Islam - Obstacle on the Way to Europe?

Turkey has been a secular state at least since Atatürk's revolution. There are trends and movements in Turkey that are related to Islam - phenomena which oppose closer ties to the EU, argues Giacomo Luciano


photo: AFP
The debate on Turkey's EU entry has often centered on religion

​​Factually, Islam has become a significant element of Europe's cultural landscape due to immigration, a certain amount of religious conversion and because there are European states, such as Bulgaria, where Islam represents a sizeable minority.

Current estimates indicate that roughly 12 million people of the Muslim faith live in the present 15 nations of the European Union. This figure does not include unregistered immigration, so the actual number of Muslims could be considerably higher.

From this perspective, Islam is the second or third largest religion in the EU, depending on whether we consider Christianity in its entirety or whether we only consider Catholicism.

Most governments of EU Member States recognize the presence of important Muslim elements in some form or another. In the past few months, governments have stressed that they reject the concept of "clashing cultures".

The EU does not have only one model for the relations between states and religions. The subsidiarity principle spawned numerous models in different membership states. The same holds true for key elements in relations between a state and its citizens.

The origins of different solutions go back a long way in history and thus, cannot be easily bent or changed. Periodic tension in one Member State or the other inevitably leads to heated debates.

Citizens who felt that their right to religious freedom was disregarded on several occasions have taken their cases to the European Court for Human Rights. This also happened in Turkey, for instance, because the state imposed restrictions in order to administer Islamic law, for example dress codes.

Theoretically, the question of defining a European model for relations between state and religion may arise again in the future. The possibility seems to be remote but it could cause a dangerous polarization within the community.

It is reasonable to assume that it would be impossible to reach a broad consensus if Europe were to be defined as an exclusively Christian entity, even though this would contradict history and present-day reality.

Different doctrines and aims, as well as international and domestic wars have played a fundamental role in modeling Europe and will continue to do so in the future.

The consequences of past events will always be a topic of debate and will comprise of differing opinions. Such issues will always be raised as an argument against the accession of states shaped by Islam.

Turkey is doubtlessly a secular state. It has stressed this standpoint since its founder's, Kemal Atatürk's, revolution. Secularism is one of the most important principles of Kemalist Ideology, which prevails in the country's politics (and contrary to popular European doubt, the army firmly defends this principle if it is questioned.)

Islamic Turkey?

Turkey has already been a secular state in the past, as the Ottoman Caliphate was essentially a state authority above religion. An example of the secularization of religion would have been Henry the VIII , King of Rome.

No one would ever dream of questioning the secular nature of the United Kingdom because the Queen is the Head of the Church, and the same could be said of the Ottoman Empire, which was a form of Islamic secularization, and in fact, not the first one in history.

But neither the Ottoman nor the Kemalist models have been able to resolve the problematic relationship between Islam and politics. Islam, as we know it, does not allow differences between religion and state: it only accepts a government when it is just, i.e. Islamic.

This, of course, is the conviction of all Muslims. A great number of them live in countries where political legitimacy rests on phenomena and principles that have nothing to do with religion.

It has become quite obvious that the prospect of Islamic rule does not seem attractive to majority of people who live in countries in which Islam is the main religion.

It is also true that a similar separation between religion and politics was not readily accepted in the past. Instead, the conflict spanned over centuries and the separation was established only after much bloodshed.

"Integral" tendencies in European politics resurface over and over again and are evidence of the difficulties of separating personal ethics from political preferences. Europe has always had intense debates on abortion, euthanasia, and the boundaries of medicine and opinions were strongly influenced by religious convictions.

With this thought in mind, the process of internalizing the separation of religion and state seems to be less advanced in Islamic states than in Europe. This can be interpreted in many ways. Many attribute the political underdevelopment to the restrictions of political debates.

Opposition in discourse mostly falls to the monopolists in this field, the mosques. Others insist that Islam is so different from other religions that a separation between religion and politics cannot be accepted.

The question "why" remains unanswered and it is a reason to be disconcerted. Political Islamism is a dangerous phenomenon because it can lead to fanatic behavior, which can sometimes be characterized by irreverence towards human life, as we all know.

Europe should not be indifferent to the developments in the Islamic world. Quite the contrary: It is an innate European interest to support all countries which advocate the principle of secularism, even if the majority of the population is Muslim.

Turkey is not alone in this category but is certainly one of the most important and obvious examples. Political Islamist trends and movements in Turkey are forces which surely do not condone Turkey's approaches towards Europe and eventual membership to the European Union.

In my opinion, these forces should not be underestimated. At the same time, they should clearly be eliminated and the European perspective is a vital means.

Fragile Secularism

Indeed, all those in Turkey who see Europe as hope for the future of their country and are patiently working towards becoming a member of the European Union have, one goal in the back of their minds: They want to create conditions which consolidate the separation between religion and state.

The secular nature of the Turkish state remains fragile and even reversible, just as its democratic institutions or macro-economic stabilization policies and the increasing trust in the force of the market in terms of its distribution of resources.

Turkey is no different from other EU candidate countries. They would all like to enter the Union, some at very substantial short-term political costs, because they see the EU as an anchor that stabilizes their volatile democracies and difficult economic transitions.

If this were not the case, European enlargement would lose its momentum and urgency. The pro-European forces in Turkey know very well that if the country were to be left behind by the rest of Europe, the democratic and secular institutions and economic policies would be put to the test.

The EU (justifiably) disapproves of Turkish military power over state institutions and yet this wardship is the unsatisfactory and short-term response to fundamental fragility which will only be remedied when Turkey is introduced to the rest of Europe.

The political Islamic forces in Turkey reject closer ties to the EU and have had moderate success in building up alternative connections to Arabic states, Iran and central Asia. This strategy may not be a particularly attractive alternative to the EU, but it is still an important topic in Turkish political discussions.

The European route has not been one that has been determined to be the goal of Turkish politics: it is a strong but also fragile current which demands efforts and commitment from both Turkey and the EU.

A series of problems has to be dealt with and solved and Islam is one of them, not necessarily on the diplomatic level between Ankara and Brussels because this topic can be easily accepted due to secular references on both sides.

But Islam will be a public topic and a topic of parliamentary debate for a long time to come. This is neither strange nor unique. There are enough prejudices and reservations in Europe which thrive on lingual and geographic issues.

One can already speak of success in a situation where such reciprocal mistrust no longer results in bloodshed, although this does happen from time to time – and tragically has in recent times as well.

Giacomo Luciano

This article was first published in International Politics 2/2003.

&copy Bertelsmann-Verlag 2003

Prof. Giacomo Luciano teaches at the Robert-Schuman-Centre, European University Institute Florence, Italy.

Translation from German: Helen Groumas