OPINION

The Turkish touchstone

Turkey is a vast and wonderful country and would be a treasure for the European Union if, in an ideal world, it were to become a member. Turkey has the space, the cultural depth and the resources – both human and physical – to give Europe space in the way that adding a boundless estate to a town house would make it a palace. Whatever happens in Turkey will have a direct effect on us. Whether we (Greeks as well as the other Europeans) like it or not, our fate is tied to that of Turkey. And that puts us right on the front line of the battle over what our future will be. Up to now, Turkey’s eligibility for the EU has always been seen in terms of economic development and human rights. Only now and then, when one of the old school of European politicians, like Helmut Kohl or Giscard d’Estaing, blurts out what’s on his mind, do we have to face the main question, of how «European» Turkey is. We in Greece can relate to that because, being on the EU’s outer edge for a long time, and being a country whose economy, public administration and civil society have been edging toward the level of other European countries, a huge part of public debate concerns our «European-ness.» For example, if patients have to queue up for hours to see a doctor at a public clinic, the outraged comments on the street and on television are the ironic «And we call ourselves part of Europe!» For Greece, though, there never was an issue of whether the nation was part of Europe. It just happened to have been isolated for a very long time by geography and foreign occupation, which, in turn, led to many of the problems under which we still labor. Turkey’s «European-ness» is more complicated. This is both because of the difficulties that its economy faces and the fact that the military (and police) play a far more dominant role in society there than they do in the European Union and other candidate countries. But the unspoken truth is that Turkey, though secular, is populated by Muslims. And it has a very large – and growing – population. This creates a sense of strangeness when others look at Turkey from outside. But people who are pro-Europe in Greece are probably more like people who are pro-Europe in Turkey than they are with their own compatriots who might subscribe to some outlandish beliefs and conspiracy theories. But beyond the objective criteria of the economy and legislation regarding human rights, and the more subjective issue of the sense we have of a country and its people, comes the new touchstone: security. This is where Europe faces a milder version of the dilemma that the whole world faces, in what steps it will take in trying to cope with the threat of terrorism, and to create a future that will offer more security without losing our hard-won rights. Will we engage the rest of the world in a bid to spread some of our wealth for the sake of security, or will we isolate ourselves and spend the money on keeping the rest of an ever more chaotic world at bay? The past year suggests, however much we may want to deny it, or to put off naming it, that we appear to be moving toward the much-heralded (and much pooh-poohed) clash of civilizations. This, though, is not so much a conflict of massive armies, of infidels and believers, but a war that has been declared by a handful of Muslim zealots whose message, like all simplistic extremism, has found many admirers in the wider pool of people from which they come. What Osama bin Laden and his suicidal disciples have done is declare war on the greatest temporal power in the world – the United States and the collective wealth and strength that it marshals and represents. The purists are not happy with the way the world is, so they plan to attack its most powerful member, in the hope of leading it into a clash which will involve those who have no reason to fight. When everyone is exhausted and depleted, the born losers will be as great as the fallen great, the theory goes. Here we have not so much a clash of civilizations as a clash of eras. A group of medieval purists has the ability to use modern-age tools and targets (missiles, aircraft, package tours and skyscrapers) to cause the greatest number of deaths in order to make a symbolic point. On the other hand, the superpower is constrained by trying to defend itself from a shadow in the crowd of otherwise innocent people, without doing harm to the crowd. Gone are the days when an uprising by the zealots would lead to the rooting out of the whole nation that gave birth to them – as the Romans did to the Jews in the first century. (Every era has its fanatics and its superpowers. It is tragic, however, that in every era, zealots and superpowers clash in the same small part of the Middle East, where everyone seems to hear the voice of some perpetually angry god.) Massive retribution would, today, not have the effect of wiping out the whole nest from which the troublemakers had come, as the rest of the world went about its business. Rather, it would stoke up even greater antagonism across the globe. September 11 made it unequivocally clear that the terrorists had no qualms in trying to exact the highest possible toll on civilians who could serve as symbolic targets. The Bali bombing in early October, which killed some 200 young people on holiday, and could condemn a whole region to poverty and unrest, was less spectacular but it compounded the fear, stressing that Al Qaeda or its admirers would continue to make a virtue of their mercilessness. Thursday’s missile attack on an Israeli passenger plane with 261 people on board – all of whom would have been killed had the missiles not, inexplicably, missed – at the same time as the suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, hammered home two messages: Pity has no place in this battle; those who are planning strategy are now making an effort to give their cause a legitimacy across the Muslim world that the September 11 attacks on their own did not. They are now taking the battle not only to the Americans and those who support them, but, more specifically, against Israel, in order to exploit sympathy for the Palestinians. Whether it is Al Qaeda who carried out the Mombasa and Bali attacks, or whether it has inspired such sophisticated, dedicated and merciless acts in others, is not the point. Even though individual leaders of Al Qaeda are being caught, one by one, the network has either survived or has managed to captivate the imagination of others who are now emulating it. So, a year and a bit after September 11, with US troops in Afghanistan and UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, a determined face in a nameless crowd may be the next front in this guerrilla war. This will not change unless the society that produces, tolerates and hides these people either spews them out or distances itself by growing more tolerant of other peoples and religions – or it roots out the pools of poverty and despair that provide the human fodder for those with delusions of past grandeur. Turkey, of course, is anything but a hotbed of Muslim fanaticism. In fact, the Turkish authorities’ often autocratic obsession with secularism, and the way its security forces see themselves as the guardians of a westward-looking state, are at the same time one of the features that distances Turkey from the EU while at the same time keeping possible dangers under control within Turkey. But the (perhaps waning) secular fascism of the Grey Wolves who fought leftist radicals in the 1970s, the alleged links between organized crime and state officials (as was illustrated in the famous car crash in Susurluk in 1997, with its rich variety of victims), the deaths and disappearances of dissidents in the 1990s, and the depredations of a local branch of Hizbullah which kidnapped, tortured and murdered dozens of people for their money, suggest that dark passions and rich conspiracies are no stranger there. The war in Chechnya has also stoked sympathies among some Turks, suggesting that the right foreign cause could find fertile ground for angry reaction. So what the West does in the Muslim world, in its war on Al Qaeda and in pulling Saddam Hussein’s leash, could create ripples even in Turkey. The question that the world faces most directly (indeed, which the EU has to answer in less than two weeks in Copenhagen, whether it will give Turkey a date for the start of talks aimed at eventual accession) is whether the solution is to bring Turkey closer to the West or to leave it to its own devices. The first option has the benefits of giving the EU a say over how Turkey deals with its coming challenges, and helping it. But it has the disadvantage that a united Europe may one day embrace a member which has so many internal problems that the EU will have to redefine itself to cope with them, irrespective of whether Turkey has met the formal criteria. The second option leaves Turkey at the mercy of whatever extremist forces might begin to grow there. Although these people might not be members of the EU if Turkey stays out, they will find a way to carry their anger there. The choice is not easy, and it combines the need to guess what the future will be while at the same time not knowing how present actions will shape that future. Expect a decision in Copenhagen that will be a mouthful of compromise and procrastination, in the best tradition of a union that, despite all odds, has managed to bind its members more strongly and to attract new candidates as time has passed. The EU has never turned away anyone, and that has made it stronger. But it has never faced a decision as difficult as this.