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Feb 2005 Journal

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Bridging the Bosphorus (editorial)

Readers who attended Austrian schools before the Anschluss will not have been surprised that Chancellor Schüssel was one of the EU leaders most vehemently opposed to Turkish membership of the organisation. Austria's national myth casts Vienna in the role of a fortress of Christianity which the Turks besieged in both 1529 and 1683.

The protracted warfare between the Cross and the Crescent left its mark in the Austrian racial memory. In folk speech 'cacophony' is called a Heidenlärm (noise made by heathens) and the expletive Kruzitürken has religious roots (not unlike 'blimey') relating to the Crusades in this instance.

What the Austrian myth about having been a bulwark of European civilisation against a heathen onslaught leaves out of account is that, at the time, the Turkish Sultans were far more tolerant of non-Muslims than the Habsburg emperors were of non-Catholics. Under the Double Eagle Protestants suffered wholesale expulsion and, except for a handful of government contractors, Jews eked out a miserable existence. (Interestingly, when Jews expelled from Spain eventually reached Vienna, their congregation was called the Türkentempel - due to the fact that their first country of asylum had been Turkey.)

Not that Austria remained totally untouched by the Enlightenment. Mozart wrote a Turkish march and peopled Il Seraglio with humanly believable characters. Gradually religion declined as a driving force in interstate relations, and was replaced by nationalism. The nationalism of the Balkan peoples, Serbs, Greeks and Bulgarians undermined Turkish power in Europe and, during the Great War, the Arab revolt produced a corresponding effect in Asia.

The shock of defeat was the beginning of the recovery for the country long derided as the 'sick man of Europe'. Kemal Pasha abolished the Sultanate, separated religion and the state, and introduced Western reforms into relations between the sexes, the dress code and the alphabet.

Since his death in 1938 Westernising trends have continued in Turkey, but there have also been counter-currents of Islamic revivalism, especially in the countryside. The country has also been debilitated by the Ankara government's policy of pressuring the large Kurdish minority into assimilation.

This, plus Turkey's relative economic backwardness and poverty exacerbated by a soaring birth rate, has prompted scepticism among some EU member states about the desirability of Turkish membership. Those who favour Turkey's admission take a more global - not to say geopolitical - perspective.

They see Kemal Ataturk's Westernising reforms as a foundation on which a more ambitious transformation of far wider application could be based. Turkey could become the first Islamic country which of its own volition adopted the full panoply of Western instructions: parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary, press freedom and human rights. It has already moved significantly Westwards in one particular direction: relations between the sexes. Turkey, like Indonesia and Pakistan, has had women at the very head of government, demonstrating that it is a misconception to see the exceptionally patriarchal Arab societies as typical of the Muslim world as a whole.

Since a closer integration with Europe is bound to raise living standards in Turkey other Muslim countries would feel challenged to 'do better'. However, the most important lesson they would derive from the Turkish example is that a state can retain its Islamic religious identity while adopting Western values.

Schüssel, Chirac and Schröder are not totally wrong when they point to the risk posed to the cohesion of Europe by the accession of close to 100 million poor non-Christian, non-Europeans. However, on balance this is a risk worth taking.

The world can only become a better place if the number of democracies in it increases, and eventually neutralises the influence of the dictatorships and theocracies. After the end of the Second World War a few West European countries took a gamble on a closer union with Germany - yesterday's enemy - and the gamble paid off. Sixty years on from the liberation of Auschwitz and the destruction of Dresden, Germany is one of the most stable democracies.

Elsewhere, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Russia under Putin is less free than it was in Yeltsin's day - though ongoing developments in Ukraine may yet provide a corrective to that retrograde tendency. The prospects for democracy in most Third World countries are anything but favourable.

Given this backdrop, the locking of Turkey into the European system would be a huge building block in the construction of a democratic edifice bridging Europe and Asia. It is a risky enterprise - but who would gainsay its potential for future good? The game is certainly worth the candle. Turkey is no longer the country of corruption and brutality conveyed in the film Midnight Express (if it ever was); it is a state embarked on the boulder-strewn path to democracy and deserves to be helped along the way.

next article:A tale of Jewish Delilahs