The Turkish paradox

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What is the answer to the rise of fundamentalism across the Muslim world? For years Europeans and Americans thought they knew the antidote: secular democracy.

In the Islamic world, Turkey has been the shining example. Not only is the country a member of Nato; it has also been held up as proof that a country can be simultaneously Muslim, prosperous, secular and democratic. So what are we to make of events in Turkey now? Secularists have demonstrated in huge numbers because they are terrified by the prospect of the indirect election of a mildly Islamist president, and the army has hinted that it may stage a coup to protect the secular character of the state. Secularism and democracy seem to be at war.

The paradoxes do not stop there. American neo-conservatives hoped that the invasion of Iraq would create a new bulwark of pro-western democracy in the Islamic world. But while the US has failed in this aim, it has managed to inflict grave damage on its strategic relationship with its most important partner in the Muslim world: Turkey. The Turkish military sees the rise of Kurdish power in northern Iraq as a threat to the integrity of the Turkish state. In the wake of the Iraq invasion, the US is now hugely unpopular in Turkey.

The European Union is wrapped up in its own internal contradictions. The keystone of its efforts to prop up secular democracy in the Islamic world is the offer to admit Turkey to the EU. But Europe’s obvious reluctance to live up to this promise has antagonised Turks of all persuasions. Many Turkish secularists – initially enthusiastic supporters of EU membership – now fear that Islamists are using Brussels as a Trojan horse. They worry that, by constraining the power of the Turkish military to intervene in politics, Brussels is easing the rise of Islamism. The secularists also fear that European human rights law may ultimately threaten the ban on Turkish women wearing the Muslim headscarf in universities.

American neo-conservatives have been scornful and impatient of European hesitation about admitting Turkey into the EU. I have heard many lectures from Americans accusing the Europeans of everything from racism to strategic blindness. How, they ask, could Europe put its own petty concerns above the blindingly obvious need to score a big victory in the clash of civilisations, by binding Turkey into Europe?

But this argument is also riven by paradox. Some of the same American conservatives who have argued passionately for Turkish membership of the EU are also now openly concerned that the character of western Europe is being changed by Muslim immigration. Europe, they shriek, is turning into “Eurabia”. Yet one consequence of Turkish membership of the EU would be to grant 70m-plus Turks the right to emigrate anywhere they want in the EU. If you wanted radically to alter the demography of western Europe, admitting Turkey to the EU would be the best way of going about it.

One of the world’s leading experts on Turkish history is Bernard Lewis, a 90-year-old historian from Princeton University. But Mr Lewis is also a darling of the American neo-conservatives and perhaps the most eminent convert to the “Eurabia” thesis.

Last month at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute, an influential Washington think-tank, Mr Lewis accepted an award and gave a long, learned and rambling speech about the history of the “Muslim attack on Christendom”. This, he argued, has gone through three phases and “the third wave of attack on Europe has clearly begun. . . This time it is taking different forms and two in particular: terror and migration.”

This is an extraordinary and dangerous argument. Mr Lewis was equating Osama bin Laden and Muslim immigrants. They are all part of the same attack on Europe. This seems a little rough on many of my neighbours in London. My local postman, hairdresser and convenience store owner are all Muslims. So are the schoolgirls who play football at my children’s school – incongruously clad in headscarves and shorts. As far as I can tell, none of these people is intent on destroying western civilisation from within.

The tell-tale danger sign in Mr Lewis’s argument is that he constantly refers to Muslims in Europe as “they” – an undifferentiated mass. Near the end of his speech, he mused: “Is it third time lucky? It is not impossible. They have certain clear advantages. They have fervour and conviction, which in most western countries are either weak or lacking . . . ”

The problem with Mr Lewis’s argument is that it fails to distinguish between a people and an ideology. Once you start thinking of the more than 15m Muslims living in Europe as a single, hostile bloc, you close the door to understanding and open the door to racism. Radical Islamism is a problem. Ordinary Muslims are not.

In different ways, events in both Turkey and western Europe this week are a reminder of the need to keep a cool head and make clear distinctions.

On Monday, five British Muslims were jailed for life for plotting murderous attacks in London. Some of the men were linked to the suicide bombers who did succeed in killing 52 people in London in July 2005. Opinion polls later suggested that 7 per cent of British Muslims thought the bombings could be justified. That is an alarming number. But the fact remains that most Muslims in Britain live ordinary lives. The Muslims killed by the London bombers were far more typical of Islam in Europe than the fanatics who murdered them. They included a young French waiter, an Afghan student who was a refugee from the Taliban and a 21-year-old woman of Bangladeshi origin, who worked as a bank teller.

The same need to look at people as individuals – and to hold fast to the liberal values of the rule of law – should condition the western response to Turkey’s crisis. Secularism and democracy can still be reconciled. Turkey’s secularists are perfectly entitled to voice their concerns, provided they do not resort to perverting the law or a military coup. Similarly, a devout Muslim should be allowed to become president of Turkey, provided he does not threaten the legal and democratic rights of his fellow citizens. That includes women who have no intention of ever donning a headscarf.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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