain changes. Brahm said that if Turkey’s accession comes about and “they do so in part because of many other reformations that are needed, like admitting the genocide, it is a demon they are going to have to face.”