[Marxism] Pope's visit to Turkey

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 28 09:17:57 MST 2006

NY Times, November 28, 2006
Pope’s Visit to Turkey Highlights Tensions

ANKARA, Turkey, Nov. 28 — Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Turkey this morning 
and held talks with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who 
had finally agreed to meet him publicly just 24 hours before.

Mr. Erdogan greeted the Pope as he stepped off his plane, and then held a 
brief meeting with him at the Ankara airport before leaving for the NATO 
summit in Riga, Latvia, Reuters reported. The Pope remained in Turkey to 
visit religious leaders.

The elaborate last-minute choreography pointed to the deep divide that has 
festered within Turkish society since the foundation of the modern Turkish 
state after the first World War: Should Turkey face eastward, toward its 
Muslim neighbors, or westward, toward Europe?

In the past five years, Muslims here have repeatedly felt betrayed by the 
West. The United States began holding Muslims without charge at Guantánamo 
Bay, Cuba; it invaded Iraq and abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Turkey’s 
hopes of entering the European Union have dimmed. The pope made a speech 
citing criticism of Islam.

Turkey — a democratic Muslim country with a rigidly secular state — is at a 
pivot point. It is trying to navigate between the forces that want to pull 
it closer to Islam and the institutions that safeguard its secularism. 
Turkey’s pro-Islamic government is constrained by rules dictating 
secularism established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s revered founder.

The extremes jostle on Istanbul’s streets, where miniskirts mix with 
tightly tied head scarves and lingerie boutiques stand unapologetically 
next to mosques.

“There are two Turkeys within Turkey right now,” said Binnaz Toprak, a 
professor of political science at Bogazici University.

The pope’s visit falls squarely on that fault line, and highlights a slow 
but steady shift: Turkey is feeling its Muslim identity more and more. The 
trend worries secular Turkish politicians, who believe the state’s central 
tenet is under threat. In late October, a senior officer of Turkey’s army — 
which ousted a government it saw as overly Islamic in 1997 — issued a rare 
warning to that effect.

Others say the threat is overstated, but acknowledge that Turks do feel 
pushed eastward by pressures on their country from America and Europe. A 
poll by the Pew Foundation in June found that 53 percent of Turks have 
positive views of Iran, while public opinion of Europe and the United 
States has slipped sharply.

“Many people in Turkey have lost hopes in joining Europe and they are 
looking for other horizons,” said Onur Oymen, an opposition politician 
whose party is staunchly secular.

It has been more than 80 years since religion was ripped out of the heart 
of the new Turkish state, which was assembled from the remains of the 
Ottoman Empire, the political and economic center of the Muslim world for 
centuries. But the portion of Turks who identify themselves by their 
religion has increased to 46 percent this year, from 36 percent seven years 
ago, according to a survey of 1,500 people in 23 cities conducted by the 
Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an independent research 
organization based in Istanbul. That is a trend that has emerged in 
countries throughout the Muslim world since Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’m here as a Muslim,” said Fatma Eksioglu, who was sitting on the grass 
next to her sister in downtown Istanbul on Sunday at a demonstration of 
about 20,000 people opposing the pope’s visit. She did not belong to the 
Islamic party that organized the gathering, she said, adding, “When it 
comes to Islam, we are one.”

But in a paradox that goes to the heart of modern Turkey, a stronger Muslim 
identity does not mean that, as in Iraq, fundamentalism is on the rise, or 
even that more Turks want more religion in their government. Indeed, the 
number of Turks in favor of imposing Shariah law declined to 9 percent from 
21 percent, according to the survey, which was released last week.

Perhaps the most powerful factor pushing Turks toward the east has been a 
series of bitter setbacks in talks on admission to the European Union. To 
try to win membership, the Turkish government enacted a series of rigorous 
reforms to bring the country in line with European standards, including 
some unprecedented in the Muslim world, like a law against marital rape.

But the admission talks have stalled. And while the official reason 
involves the longstanding Greek-Turkish dispute over Cyprus, most Turks say 
they believe the real reason is a deep suspicion of their country’s religion.

Indeed, in 2002, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, 
said Turkey’s admission to the union would mean “the end of Europe.” 
Nicholas Sarkozy, the French presidential hopeful, has made his opposition 
to Turkish membership a campaign issue. Even the pope, when he was still a 
cardinal in Germany, said publicly that he did not think Turkey fit into 
Europe because it was Muslim. That talk has begun to grate on Turks.

“It hurts me that the E.U. expects Turkey to be something it’s not,” said 
Nilgun Yun, a stylish 26-year-old eating a chocolate muffin in a downtown 
Istanbul cafe on Sunday.

Her position, shared by many of her friends, was simple: “Accept me as I 
am. We are Muslim, and we will remain Muslim. That’s not going to change.”

Mr. Oyman, the Turkish opposition politician, said criticism of his country 
was tougher than ever. “You cannot believe how they accuse Turkey on Cyprus 
and other issues,” he said in a telephone interview from Brussels, where he 
was attending a meeting of European parliamentarians. “Our European friends 
are playing a very shortsighted game.”

The shift has begun to affect trade. While Europe is still Turkey’s largest 
trading partner, business with other neighbors, including Syria, Iraq and 
Iran, has picked up substantially in recent years, said Omer Bolat, the 
head of one of the country’s largest business associations, whose members 
are mostly pro-Islamic. He put the growth at about 30 percent from just 3 
percent in 2000.

“It is risky for a country with respect to foreign policy to have 
dependence on one partner and market,” he said in English, sitting in a 
sleek conference room overlooking a bustling trade fair that showcased 
Turkish goods. “Now Turkey is opening its muscles, its horizons.”

The policies of the Bush administration have deeply worried Muslims, he 
said, before rushing off to speak to the Pakistani ambassador, who had 
arrived at the fair.

“The United States used to be paradigm of freedom and rights,” he said. 
“But since the Republican period, the U.S. policies have been so 
detrimental in Muslim eyes.”

In just four years, Mr. Erdogan has managed to get inflation down to 
historical lows and growth rates to all-time highs. The growing prosperity 
has eased the integration of religious Turks into the country’s secular 
society, which is still suspicious of advocates of Islam, as well as of Mr. 

“This group of people that was more religious has relaxed,” said Ms. 
Toprak, the professor. “They are now visible. They go to restaurants they 
would never have gone; they go to posh shopping malls.”

“It was a struggle to get a piece of the pie,” she said. “Now they have one.”

Even so, the increased religiosity, or at least identification with 
religion, could eventually present a serious problem for Turkish society. 
There are already rumblings. A killing of a judge whose court had ruled 
that a nursery school teacher could not wear a head scarf, even away from 
school, alarmed Turkey’s secularists. Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, head of the 
Turkish Army, has referred to a rising threat of fundamentalism on at least 
four occasions since he took up his position in late August.

Mr. Erdogan’s closely watched government had attempted to limit liquor 
consumption in public places, but later backed down. It also tried to make 
adultery a crime, but relented.

Some Turkish officials play down the possibility of real damage to 
secularism, but say that European suspicion does Turkey no good.

The delay with Europe, for instance, “fans up the disappointment, the 
disillusionment,” said Namik Tan, the spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign 
Ministry. “People say, ‘Why are they doing this?’ ”

That is why public officials, including Mr. Erdogan, have shrunk from the 
visit by the pope, who symbolizes, in the eyes of Turks, a disdain for 
Islam and the unfair exclusivity of the Western club. A cartoon in a 
Turkish newspaper last weekend showed two public officials belly laughing 
at the bad luck of those Turkish officials obliged to meet him. (The senior 
official appointed to be his formal guide has the portfolio of youth and 

But the meetings are happening. Despite growing pains, a neglected Kurdish 
minority in the south, a thin skin for any reference to the Armenian 
genocide, and failure to scrap a law that makes insulting Turkishness a 
crime, Turkey stands out as lively democracy in a larger Middle East 
riddled with restrictions, and its acceptance by the West is a test case 
for others, officials said.

Muslim countries, Mr. Tan points out, are watching.

“Turkey is a beacon for those countries,” he said. “Don’t forget, if we 
fail, then the whole dream will fail.”

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Ankara, and Ian Fisher from Rome. 
Sabrina Pacifici contributed research.



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