Stretching the Borders of the European Union

“This is a truly historic day for Europe and for the whole of the international community. We have made history.” These were the words of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Oct. 3 after the European Union and Turkey finally agreed to enter membership talks. After two days of long, drawn-out meetings, Austria grudgingly dropped its last minute push for a “privileged partnership” – a step down from full membership – and European foreign ministers agreed on terms for talks with Turkey to begin. After another intense round of discussions, Turkey agreed on the wording of the negotiating framework document and brought itself that much closer to achieving its four-decade long goal. ‘


Although few people would deny the historical significance of the membership talks, polls in the 25 European Union countries show that fewer and fewer people back Turkey’s entry into the union.2 Turks also share mixed emotions. A TNS-Piar poll published in the Turkish Sabah newspaper shows that Turkish support for membership in the alliance has been progressively declining, with 60% of Turks favoring EU membership this month compared to more than 90% more than a year ago.3 In short, the prospect of Turkey’s entry into the union has triggered a remarkable outburst of fear and anxietv internationallv and has raised a number of fundamental questions about what Turkish entry into the EU would represent.

All across Europe, people are worried about the possible Turkish membership. Many Europeans, such as former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, feel that Turkey has “a different culture, a different approach and a different way of life.” Although some may feel inclined to accept sweeping generalizations, particularly in the aftermath of the Madrid and London bombings, at least this is done on the premise that it is impossible to divide the world, especially multicultural societies, into cultural and religious enclaves. After all, what are we to do with the 15 million European Muslims who have been sharing and contributing to the growth and prosperity of Europe for more than 50 years? Are they any less European? Are they any less Muslim? That said, hesitation to Turkey’s membership is part of a much larger set of ideological and political issues, namely the burgeoning level of Islamophobia and the failed integration of Muslim and Turkish populations in Europe.

Rather than integrating migrants and second generation Muslim Europeans into European society, the policies of various governments are the opposite. Government officials and immigrant communities have created physically “parallel societies,” in which Muslims and non-Muslims live alongside each other, “often without subscribing to the same set of basic values and even without speaking the same language.”4 They have implicitly and explicitly promoted the stance that first and second generation Middle Eastern, African and South Asian Muslims in Europe are not and will never be “truly” European until they abandon their ethnic and religious identities. A recent trip to Berlin convinced me of the pressing need to normalize religious, ethnic and cultural diversity and of the danger that parallel societies pose to the durability and resilience of Europe and the West. When I asked a number of my university-educated and German-born Muslim friends if they considered themselves German, they replied without any hint of uncertainty that they were not.

One week after the start of membership talks, there was a glimpse of the intercultural dialogue that Turkish entry into the EU could help promote. For the first time in history, the European Parliament (EP) hosted an iftar dinner in an effort to celebrate and share the message of the holy month of Ramadan. After the dinner, German EP member Jorgo Chatzimarkakis said, “Islam has entered the EP with this iftar dinner. From now on, Islam will have a place in this institution’s daily life.”5

The dinner and Chatzimarkakis’ statement raise an important question: Will Turkish entry into the EU help the international community and Europe normalize and embrace their political, social, ethnic and religious diversity? There is no doubt that Turkey – which has a dominant Muslim population and a Western-styled democracy and is a member of NATO, is the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and a potential member of the European Union – can contribute to the ongoing debate in the EU on European Muslims and the alliance’s relations with the Islamic world. Despite the potential, the question remains, how will it do so? Many pundits would like to see Turkish laicism (laiklik in Turkish), the subordination of religion to the state, promoted throughout the Middle East as an “enlightened” secular Muslim model. Although many may find this position tempting, it is important to note that Muslims, particularly in the Arab world, are extremely skeptical of the “Turkish model” and “authoritarian secularism.”

Despite Turkey’s overwhelming rejection of laicism, the significant democratic strides Ankara has made in the past three years has transcended political and cultural boundaries. The country can play a role in increasing the Muslim world’s openness to democracy. Turkey recently witnessed the creation of a post-Islamist6 Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP), which has passed a number of unprecedented reforms designed to strengthen the country’s commitment to establishing a more tolerant and democratic Turkey. The ruling AKP has succeeded in implementing major changes such as Kurdish language education and broadcasting, the abolition of the death penalty and state security courts, and “the readjustment of civilian-military relations.”7 In addition to these reforms, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has broken tradition and enraged fervent Turkish nationalists with his critical response to the decision by the Istanbul 4th Chamber Court to postpone a controversial Armenian conference at Bosphorus University in Istanbul.8

One main way in which Turkey can help lessen “cultural tensions” is by taking a lead in denouncing religious and secular extremism, and embracing greater personal freedoms. For this to happen, however, Turkey must achieve a more liberal balance between the separation of religion and state and the subordination of religion to the state. The country must fully embrace Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion . . . either alone or in community with others and in public or private.” In rejecting the absurd notion that the presence of personal displays of religiosity poses a threat to a functioning secular democracy, Turkey may finally fulfill its potential to serve as a bridge between the East and the West and set an example for Europe9 and the international community.


There is no doubt that the EU’s decision to officially open membership talks with Turkey will be remembered as a historic day for the union, Turkey and the international community. However, the negotiations are an open-ended process and the outcome cannot be guaranteed. The earliest the EU can possibly admit Turkey is in 2014. There is no doubt that as Turkey’s membership date approaches, the debates and voices of opposition within Turkey and the European Union will intensify. In addition to the painfully difficult task of adopting EU law – 35 chapters spread over 80,000 pages – Turkey must find a way to address three extremely contentious issues: the Armenian genocide, the recognition of Cyprus and the recent resurgence of terrorist violence carried out by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

Turkish membership talks have the potential to play a positive role in combating Europe’s parallel societies and send a powerful message that Muslims and non-Muslims can live, work and prosper together. Whether or not Turkey finds itself a member of the EU in 10 or 1 5 years, the country and the international community will benefit greatly. The EU journey will strengthen Turkey’s commitment to liberal and democratic reforms and enable it to address some of its most painfully difficult insecurities – namely, how to achieve a more liberal balance between the separation of religion and state and the subordination of religion to the state, and to create a more tolerant and multicultural understanding of Turkish citizenship. I0 If Turkey finds a way to achieve both, the rewards will be immeasurable and the Turkish model might become more appealing domestically and abroad.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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