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Europe - an identity or a project?

The perceived threat of Turkish EU candidacy drives a wedge between European unity and European identity. By Nilüfer Göle

"Just as I cannot imagine a Turkey without a European dream, I cannot believe in a Europe without a Turkish dream." These words of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk come from his talk at the Frankfurt Book Fair on the occasion of his receiving the prestigious literary Peace Prize in Germany this year in October.

Nothing in these words strikes the reader at first sight, but common good will. Orhan Pamuk expresses his wish for reciprocity between Europe and Turkey. The European dream in Turkey is a well-known fact; Turkey articulates her dream in political terms by becoming a candidate for the European Union. But the second part of the sentence concerning the "Turkish dream" sounds inappropriate, if not awkward, in translating the feelings of the majority of European citizens. It is not that the novelist is unaware of the resentment and fear of European citizens of the Turkish presence in Europe. The formulation of a wish for reciprocity makes the asymmetry of desires between Europe and Turkey become only more apparent and audible.

In the eyes of many Turks, Turkish candidacy for the European Union is believed to be a continuous and almost a "natural" outcome of their history. It is a widely shared feeling among Turks that in joining the European Union Turkey will complete the long historical course of the Westernization process that started in the late 19th century. The European ideals have already shaped Ottoman reformist intellectuals, "young Ottomans," and "Jeunes Turcs," formed by the influence of French positivist thought and Jacobin tradition prior to the Republican era. The foundation of the Turkish nation-state under the leadership of Atatürk in 1923 can be read as a culmination of this process, but a radical step, almost as a civilizational shift, as a way of turning away from the heritage of the Ottoman Empire to embrace a "new life" and a new nationhood and to become part of the European "civilized nations."

However, from the point of view of European nations, the Turkish integration with the European Union, a process that European politicians welcomed in the past and started with the economic "Ankara agreement" in 1963, does not seem to be that natural from the point of view of the prism of present-day cultural politics. Turkish candidacy became the most controversial issue, since the meeting of the European Council in Copenhagen (12 December 2002), to decide the calendar for opening negotiations with Turkey. The debate started first in France where, unlike Germany, the Turkish immigrant population is not a major issue. But in two years' time, the debate became part of other European publics, including that of the Netherlands, Austria and Germany. Hence the Turkish question became an agenda-setting issue not only for internal politics, but also for the future of the European project. The rejection of the European constitution by France and the Netherlands can be read as the working of a new inward-looking dynamics. They were also the two countries where the question of Islam was most debated.

The German legislative elections (September 2005) have illustrated as well the extent to which issues around Islam, immigration, and Turkish membership were becoming agenda- setting issues for internal politics. The leaders of the "Christian Democrat Movement" (Angela Merkel and Edmund Stoiber) have captured the public's attention and sympathy by pronouncing their view overtly against the Turkish membership in the EU. Similarly in France, politicians who were orienting their politics on issues of security and taking a stand against Turkish membership (such as the actual Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, but also marginal figures of the nationalist Right in the French political life, such as Phillipe de Villiers, who made himself a place by his political campaign with the maxim "non a la Turquie") were gaining in popularity.

The content of the debate and the arguments against the Turkish candidacy in the European Union did not remain the same but changed over the course of time. The Turkish agenda of the 1970's was mainly determined by the violation of human rights, the repression of Kurdish claims of citizenship, the influence of the military power in political life, the Cypriot discord with Greece, and the official denial of Armenian genocide.

In the year 2002, the agenda changed. The questions of European borders and European geography started to be discussed. For those who argued against Turkish candidacy, geography imposed itself as an observable fact; Turkey did not belong to European geography, let alone history, and it threatened the unity of Europe. Including Turkey meant for many an "infinite" enlargement, the loss of frontiers. "Why not Morocco, and why not Russia?" were among the widely used arguments to denote the "absurdity" of Turkish membership. Including Turkey would have meant expanding the European borders towards the East and becoming neighbors with those risky countries.

Another line of argument related to the political context and the enlargement of Europe. Turkish candidacy was not timely, according to those who tried to rationalize the rejection of Turkey by economic factors and basically by the impoverishment of Europe by the recent newcomers to Europe. Turkey appeared as a burden that Europe could not include in its system (both economic but also politically, Turkish members in the European parliament were scared to outweigh others in numbers) without a high cost. Above all, Turkey was not a small country, and bringing more than 50 million "Muslims" into Europe would make a difference. Indeed the question of "difference" mattered most; the belief in cultural, religious and civilizational differences with Turkey underpinned the feelings and shaped the opinions of the European citizens.

The new list of arguments illustrated the shift of interest from the Turkish problems to that of Europe itself. Turkey served as a catalyst to bring into public debate the questions related to Europe. But Turkey also served as the "other" for the redefinition of European identity.

In that sense "othering" Turkey became a way of "identifying" Europe. The need for an "alterity" to define European identity was integrated into the political discourse of those skeptical of the Turkish membership in Europe. Turkey's entering into Europe would mean, as a Dutch commissioner for the European Union (Frits Bolkestein) argued prior to entry talks with Turkey, forgetting the date of 1683, when the siege of Vienna was lifted and the Ottoman army was defeated. Hence the memory of the past entered into present-day cleavages and controversies. The objection of Austria, until the very last minute, to the opening of negotiations with Turkey ( October 3, 2005) illustrates the weight of these memories. (Austria agreed to remove her objections under the condition that Croatia also began membership talks).

The opening of talks with Turkey marks an important date, but it brings to an end neither the public debate nor the process of integration that will take decades. One should notice therefore that an important shift has occurred in European politics and transferred the power of decision-makers to that of opinion-makers. The issues related to the European Union were mainly in the hands of Eurocrats and, once resolved in Brussels, these issues moved to national contexts and became part of a public debate. The idea of a popular sovereignty that is extended and juxtaposed from nation-State politics to the European Union illustrates this shift. The idea of a democratic Europe came to mean building Europe from below, with the foremost the necessity of consulting people, and therefore a consensus on the need for referendums, whether to vote for the European Constitution or for Turkish membership. The idea of a referendum on Turkey, as one could expect, is mostly defended by opponents to Turkish candidacy, counting on the popular vote to reject it in ten years' time.

Yet ten years' time seems sufficiently long to Turks. They believe they can transform in the meantime their societies accordingly. In ten years' time, according to some democrat intellectuals, Turkey will achieve the level of democratic stability and the eventual rejection of Turkey by referendums in the European countries will not matter and have no drastic effect. The presence of a European perspective would have fulfilled its role. Such an argument might sound optimistic or a way to de-dramatize the European anti-Turkish attitudes, but it illustrates also the confidence of Turkish intellectuals in the dynamics of the European perspective in Turkey, already at work.

The European perspective forced Turkey to reform the republican definitions of citizenship. Turkish republicanism as the nation-state ideology has been founded on two pillars: namely, authoritative secularism and assimilative nationalism. For democratization, a need exists to create a consensual "secularism" and not an exclusionary, authoritarian one, backed up only with military power. In spite of the ongoing cleavages and conflicts between hard-line Islamists and the secularist establishment, one can witness that Turkish society has experienced, especially during the last two decades, a "fall of the wall" that has separated and divided two Turkeys; one composed of educated urban and Western-looking secularist upper- and middle-classes (labeled in the conversations "white Turks") and the other faith-driven lower-middle classes (labeled "black Turks") originating from Anatolian towns. The course of upward social mobility changed the life-trajectories of many of those belonging to the latter group (turned them into "grey," meaning partially whitened), who have had access to higher education in the 1960s with emigration to urban cities, profited from new market opportunities that expanded in the 1980s, and invested in the avenues of political power since the electoral victory of the Party of Justice and Development. The thinning of the wall between two faces of Turkey brought different publics and cultural codes into close contact and interaction, albeit with intense conflict, yet this contact transformed the mutual conceptions of Muslim and secular publics and limited the claims to hegemony of the latter.

This was made possible by the opening up of a democratic space, shared both by religious and secular, the first giving up the absolutism of the religious truth-regime and the latter giving up its claims to hegemony over the society. That the party of Justice and Development, the Ak party, who had Islamic roots, won the November 2002 general elections by democratic means and came to power in Turkey is an outcome of this process of interaction.

The democratic sphere gained a momentum to the extent that the polarization between the secularist establishment and Islamist radicals was played down, leading to an intermediary space of debate and representation. The European perspective reinforced the democratic momentum and created a new political agenda of reform, a "common dream." The mobilization of human rights movements in civil society, the formation of a public opinion in favor of these reforms, and the determination of the government and the political classes all culminated in a series of reforms that were passed by the parliamentary vote during the course of 2002-2003 in order to harmonize the Turkish legal system with what are called by the European Union the Copenhagen criteria.

One major example of these reforms is the abolition of the death penalty. The Turkish Parliament voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty (August 2, 2002), a first in a Muslim country. The repercussions it had for Turkey were far more than expressing the desire to embrace European values or just pleasing Europeans, as cynical observers would think. At the time the death penalty was discussed, the leader of the Kurdish movement (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, was in prison under the death sentence. In spite of the nationalists' objections, the law passed in the Parliament with the help of those who argued in favor of abolishing capital punishment, including the sentence passed on Öcalan, and of the recognition of Kurdish rights in Turkey. It was meant to be a victory of reformists against nationalists in questioning the hegemony of Turkish nationalism in definitions of citizenship. The Turkish skeptics in Europe dismissed these reforms that they had considered on "paper" and as "cosmetic," meaning superficial and merely done for strategies of seduction.

Apart from the Islamist issue and the Kurdish one, the Armenian question still remains a major taboo for Turkish nationalism. The official view of the past is based on the suppression and denial of the 1915 genocide that created a sort of short-memory and diffused amnesia about the past for the generations of the Republic. One question is how to remember the past and the second is to develop and express points of view that are independent of the official one. The choice of words to label the events, whether it is "deportation," "ethnic cleansing," "massacres," or "genocide" is becoming a battle ground for the public debate that begins. The debate (more) is initiated by few Turkish intellectuals, historians, including those of the Armenian community who challenged the ideological version of the events, defying the taboos of Turkish nationalism and exploring new ways of relating to the emotional trauma of Armenians and developing a new narrative on the historical past, albeit under the pressures of nationalist forces and juridical intimidation. In that respect, the Istanbul Conference signaled a new period in opening up a new mental and discursive space. The conference brought together Turkish historians who wanted to pursue a free discussion on the Armenian past of Turkey, in spite of the pressures and postponement, which was at last held at Bilgi University in September 2005. It marked a collective effort to break away from the official discourse and to confront Turkish nationalism with its own past.

I am not referring to a problem-free society but on the contrary attempt to illustrate the ways in which Turkish society names and debate the problems, trying to bring into public awareness those subjects that were kept out of sight, repressed, or forgotten. The crimes of honor and women's rights issues follow the same political pattern; that is, it is with the help of feminist organizations that the issue is brought into public attention and new legislation is called for in favor of women's rights. It is rather the "way" of politicizing the issues, carrying them from silenced arenas (silenced whether by shame or repression) and giving them a plurality of voice and visibility in the public sphere that points to the existence of a democratic pattern that we can call the "European way."

The presence of a European perspective works in Turkey against the fixity of identities whether they are defined in national or religious terms. Embracing the European project means for Turks the dismantling of identity knots, the ones that create obstacles for establishing peace and pluralism.

It can seem paradoxical to note that when Turkey started to get closer to European criteria for democracy, the arguments against Turkish membership in Europe became articulated and expressed in offensive, not to say aggressive, tones, to the surprise of the Turkish pro-European democrats. In other words, the debate started when the Turkish file grew thinner, that is when Turkey has started, as observers would put it, "to do her homework," to resolve some of the problems in her file and hence become eligible for European membership.

Turkish membership triggered an anxiety of identity loss and a desire for boundary maintenance for European publics. The question of geographic frontiers, civilisational belongings, religious differences, past memories, were all themes that entered into the debate as a constellation of insurmountable differences and set a new agenda. Throughout these debates, Europe was constructed as an identity defined by shared history and common cultural values rather than as a project for the future. It is in contexts outside the core countries of Europe (for instance in Spain, Portugal and Greece) that Europe appears as a project and has the power of induction of democratization. In Turkey, where Europeanness is not part of a "natural" historical legacy, Europe is appropriated voluntarily as a political project, as a perspective, promising a democratic frame for rethinking commonness and difference.

Turkish candidacy reveals the non-equation between European identity and the European project. For the European countries there is not difference but continuity between the two: the European Union is the European identity (including Christianity) written large. Turkish candidacy, perceived as a threat, reinforces the quest of identity preservation and boundary maintenance. But the very richness of the European past and heritage turns against themselves, against its claims for universalism, as Europe develops a fixation on identity and hence an obstacle to creating a "common" dream, a common project.


This article appeared in German translation in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, November 26, 2005.

Nilüfer Göle is a professor of sociology at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. She is the author of "Interpenetrations: L'Islam et l'Europe," Paris: publisher Galaade, 2005; "Islam in Sicht," Der Auftritt von Muslimen im öffentlichen Raum, eds. Nilüfer Göle et Ludwig Amman, global-local Islam, transcript, Septembre 2004;and "The Forbidden Modern" (Veiling and Civilization in Turkey), University of Michigan, 1996. - let's talk european