The assumption that it is the European Union’s transparent unwillingness to admit a Muslim country, rather than the reluctance of a Muslim people to join a Christian union, that is mainly responsible for the failure of membership-negotiations to make any progress is being steadily revised. The EU member-states’ undisguised disdain for Ankara’s application to join, while warmly and expeditiously admitting East European countries that, unlike Turkey, were until recently anti-western and pro-Russian, is turning Turkish popular opinion against the project and against the government’s commitment to it. Even secular groups that backed the application, to get rid of Turkey’s past and present as a Muslim country, are now criticising the government for its attitude; army generals, who are normally keen to disguise their grip on political power and refrain from making public statements, have openly taken the EU to task for trying to impose foreign values on Turks. The recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that Turkey must grant Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader, a new trial, has caused a furore.
Many ordinary Turks – whose country, after all, was once a superpower and ruled some of the European countries now being welcomed into the EU – feel that Brussels’ treatment of their effort to join the EU is humiliating, and describe it as only fit for a “banana republic”. For instance Sencan Bayramuglu, a retired teacher, was recently quoted in an American magazine as using that very phrase. “We can’t just do everything the Europeans say,” she said. “They behave as if we are some sort of banana republic.” It is true that her anger was provoked by the ECHR’s demanding a new trial for Ocalan, and that her son was one of 30,000 victims of the 15-year uprising that resulted eventually in the capture and imprisonment of Ocalan in 1999. But, as the magazine points out, her fury is not directed only against the Kurdish rebel-leader, whom she blames for her son’s death, but also against the European institutions that demand Turkey conform to their standards as a precondition for joining the EU.
Many nationalists see the court ruling as “playing into the hands of Kurdish militants”, fearing that it will lead to the division of Turkey into “ethnic enclaves”. Many would agree with the warning of Talat Salk, who prosecuted Ocalan in 1999, that a retrial would have serious implications and play directly into the hands of Kurdish ‘terrorists’ by providing them with a pretext to hold demonstrations in major cities. One nationalist politician who agrees, and publicly expressed his objection to the ruling, is Devlet Bahceli. He said that the retrial ordered by the ECHR would be like a “time-bomb” and lead to simmering tensions.
But general Hilmi Ozkok, head of the powerful Turkish military, made the most powerful attack on the court ruling even before it was issued. He said in April that “outside influences are trying to change our national culture by imposing foreign values, fashion and language that do not match Turkish customs and traditions.” When the ruling was issued, he criticised it as “political manipulation”. He also observed that his country had a security interest in northern Cyprus, that allegations of genocide against Armenians in 1915 have no basis, and that the Americans were not “doing enough” to get rid of Turkish terrorists of Kurdish origin in Iraq. It is not strange that the general also insisted that secularism was the driving force of Turkish democracy, and that the Turkish state must remain united.
It is part of the EU’s requirements for admission that Turkey diminish the role of army generals in politics, yet no criticism was made of general Ozkok’s intervention, and the Americans ignored his criticism of their failure to curb Kurdish activists from Turkey who operate in Iraq. Both the EU and the US are comfortable with the role of the military in politics, which ensures that Turkey remains secular and pro-West. It is interesting that though the general is critical of the Turkish government’s EU programme, he has said nothing so far against its outrageous recent plan to rewrite Turkish history and retrain imams to comply with EU demands to entrench secularism. And although the government’s intervention in the country’s educational system for purely political reasons is far from democratic, neither the EU nor the US has objected to this totalitarian offensive on another people’s cultural and religious rights. To their shame, the nationalists who are now rightly resisting EU invasion and their government’s acquiescence have failed to object to its pro-secularism bias and policies.
Interestingly, western politicians and media frequently describe prime minister Recep Tayip Erdogan’s regime and party (the Justice and Development Party) as ‘Islamist’ or ‘pro-Islam’. Adopting this false line clearly enables them to maintain their pressure for continued secularism in politics and public policy. But secularism is only one part of the EU’s many requirements for admission. Respect for human rights and ethnic minorities also figure prominently. But nationalists (and indeed others) believe that the EU is not exercised about the fate of Kurds, as it is not about the human rights of all Turks, and that it is using both issues to keep Turkey out and probably to weaken it by causing its division into ethnic states. This is becoming increasingly clear to many Turks of different backgrounds and beliefs; as a result the government is coming under severe pressure to stand aloof. As Turkey should stay out of the EU in the higher interests of its religion and cultural values, so the pride of the Turkish people will be assuaged if Turkey’s exclusion from the EU depends on its own decision rather than on a rejection by Brussels.