Why an Islamic country aspires to modernise
If a Muslim state that once upon a time held some 26 countries that presently have seats at the United Nations under its sway is willing to change its former ways and join a political club with an altogether different outlook - there must be some reasons for it and it is worth taking a closer look.
Turkey has plenty of artistic works from the glories of its Ottoman past to show to its approximately 13 million tourists a year. The empire once stretched from Morocco to Iran, from Hungary to Yemen, and lasted for over six centuries (1299 – 1923). The arts in Turkey today are once again thriving. Artists and writers from the Muslim world, frequently inhibited by political censorship or social conservatism, feel free to voice their opinions in Istanbul or Ankara. The government is relaxing restrictions on free expression and underpinning human rights legislation in line with the coming negotiations on European Union membership. The economy is growing at around 10 per cent and exports are bounding up at 15 per cent - a very large part of the country looks to Europe as the way forward.
Already in the Ottoman Empire days, Turkey reached out towards the European countries Hungary and Austria. Holy wars against unbelievers, especially when combined with plunder, appealed strongly to Turkish warriors of the time. Volunteers were recruited from all over the Turkish world to serve the house of Osman in their wars against the Byzantines. Crushing victories over the Serbs at Kosovo in 1389, and over the Hungarians at Nicopolis in present-day Bulgaria in 1396, spread Turkish power deep into the Balkans. Yet prolonged success helped to nourish a smug conservatism within Ottoman society, largely closing the minds of its leaders against a new scientific knowledge, which, by the 17th century, had begun to modernize Western Europe. Turkey, once a leader in military technology, therefore gradually fell into relative backwardness.
In 1908 a movement of young army officers - the young Turks - formed a secret society and carried through a coup d'état in 1908, in reaction to Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Bulgaria's proclamation of independence. They introduced a new era of westernization. However, the loss of Tripoli to Italy in 1911, and of almost all the European parts of the empire to Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia, led the Young Turks to turn towards pan-Turkism for ideological inspiration. Since most Turks beyond Ottoman borders were Russian subjects in central Asia, pan-Turkism emphasized hostility towards the Russians, and in World War I they sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary. At first they repulsed the British at the Dardanelles in 1915 and in 1916, but later revolts, which were also supported by enemy forces, led to Turkey's further break-up of the empire and the loss of its Arab provinces.
The treaty of Sevres in 1920 assured Greece, France and Italy protectorates and spheres of influence in the Turkish heartland of Anatolia. The Turks, however, refused to submit to a fate of complete disintegration of their country. General Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later called Atatürk, or “Father of all Turks”, raised a standard revolt in Anatolia. Eventually he was able to organize a government, a political party as well as an army around himself, and became the founder of a new republic. By 1922 the Turks had driven the Greek army from Anatolia and the sultanate was abolished. The victorious Turkish nationalists threatened the British and other Allied forces still occupying Constantinople. The treaty of Lausanne in 1923 recognized the new Turkish government and established Turkey's modern boundaries.
Until 1938, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died, the new government of Turkey was in fact a personal dictatorship, although clothed in constitutional and republican forms. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's
policy was to catch up with the west by radical and thoroughgoing reforms: disestablish Islam as a state religion and replace the Arabic with the Latin script, adapt the western calendar and
introduce secular codes. Atatürk adopted the Swiss civil code in 1926 almost without any amendments. He thereby abolished polygamy allowed by the Koran, and gave women the right to demand divorce.
Civil marriage was prescribed by law, and going to school was made compulsory for boys and girls alike. The inferiority of the testimony of women before court was abolished and women were not allowed
to hide their face behind a veil.
Yet in 1980 Turkey was in chaos. Murder was commonplace, electricity failures were frequent and heavy smog hung over Ankara from the cheap coal being used. The army took over, an event much criticised by Western Europeans but welcomed by almost all Turks, and, as even the army's critics recognise, crowned in the end with considerable success. The greatest changes since have occurred through foreign trade and dealings with Western Europe.
More than three million Turks live in Europe today, around 1.9 million in Germany alone. They make up the largest group of foreign residents. In 1949 Turkey had been a founder member of the European Council, as well as a founder member of the Organization for Economic Development (OECD). It became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952, and in 1963 Turkey signed an association accord with the European Community, with the perspective of joining the European Community (EC) one day, as it was then still called. In 1995 a customs union was agreed upon, and in December 1999 the European Council took the decision in Helsinki to admit Turkey into the circle of membership applicant countries for the European Union, if it could meet the Copenhagen criteria.
The first Turkish immigrants came into Germany as 'guest workers' as they were called, who were brought in to take the place of workers who had formerly come from East Germany but were then prevented from doing so because of the newly erected wall between East and West Germany in 1961. They came from Eastern Turkish provinces and were very religious. At the time, many Moslems disagreed with Turkey's secularism and aimed at transforming Turkey into a Muslim state. They hoped that a return to Turkish roots would lead to its very own and individual development of Turkey. A modernisation of their home country along Islamic lines would allow those expatriates who were stranded in Germany to return to Turkey. This was the time of the legendary Metin Kaplan who tried to establish a caliphate state. The Western life style was considered as corrupt and decadent. Without religion playing a part in everyday life, it seemed to lack heart and soul. The Turkish Islamic Union of the Institute for Religion, DITIB, was the only Islamic organization which wished to maintain secularism, the separation of religion and politics, and countered movements which aimed for an Islamization of Turkey. DITIB is the largest of the many Muslim organizations in Germany, but is viewed with scepticism by many Moslems, as its headquarters are in Ankara. German authorities, too, are a little sceptic and now aim to teach Imams at their own universities. Recently one such university chair of Islam was established at Münster in Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia.
With time, in the 60s and 70s, the Turkish immigrants in Germany learned to live in a different style. With prosperity came security, came a life style that was similar to that of Germans and other Europeans. Turkish couples had fewer children. The majority said goodbye to their original dream of returning and decided instead to stay. In old age they would receive their pensions, in case of sickness or unemployment they would receive social benefits. A unique reliance on the family for survival was no longer a necessity. The Moslems that were less successful in being integrated into German society or adapting to the new life style - basically because of difficulties in finding work - felt comfortable in the Milli Görüs organization that now worked towards establishing a traditional and conservative Islam within the framework of European societies.
But then how do you feel happy in a country far away from home, when you're not in the first row of being asked to work for a good wage? The unemployment rate among immigrants in Berlin is 50 per cent. If German employers prefer Germans among job applicants, Turks will move closer together and prefer Turks in their neighbourhoods. In some districts Turkish only is spoken and the knowledge of German will decline even further. In part Germany has just shown passive tolerance and has looked away. Its past dictates the country not to interfere and to avoid racism at all costs. Yet globalisation and the new international division of labour are factors beyond the control of the German government. Those sectors of heavy and light industry which traditionally offered migrants plenty of work have experienced massive breakdowns. Germany's unemployment rate is at its highest since the Second World War.
Not being able to take part in the society of consumers, the roughly 2200 mosques that now exist in Germany become islands in a sea of unbelievers. They also became self-help organizations. It was an answer to drug problems, delinquency, prostitution and disintegrating families. In spite of a patriarchal approach to problems, mosques also became interesting for women, because they would integrate men into the Mosque societies.
If German citizens of Turkish origin now fight for their rights as Moslems, it is in many ways a sign that they have arrived in Germany and wish to stay. Whoever wishes to return back home to Turkey some day will fight for his or her interests back in Turkey. Whoever wishes to stay in Germany, will fight for their rights in their new home.
Turkey's membership in the European Union is most welcome to several Turkish businessmen in Germany. The Turkish-German chamber of commerce has always been an ardent supporter of Turkish accession and it has put its weight firmly behind Gerhard Schröder, who backs Turkey's membership. From a macro-economic point of view, Germany appears likely to benefit from a further lowering of trade barriers between the EU and Turkey, a market of 69 million people. It is already Turkey's biggest trading partner, with exports of 8.9 billion Euros to the country in 2003, up 18 per cent from 2002. German companies are the biggest investors in Turkey, with a total of 3.4 billion Euros invested since 1980. Many immigrants also show a great willingness to face risks. A survey by the Centre for Turkish Studies at the University of Essen put the number of entrepreneurs of Turkish origin in Germany at 56,800, with their businesses having total sales of 26 billion Euros and 290,000 employees. More of this is needed because there is nothing better than business to smash ghetto mentalities because trade forces people to interact with and understand their neighbours.
Yet the attitude of some Turkish males to their women does not always coincide with German law, nor does it coincide with the way young Turkish men and women choose to lead their life in Istanbul or Ankara. Seyran Ates, a Turkish lawyer, who has been awarded a prize for the work she has done to help Turkish women in Berlin, is angry with Germany' s attitude which has been until recently to disregard the whole problem, wishing to be tolerant. Forced marriages, physical or sexual violence among couples are not compatible with German law. According to a survey carried out among Turkish women, a quarter gets to know their own husband only at marriage, and nine per cent said that they had been forced into a marriage. Seyran Ates almost died after an attempt to kill her in 1984, while she was working in an office that was established to help women in need. The would-be assassin was a Moslem Turk of strong faith, who was associated with a Turkish nationalist association called “Grey Wolves”. She argues: "Why not combine the work permit with certain demands, such as that of a man letting his wife take German language courses?” Seyran Ates asks. "Europe has a right to defend its occidental values with self-confidence!" There are also other voices which proclaim further measures, such as for instance raising the age of a prospective husband or wife migrating from Turkey to Germany to 22 – a measure that was taken in Denmark.
In Turkey itself, where wearing an Islamic headscarf in schools, universities or public offices is forbidden, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his strongly religious Islamic background recently attempted to re-allow women to wear the Islamic head scarf in the above-mentioned places in order to please his pious constituents. But the ban was upheld by the Turkish army and by Turkey’s constitutional court, as well as by the oppositional social democratic party.
One day ahead of the occasion of the International Women’s Day (08.03.2005), Turkish policemen were seen on television screens around Europe to have beaten and kicked women who were demonstrating for their cause. The demonstration had not officially been allowed to take place, yet there was a strong uproar about the policemen’s behaviour. Ever since, the question of women and their rights is being widely debated in public. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan has now spoken up about his ideal of women. “In the old Turkish tradition”, he said, “the woman has always been appreciated as mother and wife, as sister and mistress“. It was no coincidence that there is a saying in Turkey that “paradise lays at the feet of women”. His government’s aim was therefore to strengthen the family bonds. “Once our family structure is undermined, then our future is also endangered”, the head of government warned. “The education of our daughters should be just as important to us as the education of our sons”, he proclaimed at the “International Women’s Day” to members of his Justice and Development party (AKP). He further elaborated that otherwise women would be discriminated against. But discriminating women was even „more primitive than racism“, he said.
In spite of its conservative outlook, Erdogan’s government has initiated a number of reforms in the field of women’s rights. According to the new civil code, the man is no longer officially the head of the family. Women have the possibility to maintain their own surname after marriage. Their vocational training no longer depends on the approval of the husband. The possession acquired in marriage would be shared equally should a divorce come about. In addition, the article 462 that has granted reduced sentences for so-called honour killings has been abolished. Rapists no longer enjoy acquittal if they are prepared to marry their victims. The moderate Islamists are thereby pursuing the path that was once chosen by Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic.
During the German chancellor’s recent visit to Turkey, Gerhard Schröder encouraged Turkey’s reform policies. He spoke in favour of the EU abandoning its policy of isolation and granting financial support amounting to 259 million Euro to the northern Turkish part of Cyprus. The reproach of genocide that many European countries are making against Turkey is another delicate subject matter. The EU Parliament has demanded from Turkey an admission to these historic facts. Turkey itself speaks of 200.000 Armenian victims; other sources say that 1.5 million Armenians were killed while being deported in the direction of Iraq and Syria in 1915. Chancellor Schröder lends support to Prime Minister Erdogan’s proposal to introduce a joint Armenian-Turkish commission of historians to examine the accusations. Here it must be mentioned that Germany is not totally without involvement in this matter, as it is an established fact that it was aware of what was happening within the Ottoman empire at the time, but turned a blind eye to these events in order to secure the continued assistance of Turkey as an ally during World War I. Nevertheless, Germany is in a good position to give advice, as it has understood that the best way to make a new start and to fashion the future in a positive way is to own up to the past and admit mistakes and wrongdoings.
In spite of the tremendous reforms Turkey has undertaken, there is still a certain amount of resistance to Turkish nationals in European countries. In his book about the Germans’ fear of the Turks (“Die Angst der Deutschen vor den Türken”), broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s head of the Turkish language programme, Baha Güngör, has carefully analysed the phenomenon. He points to the many positive aspects and enthusiastically pleads for Turkey to become a member of the European Union. Recently however he has been quoted as saying that Erdogan may be in danger of failing in his policy of pursuing EU membership. The campaign for ratifying the EU constitution in France on May 29th was held with anti-Turkish slogans. “Most Turks today feel mobbed by the European Union. There are more and more demands coming from Brussels and the prospects for being rewarded are getting increasingly smaller,“ Baha Güngör was quoted as saying in a daily German newspaper.
In a globalising world, nations feel pressure to join trade and political pacts. The European Union started out as a free trade zone and built considerable political integration over a period of several decades. The basic idea behind this formation was the reconciliation between former arch enemies. The experience of something that must have looked from the outside as the “collective suicide” of millions of men and women living in Europe during two bloody world wars has propelled the political and economic movement towards this success. 60 years of peace have now made the region attractive to other countries. When nations join with others in a trade or political bloc, they have to overcome excessive nationalism and give up some of their sovereignty. Is Turkey ready to follow this line and submit itself not only to the rights but also to the duties involved in the process? Will it be able to identify with European norms and standards and not regard directions from Brussels as interference in their own internal affairs? It remains to be seen. But Turkey has introduced so many bold and progressive measures towards reaching this goal, that it is certain to get a helping hand from Europe.