Europe,  International

Talking Turkey

Turkey is part of Europe states Tariq Ramadan in the Guardian as he argues boldly that the state in question should be allowed to join the European Union. Those who disagree with Turkey’s accession are guilty of Islamophobia and a faulty reading of history.

The arguments that locate Turkey outside European history and geography cannot withstand analysis. For more than four centuries the Ottoman empire shared and shaped the political and strategic future of the continent. During the late 19th and early 20th century, it became the “sick man of Europe”. Even today, Turkey’s historical and economic influence continues to be substantial.

Whether or not Turkey should be allowed to join the European Community is a subject worthy of considered debate, but not something I  have space to comment on in detail here. It is, however, worth making the point that I have heard convincing arguments from both points of view.

What would certainly not convince me into the yes camp is Ramadan’s contention that because a country was once named ‘the sick man of Europe’ that this constitutes supporting evidence for it being a European, rather than an Asian, country.

Those familiar with Balkan history won’t need reminding that the reason Turkey was so called in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries was because its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire (also known as the last Islamic Caliphate) had once conquered and still governed vast tracts of land in Europe which these days constitute either the whole or a fair part of the sovereign territories of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Moldova, Greece, Albania, Russia, Ukraine etc etc.

By the late Nineteenth Century it had become clear that the unwieldy and creaking Caliphate was losing its rearguard battle with the forces of modernity, in particular nationalism and democracy as understood by its subject peoples. By 1923 shortly after the European war fought (correctly or otherwise) in the name of the rights of small nations to self-determination, it had became obvious that the battle had been comprehensively lost: the old Empire sank to its knees – bequeathing us the modern, Republic of Turkey – shorn of its European possessions except for that precarious toehold on the European continent which stands sentry around the city of Istanbul.

My point is that whatever the potential merits – political and economic – of Turkish EU membership, attempting to maintain that Turkey is either culturally or geographically a European country is stretching it a bit. Particularly so when little hard evidence other than the fact that its predecessor state once subjugated a substantial proportion of the continent is presented in support of that argument.

In other words once having conquered – and subsequently being forcibly expelled from – a territory isn’t neccessarily the best argument for maintaining that a particular state has a legitimate cultural and geographical connection with said once-governed territory.

Ramadan would have been on far stronger grounds if he’d argued that Turkey has one hugely important and, to this writer at least, obvious thing in common with modern Europe – a principle engraved in the country’s constitution and which many Turks defend with passion: that is, of course, the theoretical separation of the spheres of religion and government otherwise known as secularism

For some reason Ramadan completely ignores this piece of evidence despite its obvious utility for his overall argument that Turkey and Europe have important things in common.

Why might that be?

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