Eastward Bound

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently blamed Europe for alienating Turkey from the West. On a visit to London last Wednesday, he stated, “If there’s anything to the notion that Turkey is moving eastwards, it is in no small part because it was pushed, and it was pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”

When Turkey was accepted as a European Union candidate at the Helsinki summit in 1999, the Ecevit government subsequently enacted two important constitutional reform packages and a revision to the Civil Code which established the principle of gender equality in the family. When the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002, it was with the promise of further reform, and seven more reform packages were passed.

Despite reservations about implementation, in October 2004 the European Commission found that Turkey had “sufficiently” fulfilled the political criteria for membership and recommended the start of accession talks. However, when these talks began the following year, the AKP government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan lost interest in the European perspective and concentrated on a domestic agenda with the main aim of securing its power base. This included a policy of kadrolaşma in state and local administration, which means filling leading positions with party supporters and fellow believers. Through “neighborhood pressure,” the government embarked on a process of social engineering to enforce conservative, Islamic standards throughout Turkish society.

High on the AKP government’s agenda was making it possible for graduates of religious high schools (the imam-hatip schools) to enter university on an equal footing with students from state high schools. However, because of secular opposition, these attempts have so far been unsuccessful.

The headscarf – that is, the tightly knotted Islamic headscarf and not the loosely worn village headscarf – is widely regarded as a symbol of political Islam, and Prime Minister Erdogan admitted as much at a meeting of the Alliance of Civilizations Forum in Madrid in 2008. However, the fact that the European Court of Human Rights upheld the ban on the Islamic headscarf at Turkish universities was a setback that Mr. Erdogan was not prepared to accept.

As has been illustrated by Turkey’s vote in the UN Security Council against further sanctions on Iran, Turkey’s “multi-dimensional” foreign policy has been directed more towards cementing its relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors than advancing its cause in Europe. Particularly, after the Turkish government’s endorsement of the alleged aid flotilla and the stand-off with Israel, Turkey’s claim of being “the honest broker of the Middle East” rings hollow. This is all not to mention, of course, the Armenian issue, Turkey’s  own Kurdish problem, and the fact that Turkey, for the last 36 years, has occupied a third of what is now an EU member state – Cyprus.

In a television interview in 2004, Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, let his views be known on Europe  letting Turkey into the European Union, stating: ”The Islamic world, even the Islamic extremists, even bin Laden, rejoice for the entrance of Turkey in the European Union. This is their Trojan horse.” Last week, addressing a delegation of European Muslim leaders, Gaddafi supported Turkey’s membership, using the same argument.

If Robert Gates wants to blame anyone for the West losing Turkey, he should perhaps take a look closer to home – i.e. the U.S. State Department, which, as far as Turkey is concerned, has also been out of touch. For example, in May 2007, Condoleeza Rice stated that the AKP is “a government dedicated to pulling Turkey west toward Europe.” Seven months earlier, when President Sezer and the Turkish military warned about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, Ross Wilson, described the debate as “cacophonic” and added:  “There is nothing that I see imminently on the horizon that makes me particularly worried.”

The main stumbling block to the continuation of EU accession talks with Turkey is the Cyprus question. Here Ross Wilson’s successor, James Jeffrey, tops the bill when, in a February interview with the Turkish daily Sabah, he stated: “Geographically, Turkey is closer to the EU than Cyprus. Cyprus was still an EU member when I last checked. As a matter of fact, most of Turkey is closer to Berlin or Paris. Under these conditions, what keeps Turkey out of the EU?”

There is a further truth which has eluded Robert Gates. As the little-known Turkish philosopher from the 1950’s, Celal Yaliniz, once wrote: “Turkey is a ship heading for the East. Those aboard think they are heading for the West. In fact, they are just running westwards in a ship sailing eastwards.”

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.

  • William Smart

    Turkey is a member of NATO so any attack on it by a non-member of NATO will not go unpunished.

    • MixMike

      Perhaps Turkey's disregard of international law should not go unpunished…

    • Frank

      Breaking a military blockade is an act of war and NATO is a defensive alliance. NATO must expel Turkish bullies working at bringing them into a war.

  • maria

    What did President Erdogan say Mr. Gates, Europe will become an Islam Nation.
    The Mosques are our Barracks, the Dome our Helmet and the Minarets our Swords and what is he planned on doing than, destroy Churches?
    Turks having many children in Western Europe so they will have more voting power later.
    Stay out of Europes business Mr. Gates, it is bad enough what you and President Obama are doing to the USA,

    • Andres de Alamaya


    • MixMike

      It already started with the Hagia Sophia, covering up the Christian Icons with Islamic art.

  • jac

    Since the EU is a political entity and not a continent, Ross Wilson's “Geographically, Turkey is closer to the EU than Cyprus…' is a semantic skullduggery conflating two disparate categories. Is North Korea politically or culturally close to South Korea because the two are geographically proximate?

  • Cecilia

    Good article, good site

  • 080

    Just what Europe needed: a flood of Muslim immigrants. How could they do this to themselves? Especially now with Erdogan in power. By the way, has anyone seen Europe lately?

  • henry

    All your future question will be answered by this magic, mystical poem: "A Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim"

  • KickTurkeyOutOfNATO

    Fuck Turkey! They (like all Muslim countries) break international laws as well as human rights and then they want to be treated like they did nothing.
    Turkey INVADED, yes INVADED a member of the EU and NATO, Cyprus, Greece.
    They killed many people and they are still an occupying force.
    FUCK TURKEY! If martyrdom is so good why don't all Muslims just commit suicide and let the rest of us live in peace.

  • Sandra T

    Turkey has been a friend of the United States for years. The problem is that the U.S. State Department has turned away from Turkey. The short term thinking of our leaders drifted to support Greece and the Armenians. Jimmy Carter turned againist the Shah and left him hanging out to dry. This contributed to the Middle East leaning toward Russia and listening to Libian president Khadafi.

  • henry

    I am censored by Swindle because I suggested he was a coward – I did this because he brought it up in context of saving babies doomed to be aborted. He said that since he is not saving babies that the babies are really not babies otherwise he would be a coward. So I said, "you do believe they are babies and i know that so you are what you say you are – a coward. What I said was fair – let me back on so he doesn't get away with public-ally loving Abortion/Murder! Too intense for you? I'm I? Evidently!