What's on and where
The Muslim News
Contact The Muslim News
The Muslim News on your PDA
Back to index
Issue 201, Friday 27 January 2006 - 27 Dhu al-Hijjah 1426
Turkey in EU: Tugs of war
By Elif Aydýn
It’s been a rough twelve months for European Muslims. The London bombings, cartoon caricatures of the Prophet appearing in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, urban riots in the French suburbs and current debates in the Netherlands on whether Muslim women should be banned from wearing full covering in public places. Just some of the issues that have surfaced in the past twelve months.
The close of 2004 with the decision of the European Council to agree on the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey, though deferring the actual date of the opening to October 3, 2005, was heralded as a new chapter for the future of Europe and its largest Muslim neighbour and a spectacular debunking of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis.
The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, expressing more zeal and determination than his European counterparts in the thrashing out of obstacles in Turkey’s way, spoke of the decision’s negation of any fundamental clash of civilisations between Muslims and Christians arguing that “On the contrary, if it [Turkey] fulfils the same principles of human rights, then Muslim[s] and Christian[s] can work together.”
Such a remark was welcome news to the Turks for sure but one wonders how Europe’s extant Muslim communities numbering around 19 million reacted to the assertion.
The future entry of Turkey into the EU will no doubt signal enormous changes for European Muslims - changes to the EU itself notwithstanding. The arrival of 83 million Turks (Turkey’s estimated population size in 2015 when accession is expected given the current growth rate) will add more than just numerical clout to the Muslim presence in Europe.
Turkey’s being a state member involves a whole new dimension to the European Muslim construct. As a member state, it will enjoy voting rights in the European Parliament; it will enjoy representation in the European Commission through nomination of Commissioners and Permanent Representatives (COREPER); and not least, enjoy a seat at the table of the European Council.
And it will have significant and important contributions to the future composition of the EU at the intergovernmental level. What this means for the future of Islam in Europe at the demotic, national and supranational levels, is yet to be determined.
Europe’s Muslims already suffer from a catalogue of deprivations ranging from employment and housing to education and political representation. In Britain, the two largest minority groups within the Muslim community - Bangladeshis and Pakistanis - are two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts and three times more likely to be in low paid jobs. Intra-ethnic figures reveal that Pakistanis are three times more likely to be unemployed than Indians and Indian Muslims twice as likely to be unemployed than Indian Hindus.
Over two thirds of Bangladeshi and Pakistani households live below the poverty line compared with 23% of all households in the UK. In employment, while the rate for economically inactive persons in the white community is 15%, for the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities the figures are 42% and 38% respectively. Figures for the economic activity of Muslim women too underscores the reinforcing factors affecting upward social and economic mobility for British Muslims; only 20% of Muslim women are likely to be economically active compared to 70% of black and white women.
Statistics across the Channel paint no rosier a picture of the absolute and relative poverty of European Muslims. In France, unemployment among people of French origin is 9.2%. Among those of foreign origin, the figure is 14% - even after adjustments are made for educational qualifications. Studies reveal that applicants for jobs with Arabic names are five times less likely to be called for job interviews than those with French sounding names. And while unemployment among university graduates for the whole of France is 5%, for North African graduates, the figure is a startling 26.5%.
In Germany, Europe’s second largest Muslim minority, the community fares just as badly. While official unemployment runs at around 11%, immigrants are twice as likely than Germans to be unemployed. The disparities in educational achievement fuel and sustain this cycle of poverty. The percentage of the children of immigrants that are enrolled in university-track high school education is 18% compared with 47% of the German schoolchildren. The figure for Turkish schoolchildren, the largest minority group, is 12%. Only 3.3% of Germany’s immigrant population makes it to university.
To add insult to economic injury, French and German Muslims (as well as British) are likely to be concentrated in the most impoverished and run down of the major cities’ suburbs. If lack of opportunities weren’t obstacle enough to the fostering of a sense of citizenship, this kind of geographic seclusion and physical displacement only further bemoans the residual nature of Europe’s integration policies and its vigour in proving that ‘Muslims and Christians can work together’.
The welcome reception for Turkey is a bitter sweet pill to swallow indeed given the plight of Europe’s existing Muslim communities.
Whose ‘moderate’, Which ‘Islam’
The concerns are not however limited to the economic sphere.
TUSIAD, Turkey’s most influential business NGO, launched a major charm offensive designed to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Europe’s less than enthusiastic populations, a necessary move according to the Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso.
In a poll conducted by the Commission in August 2005, the percentage of all Europeans against Turkey’s entry into the Union stood at 52%. This figure rose sharply in member states where political parties had advocated a ‘privileged partnership’: 74% in Germany, 70% in France and 80% in Austria. Even in Britain, a long time champion on Turkey’s EU bid, the percentage stood at 45%.
Wishing to dispel European apprehensions of Turkey’s image as a poor, agrarian country with little in common with its more politically stable and economically prosperous European neighbours, TUSIAD has charged a member of its executive board, Umit Boyner, to spearhead a ten-year campaign to reverse this trend of misgivings and trepidation. On advice of the consultancy group, Hill & Knowlton, Mrs Boyner is to focus her campaign on a branding of Turkey as an industrialised, modern, secular, democratic Muslim country.
On the point of Islam, she says, “Islam is the most important fact of life about Turkey, and Europeans should accept that. But we are a very good example of how to be Muslim and still integrate with the western world and its understanding of democracy.”
A strange comment indeed for a country in which this important fact of life manifests itself in a ban on headscarves in universities and public offices. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoðan, who in speeches to foreign audiences, has regularly done his constituency proud by proclaiming the headscarf issue as one that will be solved in time and through a social consensus. With the decision of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of former medical student, Leyla Sahin, against Istanbul University last month, stating that the University had not violated Ms Sahin’s right to an education by refusing her admittance to classes on the basis of her dress style, being welcomed by Turkish secularists as an end of the affair on the headscarf and vindication of their assertion that the headscarf remains a political symbol, one wonders how close a consensus on the matter really is. (see The Muslim News No 199)
Members of the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkýnma Partisi or AKP), had been hoping that the Grand Chamber would overturn the ban. It has, since its election in November 2002, pursued a reformist package designed to meet the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria and carried the favour of its natural constituency in the expectation that EU harmonization and entry would spell the beginning of a more liberal Turkey; a Turkey in which religion enjoyed the freedom of expression in dress.
The Party’s dismay and disappointment with the Court’s decision was apparent in subsequent statements made by the Prime Minister, Ministers and Party members. “This is why I’m against the EU,” one irked AKP MP exclaimed.
The Country’s leading liberal daily, Radikal, in a headline ultimatum following the Court’s ruling and belligerent retorts, demanded that the Government either “solve the issue or abandon it”; the ensuing political instability was harming the country. What sort of social consensus could be forged in an atmosphere as tense as this?
Until the headscarf issue is put to a referendum (polls suggest that around 70% of Turks would vote in favour of lifting the ban), it remains to be seen whether this divisive issue will usher in a new era of calm and self-confidence.
The Turkish President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, continues to issue single name invitations to official functions held at the Presidential Palace to members of the ruling party whose wives wear headscarves. And in sharp retorts to the international community’s casting of Turkey as a guiding light or role model to its Muslim neighbours, the President has regularly refused the title of “moderate Islamic country” in application to Turkey. Its secular and democratic orientation is not open for debate; it categorically is. And in being so it stands leagues apart from its Middle Eastern neighbours.
Indeed, so secular a State that the Government sought to introduce a clause on criminalising adultery last September when the new Turkish Penal Code was being devised (zina being proscribed by the Qur’an). An ironic move, one may argue, from the Leader of a party, some of whose members enjoy ‘secret’ polygamous relationships.
And so democratic that one of the Country’s most famous writers, Orhan Pamuk, is to be prosecuted under different clauses of the same Penal Code for “insulting Turkishness”. A conundrum only a Turk could be expected to comprehend and solve? Not anymore.
Turkey’s internal tug of war between the secular democratic country it wants others to believe it is, and its Muslim reality, which challenges aspects of the way the country’s secularism is understood and applied, is no longer an internal affair.
Democracies across Europe are realising the presence of their Muslim populations beyond statistical facts and in more tangible, visible forms. The bombings in Madrid and London, while to the few signalled the inherent weakness of multiculturalism as a policy and vision, for the many signalled quite the opposite. It was not the policy that was flawed or the vision that was miscast, but the practice and comprehensive endorsement of the ideal, which was lacking. The new focus is on educational underachievement of minority groups; on hidden and open forms of discrimination; and in working with community organs and representatives to bring to life and make real the understanding that European states recognise their ethnic, racial and religious diversity and that each individual as a citizen of his/her state commands the rights that this legal identity entails.
As Muslims in Britain, France Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands organise their communities to bear their share of the multicultural burden, in the form of responsibilities and positive engagement, the charm offensive planned by Ms Boyner et al to win over European sceptics to Turkey’s cause will bring these national communities into focus.
While Mark Leonard of the Centre for European Reform is right to argue that Turkey has its work cut out for it if it hopes to re-brand and sell Europe the image of an industrialised and modern state when the reality is a largely agrarian based economy. So will it be a steep challenge to sell the idea of a country that reflects a happy marriage between its professed secularity and its Muslim faith.
The question here raised is what role does Ms Boyner see Europe’s Muslim populations playing in her 10 year bid to reverse this negative wave of hostility to Turkey’s entry? And this refers to all European Muslims, not just those of Turkish descent.
The battle is not to convince Christian Europe of Turkey’s worthiness as a member of the prosperous union but to engage the whole of Europe, Christian, Muslim and otherwise, in a battle to ensure that the Europe of the future is one anchored in a confident diversity based on values drawn from all faiths and none which exhort justice, equality and liberty. As Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, claimed on October 3, 2004, “We are showing tonight that it’s not about religion and religious differences, it’s about values.”
The challenge for Turkey remains internal as well as regional.
‘Companies aim to banish Turkey's poor reputation’, Financial Times, December 28, 2005.
Back to the front page
The Muslim News