Turkey's post-modern identity crisis
By M K Bhadrakumar
Three apparently unconnected events last week brought to the fore Turkey's
crisis of identity and highlighted the tortuous path of the country's bid for
European Union membership.
The tangled relationship between Turkey and the European Union played out in
three separate capitals on October 12. In Stockholm the Swedish Academy
announced that Orhan Pamuk became the first Turkish writer to win the Nobel
Prize for Literature.
In Paris the French parliament approved 106 to 19 legislation
making it a crime to deny that Ottoman Turkey committed genocide against
Armenians during and after World War I. The same day, at a solemn ceremony in
the Turkish capital of Ankara,
some 260 soldiers wearing blue helmets set out for Lebanon on a peacekeeping
Turks have a penchant for conspiracy theories. Many people in Turkey seem to
view the choice of Pamuk for the Nobel award at this juncture as part of a
Western political agenda to highlight Turkey's human-rights record.
To be sure, people opposed to Turkey's EU membership have used Pamuk to slander
Turkey. Pamuk took pains to stress last December when the Turkish authorities
were foolish enough to put him on trial for speaking out about the killings of
Armenians, that it was "embarrassing" that his trial was "overdramatized" in
the West, although his case was "a matter worthy of discussion".
In his article in New Yorker magazine, Pamuk insisted that his drama was not
peculiar to Turkey. He said it formed part of a "new global phenomenon" as much
visible in China or India. With the rapid expansion of the middle class, "these
new elites - the non-Western bourgeoisie or the enriched bureaucracy - feel
compelled to follow two separate and seemingly incompatible lines of action in
order to legitimize their newly acquired wealth and power.
"First, they must justify the rapid rise in their fortunes by assuming the
idiom and the attitudes of the West. Having created a demand for such
knowledge, they then take it upon themselves to tutor their countrymen. When
the people berate them for ignoring tradition, they respond by brandishing a
virulent and intolerant nationalism ... On the one hand, there is rush to join
the global economy, on the other, the angry nationalism that sees true
democracy and freedom of thought as Western inventions."
Thus, Pamuk concluded, "The intolerance shown by the Russian state toward the
Chechens and other minorities and civil rights groups, the attacks on freedom
of expression by Hindu nationalists in India, and China's discreet ethnic
cleansing of the Uighurs are all nourished by the same contradictions."
Evidently, Turks who are incensed by Pamuk's outspokenness and hasten to
question his patriotism, and the Westerners who use Pamuk selectively to debunk
Turkey's credentials for EU membership alike do not grasp the point that he has
a very large canvass and universality.
Nothing brings home Turkey's identity crisis more starkly than that President
Ahmet Necdet Sezer has yet to send a congratulatory note to Pamuk. Actually,
Turkey doesn't have to be so sensitive. Nobody today is claiming that Turkey is
an intolerant repressive country.
True, the Turkish state is as strong as ever, but, as prominent commentator
Mehmet Ali Birand pointed out, "It can't control every aspect of our lives. The
NGOs [non-governmental organizations] no longer follow the commands of the
state to the letter. They ignore them. When NGOs are up in arms, the state can
do almost nothing. Especially if they are willing to confront police, nothing
What aggravates Turkey's crisis of identity is partly at least the ambivalence
in the European mindset vis-a-vis Turkey. In comparison with Turkey's crisis of
identity - between Islamism and Westernism, between tradition and secularism,
between East and West - the European mindset, too, has a problem.
It has to pretend, being the "civilized world", that it is the inheritor of the
Enlightenment and is redolent with discussion over the interlacing of cultures,
while in reality it surreptiously harbors primeval passions as ancient as the
There is no other way to describe the French parliament's new legislation. The
point is that the goalposts are constantly being shifted on Turkey's EU
membership. Other national parliaments in Europe may now emulate the French
legislation. One more hurdle will then have appeared on Turkey's steeplechase.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso told CNN on Tuesday,
"Political reforms should be continued [in Turkey]; freedom of expression and
religious rights should be fully adopted; the Ankara Protocol should be
implemented; and, Turkish ports and harbors should be opened to the Greek
But all the same, Turkey's membership process in the EU will "take time",
Barroso maintained. In another interview with the BBC over the weekend, Barroso
said he was unsure how receptive the EU would be with regard to Turkey's
membership in a timeframe of 10-15 years, even if Turkey were to fulfill all
the EU criteria.
Right wing French Interior Minister and presidential favorite Nicolas Sarkozy
has repeated in recent weeks that before deciding on further enlargement, the
EU should first find an answer to the question of who is a European and who is
Sarkozy said Turkey deserved no better than "preferential partnership" with the
EU - short of the full membership that Bulgaria and Romania were entitled to.
The leader of the German Christian Social Union, Markus Soeder, added that
Turkey's membership would pressure the EU "from all sides".
Again, following a visit to Paris on September 25, Barroso said the EU's
accession talks with Turkey would be "conditional" in so far as the Nice
Agreement only envisaged an EU with 27 member countries and "new mechanisms
have to be determined for the fourth wave of enlargement to include Turkey".
Thus, in immediate terms, a hectic and stormy season lies ahead in EU-Turkey
negotiations. The Turkish parliament appears set within the next week or two to
legislate on the so-called ninth EU harmonization package. However, the EU's
next progress report on Turkey's accession talks, due to be released on
November 8, is bound to contain more negative aspects, including on freedom of
expression and human rights and the highly sensitive issue of the opening of
Turkish ports and harbors to Greek Cypriots.
Turkish diplomacy will be hard-pressed to navigate a course cutting across the
rising tide of nationalist sentiments in the public opinion. A variety of
factors - ranging from the EU's double standards, President George W Bush's
crusade against "Islamofascism", the Iraq war, the Palestine problem, the
Kurdistan issue, the cartoon crisis and terrorist attacks in Europe, Pope
Benedict XVI's history lessons - have accentuated Turkish nationalism in the
But within this widening gyre of nationalism, the Turkish elite finds itself
divided into two distinct "worlds". On the one hand is the entrenched Kemalist
vision of Turkey as an ally of the Western world; of Turkey, while being a
majority Muslim society, not being an Islamic state; and at the same time,
Turkey being secular and democratic both as a state and society. That is to
say, Turkey should be Muslim and secular and democratic as a society, while
being only secular and democratic as a state. A complicated thought indeed.
Life could have been simpler. The Indian elite, for instance, shamelessly left
behind the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi - without any sense of remorse or
atonement. To compound it further, the Kemalist vision tends to assume
contradictory tendencies when it comes to Turkey-EU ties. On the one hand, it
envisages Turkey with its economy and its large Anatolian middle class
integrating with the Western economy and the country itself engaging in a
process of integration with the EU. But on the other hand, it resists any
perceived attempts of encroachment by supranational organs such as the EU.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), though an Islamist party that
is antithetical to Kemalism, is engaged in a delicate process of staging a
political maneuver into the vast reservoir of Turkish nationalism. It is a
subtle political plan since nationalism is a deviation from Islam. The AKP has
already tapped Turkey's limited base of religious electorate. And no potentials
of growth for the party exist among the country's liberal opinion, which is
devoted to a staunchly secularist outlook.
Much depends on the AKP's ability to poach into the nationalist parties' vote
banks and to tap into the 4 million new voters, most of whom are susceptible to
nationalist sentiments. The AKP's predatory skills, even under such brilliant
leadership, will constitute a fascinating aspect of Turkish politics in the
turbulent 12-month period ahead as the Islamist party lurches toward capturing
the presidency and thereafter seeking a renewed parliamentary mandate, securing
control thereby over the tallest pillars of constitutional rule in the country.
The implications can be profound not only for Turkey but for the entire Middle
East. But, would the AKP be able to reconcile such a risky political course
with its commitment to the EU accession drive? Two years back, the ideologues
of the AKP government used to claim that it was striving to create a balance
between freedom and security in Turkey. Broadly, this meant a more liberal
democracy, a strengthening of the rule of law and the determined pursuit of EU
membership. But in the past year or two, the public mood has changed.
Previously, something like 80% of Turks favored EU membership. The figure has
now dropped to below 50%. Doubts, fears and adversarial sentiments have grown.
The AKP, too, may come under pressure to begin acting as if it has lost its
conviction in the Westernization project. Certainly, a robust kick-start is
needed. But the prospect of a highly surcharged election year in Turkey and the
EU's own deepening identity crisis following its catastrophic referendum
exercise in drafting a constitution preclude this.
The EU could help by merely being seen not acting in a discriminatory fashion
toward Turkey and instead taking a fair and equal stance to Turkey as to any
other candidate country. The fact remains that the AKP government is keen to
maintain the momentum of accession to the EU. As a matter of political
expediency alone, AKP visualizes the EU accession (and Turkey's democratization
agenda) guaranteeing the incremental advancement of civilian supremacy in
Turkey's national life, which in turn ensures for it, as an Islamic party, a
level playing field in Turkey's electoral politics.
The AKP, confounding pundits, has chosen to remain cooperative while swallowing
many recent indignities from the EU member countries and institutions. It has
held out the assurance that if need be, it is prepared to amend the Turkish
Penal Code's controversial Article 301 regarding freedom of expression - with
or without Pamuk.
Similarly, while strongly voicing its deep resentment over the French
parliament's legislation on Armenian massacres, the AKP leadership has signaled
that it has no intention to "match filth with filth". Foreign Minister Abdullah
Gul said, "This will be a great shame for France." Turkish indignation has been
extraordinary in its controlled vehemence, its dignified outburst.
Again, Pope Benedict XVI's four-day visit to Turkey is going ahead as scheduled
on October 28, despite the public outcry in Turkey over his poor grasp of
political Islam. Benedict XVI will only be the third pope to visit Turkey in
the history of Christendom. Least of all, the AKP government steered through
parliament in Ankara on September 2 its controversial plan for troop deployment
in Lebanon in the teeth of opposition from virtually the entire spectrum of
domestic political opinion. On October 12, the first Turkish troop detachment
departed from Ankara.
The AKP leadership no doubt estimates that among other things, Turkey's
cooperation with the US's regional policies in stabilizing the Middle East are
linked with its EU accession plans. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a
key endorsement from the Bush administration during his visit to Washington on
October 2. "It is in the United States' interests that Turkey join the European
Union," the White House press release quoted Bush as saying to Erdogan.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).