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Middle East
EU - Turkey


Summary 5
Preface 13
1 Introduction 15
1.1 Background and motivation 15
1.2 Aims, core question and limitations 1 7
1.3 Research approach and structure of the report 18
2 The European Union and religion 25
2.1 Introduction 25
2.2 The values of the Union 25
2.3 Religion in the European member states 29
2.3.1 Mutual autonomy and safeguarding freedoms 29
2.3.2 A European model? 30
2.4 Conclusion 38
3 Turkish Islam and the European Union 45
3.1 Introduction 45
3.2 The secular state: historical foundations 45
3.3 Secular state and political Islam 49
3.4 State-Islam and freedom of religion 52
3.5 Democracy and political Islam 55
3.6 Constitutional state and political Islam 58
3.7 Violence and political Islam 62
3.8 Conclusion 64
4 Conclusions 67
Epilogue 73
Literature 77
Searching for the Fault-Line 83
Survey by E.J. Zürcher and H. van der Linden



Officially, Islam does not play a role in the decision whether to accept Turkey as a member state of the European Union (eu). Yet many people wonder if a Muslim country such as Turkey would really fit into the European Union. Is Turkish Islam compatible with democracy, human rights and the separation of state and religion? The central question of this report, therefore, is whether the fact that the majority of its population is Muslim forms a hindrance to Turkish accession to the European Union.

This report is a full translation of De Europese Unie, Turkije en de islam, that was officially presented to the Dutch government on 21 June 2004 by the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy. The Council is an independent advisory body for the Dutch government which provides sollicited and unsollicited advise on developments which may affect society in the long term (see also: www.wrr.nl).

The question examined in this report is highly relevant, given the decision to be taken by the eu under the Dutch Presidency in December 2004. It will then be decided whether candidate member state Turkey has made sufficient progress towards meeting the so-called political Copenhagen criterion that accession negotiations can commence. This criterion stipulates a stable democracy and a constitutional state that guarantees the rule of law, human rights and the rights of minorities.

Religion as such plays no role in this Copenhagen criterion. The fact that the majority of the Turkish population is Muslim, therefore, played no formal role in the decision taken in 1999 to grant Turkey the status of candidate member. However, especially since the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the concerns in member states about Islam and Muslims have increased. This has contributed to growing doubts over the question whether Turkey’s Islamic character is compatible with the political achievements of the euand its member states. Objections to membership, on cultural and religious ground, have been increasingly raised, even in political circles.

Objective of the report
In light of these recent discussions, the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (henceforth identified by the initials of its Dutch title – the wrr) considers it important to have a separate review of the question whether Turkish Islam is compatible with the values upon which the Union is based. In this way, the wrr hopes to contribute to the formulation of an informed judgement .

In this report, the wrr offers the government no advice on the question whether accession negotiations should now be started with Turkey. The decision that will have to be made in December will have to take full account of all aspects of the membership question. This report makes no such comprehensive assessment; it is confined exclusively to the relationship between Turkish Islam and the democratic constitutional state.

Nonetheless, the wrr, at the end of this report, looks at the possible implications of Turkish membership for the deteriorating relations between the Muslim world and the West.

Religion in the European Union and its member states
In answering the question whether Turkish Islam forms a hindrance to eu membership, we should first determine the position of religion in the eu itself. Religion does not form part of the common eu values. The Union has defined itself as a system of values and actions based on the basic principles of freedom and democracy, as well as a recognition of human rights, fundamental liberties and the rule of law. The freedom of thought, conscience and religion forms an integral part of these basic rights, as does the respect afforded by the Union to cultural and religious diversity.

Viewed from the perspective of the principles and fundamental rights of the Union, there is no a priori reason to exclude a country on the grounds of its dominant religion. However, the question of the separation of church and state is another matter altogether. Behind the principles and the political and civil rights of the Union lies the assumption that its member states have a constitutional state that recognises and guarantees both the autonomy of church and state, and freedom of religion and conscience. The principle of autonomy implies that religious communities and the state each have separate areas of competence. Freedom of religion and conscience means that religious believers (including members of minority churches), atheists and apostates face no restrictions in the exercise of their rights. It is precisely in this area that people harbour doubts about Islam.

Looking at the autonomy of church and state, the situation among eu member states is extremely diverse. Even though all member states are formally secular and recognise freedom of religion, they do not always remain neutral towards religions or religious denominations. For example, some states have a state church and others do not. Even where there is no state church, one denomination may in practice be privileged above others. On the other hand, recognising a state church does not necessarily exclude equal treatment of other churches. Each member state has its own, often tense, history in the relationship between church, state, politics and society, which has resulted in specific arrangements. Thus, on the question the european union, turkey and islam of the separation of church and state there is no single European model against which to test the Turkish experience. The most that can be done is to see whether Turkey meets certain minimum conditions.

Characteristics of Turkish Islam
The next question is whether Turkish Islam has characteristics that stand in the way of the country’s accession. In other words, are there developments afoot in Turkey that would negatively influence the attitude of Turkish Islam towards essential eu values? The wrr’s answer to this question is negative. The Turkish state is constitutionally protected against religious influences. In this respect the country has the same rigorous separation between the state and religion as does France. Indeed, France’s so-called laicism provided the model for the constitution of the Republic of Turkey. However, unlike the French state, the Turkish state still exercises a strong control and influence over religion.

These characteristics have a long history. The nineteenth century was a period of modernisation following the West European example. The French Enlightenment greatly influenced constitutional thinking also in the Ottoman period. Not long after West European states had done so, Turkey established its first constitution and held elections for the first Ottoman parliament (1876). This was followed, until the First World War, by a period of highly religiously coloured nationalism, which was accompanied by much government interference in the contents and the propagation of religious beliefs. The Turkish Republic was established in 1923, and it marked the beginning of the most extreme banning of religious influences on the state. The Kemalist movement, named after the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Pasja (Atatürk), rigorously consigned religion to the private sphere. It banned religious symbols from public life, abolished religious organisations or placed them under state control, and outlawed the popular mystical orders. This period also witnessed the replacement of the last remnants of Islamic law, namely family law, by secular law. Islamic criminal law had already been abolished in the middle of the nineteenth century. After the Second World War, Turkey introduced a multi-party democracy and Islam gradually became a major political factor, even in programmes of non-religious secular parties. In addition, from the 1960s onwards, political parties also emerged that explicitly identified themselves as Islamic.

The wrr considers that the rise of Islam as a politically relevant phenomenon should be seen in the context of its forced marginalisation in the previous decades. This denial of Islamic identity by the upper classes was never shared by the population at large. At the same time, this rise was underpinned by important socio-economic changes in Turkey, such as the development of a substantial middle class in rural areas and in the smaller towns, for whom Islam constitutes a normal part of everyday life. Until now, Islamic parties have been met by profound distrust from the establishment in and around governmental institutions, who identify strongly with Kemalist thinking. Both the Constitutional Court and the armed forces have intervened on several occasions and banned such parties. Since 1982, as a counterweight to the radical left and religious views, the army institutionalised a form of ‘state-Islam’ which still enjoys a privileged position today. This version of state religion combines a strong emphasis on social conservatism and nationalism with a moderate version of Islam and is propagated through mosques and through compulsory religious education in schools. This state-Islam, which is firmly embedded in a secular state system and which reflects the beliefs of the majority of the population and of conservative political bodies, has given recognition to the importance attached to Islam by the broad public.

Finally, the wrr notes that for the new Islamic political parties that were created during the last decade, the principle of the separation of state and religion was an important conditioning factor. However, they attached different consequences to it. Although they accepted the secular state, they also wanted to increase the freedom of religion and therefore opposed the strong government controls on religion. Whilst supporting the existing democratic system, they have fought to make it accessible to religion-based parties. They still consider freedom of conscience and freedom of expression as the basis of democracy and human rights. They have contested neither the secular nature of the law, nor the principle of equal rights for men and women.

While it is possible to view this emphasis on such freedoms as a mere effort to enlarge the legitimate scope for one’s own views, the current government party, the Justice and Development Party (ak Party), which itself grew from a government banned Islamic party, emphasises human rights even more strongly from the standpoint of pluralism. The party intrinsically values differences in religion, culture, and opinions and sees secularism as the principle of freedom that makes their exercise and expression possible.

Conclusion of the wrr
The wrr believes that the fact that Turkey is a country with a majority Muslim population is no hindrance to its eu accession. This conclusion is based on the following considerations.

First, the wrr has established, on the basis of the developments described above and the current characteristics of Turkish Islam, that the principle of the secular democratic state is solidly rooted in Turkish society. Moreover, the european union, turkey and islam the development of the secular state in Turkey shows many parallels with West European history and it was also more or less concomitant. The existence of Islam in Turkey did not stand in the way of these developments but instead, right to the present day, helped to encourage them. The fact that the democratisation process after the Second World War should have been accompanied by the emergence of Islam as an important political force, is a normal phenomenon. When we see the political role still played by religion in many European states, it is not surprising that the Kemalist movement failed to ban religion entirely from the political and public sphere.

However, from an eu perspective the issue of Islam in Turkey is not so much a problem of the influence of religion on the state as a problem of the influence of the state on religion. This is because government intervention in religion is stronger in Turkey than in eu member states, even though some eu countries also recognise a state religion. Moreover, the constitutional restrictions on the democratic process aimed at protecting the secular state system, are incompatible with the principles of the eu. This observation applies equally to the role of the military as a guardian of this system. It is here that the European Parliament and the European Commission would like to see important changes implemented.

Nonetheless, the wrr considers that there is no indication that Turkish Islam will lose its moderate character, and thus endanger the secular democratic state, if state restrictions are relaxed or if the military gradually withdraw from politics, as advocated by the current Turkish government. The great majority of the population wants nothing to do with fundamentalism and religious intolerance and expresses a preference for moderate political parties. They support the secular character of the state and reject any introduction of Islamic law. For these reasons, violent Islamic fundamentalism has few followers in Turkey.

Structure of this report
The first section contains the report of the wrr to the Dutch government. Chapter 1 presents the reason for and the key question of the report. Chapter 2 examines the position of religion in the eu and arrangements that exist within member states governing the relationship between the state, religion, politics and society. Chapter 3 describes developments in Turkey that explain the Turkish position towards the eu’s essential values. In chapter 4, the wrr presents its conclusions. This is followed by an epilogue on the possible implications of Turkish membership for the difficult relationship between the Muslim world and the West. Part 2 of the report contains the survey ‘Searching for the Fault-Line’, commissioned by the wrr, in which prof. dr. E.J. Zürcher and H. van der Linden present their analysis on Turkish Islam and the eu.

The reader who has read the above chapters of this survey, will not be surprised by the conclusions that are drawn below.

We first showed in chapter 2 that Turkish Islam has a long tradition of symbiosis with the state, and that this tradition has given ‘official’ Islam in Turkey a strongly pragmatic and flexible character. Another important characteristic of Islam in Turkey is its wide range of expressions. We have examined this extensively, and have indicated the importance of Turkey’s large Alevi minority, with its adherence to secular and humanist values. We have seen how the large Islamic movements in Turkey that are not tied to the state, overwhelmingly try to combine their faith in modern science and technology with traditional standards and values. This is true for both the classic Dervish orders and for the neo-movements. The fact that these traditional standards and values are seen and experienced as ‘Islamic’, does not mean those movements are fundamentalist. There are truly radical fundamentalist groups in Turkey, but these are marginal. Admittedly, the attitude of the Islamic majority towards Turkey’s minute Christian and Jewish minorities is problematic. However, the fact that religious prejudices are diametrically opposed to the formal granting of equal treatment to all citizens, is not unique to Turkey. The same can be said of the attitude of Europeans to the Islamic minorities in Europe.

In chapter 3, we first tried to answer the question as to what extent Turkey is culturally a part of Europe. We began by concluding that the concept of identifiable civilisation blocs is not workable, and that the borders between civilisations are diffuse and porous. At the same time we stated that Turkey’s modernisation has in effect also amounted to a long period of ‘europeanisation’, and that the legacies of Enlightenment and liberalism have also taken root in Turkey. From this point of departure, we answered the question whether Turkish Islam is compatible with political democracy and with the concept of human rights expressed in the European Convention and the United Nation’s Convention. Analysis of core texts of both official state-Islam and of Islam-inspired political mass movements show unambiguously that this is indeed the case. The documents of the current governing party explicitly refer to these conventions and use European practices as a yardstick. Where propagated values conflict with European values, this usually involves a glorification of the state and the military, and of authority in general, which bears no relation to Islam, even if Islam is used by the state to sanctify such values. In an Islamic context, it is hard to conceive of a complete separation of state and religion. However, it will certainly prove necessary to readjust the message of state-Islam into a more ‘civil’ direction.

It should come as no surprise that both state-linked and non-state linked mainstream Islam in Turkey have a message that is moderate, flexible, and reasonably tolerant. Sociological research into the religious attitudes of the population confirms this picture. If we combine this research with political data such as election results and research into illegal organisations, we can safely conclude that a maximum of 15 per cent of the Turkish population feel attracted to (elements of) fundamentalist thought. Support for such (illegal) movements that also justify the use of violence, is probably very small. In a religious and more general cultural sense, Turkey exhibits a number of characteristics that closely correspond to those present in some parts of Europe.

This is not only understandable from its long history of contact with Europe and the deliberate ambition of the Turkish elite to become European, but also from the characteristics of modern-day Turkish society, with its large and mature urban middle class, political pluralism and strong growth of prosperity. The fact that Turkey’s dominant religion is Islam, not Christianity, does not change this, nor does the fact that it tends to have more in common with countries such as Poland or Greece than with, say, the Netherlands or Denmark. To exclude Turkey on the basis of cultural and religious criteria, as suggested by European politicians and writers who allow themselves to be inspired by Huntington’s ideas, is therefore wrong. Turkey’s alleged un-European character is a construction, based on a very shaky definition of a European or ‘Western’ civilisation, and on a poor understanding of Turkish reality. This is not to say that there are no objections against Turkey’s eu accession. Arguments relating to poverty, migration and the decision-making capacity of European institutions must be taken seriously. This survey does not cover these aspects. It is merely concerned with the argument (unfounded, in our view) that Turkey could not, or should not, become a member because the large majority of its population is Muslim.

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To read the full pdf report, click on The European Union, Turkey and Islam








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