Turkey's two faces - one Muslim, one pro-Europe

By Lucy Ashton Middle East Times


Each morning thousands of people flood across the water from Asia to Europe, legally. Most cross by ferry, sitting in their cars or perched on the salt stained rails. Boys and girls, no older than 10 years of age sell Home and Garden, National Geographic or Cosmopolitan to the passengers. At the saloon breakfast bar, orange juice and sandwiches are served whilst a bikini beauty warbles about her lost love on MTV. Apart from the junior vendors, the ferry could be in Venice, Sydney or Liverpool, but the boats are in Istanbul and the passengers are Turkish.

Turkey's identity is unusual. Geographically she straddles the European and Asian continents, but politically she is described as Middle Eastern, or Muslim.

For 40 years, Turkish politicians have considered EU membership a form of Elysian birthright, but Turkey has consistently failed to meet the EU standard.

It fails because of its human rights record, its attitude to the rule of law and the military's interference in politics.

But with the possibility of a Christian-Muslim war in the air, Turkey's chances of becoming an EU member have, in the past year, increased raising the possibility that another 67 million people, mostly Muslim, would be added to the Christian-dominated union.

On the ferry, opinion about Turkey's relationship to Europe was lively but tentative. Twiddling with his tie, a young businessman, Ziya, watched a Russian oil tanker head up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. He was in favor of EU membership he said it would help his cotton business.

"Yes, we need the money and the subsidies, the economy is desperate," he said.

"Since the election, the market has got stronger each day, but then it couldn't really get any worse and still function could it? Access to 400 million people in Europe would make a huge difference to my business. I would be very happy if we were accepted, but until we sort out some of our own problems all we can offer Brussels is a big headache," he admitted.

A neighboring passenger, Hussein chipped in: "The EU is a great idea but not for us," he said.

Hussein is a postgraduate who has recently started a company to export water pumps.

"I studied business and economics in England for two years and I know France and Germany. The EU system just wouldn't work in Turkey it's too rigid."

He said EU rules were not designed for countries like Turkey.

"It just doesn't have the stability or know-how yet," he said.

Hussein's brother, an architect, joined in: "Our politicians are crooks or friends of crooks and the army still oversees our welfare. The politicians buy their seats and then profit from land deals or construction scams," he said.

"Remember the earthquake here three years ago? Thousands died because housing blocks collapsed on their heads, and the builders bribed the safety inspectors.

"Try and implement EU building or safety regulations here," he said, "and the inspectors will be bought off just as they are now."

The architect warmed to his subject.

"This summer lots of laws on human rights were made mainly for the benefit of the people in Brussels. But what happens? With typical Middle East perversity, the new freedoms were then gagged in a foray of restrictive decrees. The new laws are almost useless. So what's the point in wasting all that money on new EU directives and headed notepaper? Why not spend it on schools or hospitals instead?" he asked.

Hussein said the fuss over the EU was a handy diversion for the government.

"If it succeeds, they can congratulate Brussels, and if we are rejected the government can blame the mess on European xenophobia."

On the windward deck of the ferry I found a young woman struggling to keep her long skirt in place as she looked out at St Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

"Culturally Turkey is Muslim," she said, "but it has tried to be European since the Ottomans. Everyone knows that. Istanbul is different to the rest of Turkey, she said.

"It's a pretty cosmopolitan place, but get out of the Western cities and Islamic traditions are strong and slow to change. I'm not suggesting Christian and Muslims can't be unified that wouldn't be very 21st century thinking - but can a Muslim country belong in Europe?"

Talip, who hails from the south east of Turkey, said he liked the influence Europe has had on Ankara.

"I like the EU," he said. "The situation for the Kurds will be better. At the moment the soldiers still arrest us and stop us voting and ruin our villages. I don't want my children to grow up with this.

I don't know why people in Brussels want me to be European, my mother was a Syrian and my father an Iraqi Kurd but I will agree to be anything if they can protect us and give us peace."


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