I’m a bit of a Turcophile, as many of you are aware. That’s why I read this post by Arianna Hufffington’s ex-husband with interest. A friend of mine, who is also a bit of a Turcophile sent me the link. We had an interesting discussion via email and I’ll append his thoughts at the bottom of the post. Needless to say, he disagrees with me to a certain extent.
As to Huffington: he makes some good points, but overall the tone is such that he cannot separate the Turkish Islamists from the Turks. And that is unfortunate. Michael Huffington writes:
Last night on 60 Minutes there was a 14-minute segment about Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). It was an honest look at religious freedom (or lack thereof) inside one of America’s military allies. It is a story that should be seen by the leaders of the free world as well as people of faith.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of 300,000,000 Orthodox Christians (of which I am one) is similar to the Pope of the Catholic Church. And yet he is a treated as a second-class citizen in his own country where he was born. The Orthodox “Vatican” is called the Phanar and it is located on less than an acre of land in the city of Istanbul. There have been so many threats of violence that they have had to use barbed wire and cameras to protect the priest inside the property. The last century has seen the Orthodox Christian population diminish from 2,000,000 in 1900 to less than 4,000 in all of Turkey today. Most were forced out. Yet this geographical area of the world was mostly Christian a thousand years ago.
First, a little reality check. There very well may be 300,000,000 Orthodox Christians in the world. At least many of them are nominally Orthodox, in such post-Communist places as the Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation? But, it must be remembered, the Orthodox Church is semi-autonomous, the separate national churches like the Russian or the Bulgarian or the Greek don’t take their marching orders the way Catholics do the Pope. The idea that there are 300,000,000 pious Orthodox in the world is fanciful, at best.
Furthermore, there was a vibrant community of Nestorian Christians in Central Asia all the way to China—the mother of the the Great Khan Mongke was a Nestorian for that matter—and in China there was a bishop, in the Middle Ages. Should we be poking our noses in their business as well, trying to resurrect the faith there too? I make this point, not to invalidate Huffington’s point about religious freedom. I simply make it to point out the absurdity of worrying about a religion that began dying out in Anatolia almost a thousand years ago (1071AD) and finally did so in the last century.
Over the past 20 years, Turkey has been trying to gain admittance to the European Union. Turkey is not a European country. Most of its land mass is in Asia Minor. It is not ethnically, socially, culturally or religiously European. Yet the U.S. government (especially under President George W. Bush) has lobbied the Europeans forcefully to admit Turkey into the EU because Turkey is our military ally, and the American military and political establishment didn’t want them falling into the Russian or the Iranian sphere of influence.
Couple of different issues at play here. Yes, Turkey has been trying to gain admittance for quite some time. And the Euros would have been wise to have accepted Turkey 15 years ago. This would have forced the secularists in government to change the economy for the better. And it was a huge missed opportunity, if Europe truly cares about Turkey remaining secular. Here’s what happened instead. The Turks grew disillusioned with the secularists and voted for the soft-shoe Islamists to run the country and economy, making what I would call a Faustian bargain, hoping they would fix the economy and not impose their brand of religious politics along with it.
The Turks got an exceptionally strong economic recovery, as I documented during my time there. But they also got the Islamist baggage along with it. And now that the economy threatens to head south in light of the global financial crisis, the Turkish Islamists are using the culture war card to stay in power.
This is a shame. It is also worrisome. Just look at the power the culture war has over the American imagination.
Now, as to Huffington’s contention that Turkey isn’t a European country. Well, a good 15% of the landmass sits in Europe. So does Istanbul. Of course, that’s easy to dismiss. But what isn’t is this: Turkey has been an integral partner in the European state system since the French allied with the Turks several hundred years ago to outflank the Hapsburgs. So, feel free to dismiss Turkey as an “Asian country.” But let’s not forget history.
I visited Istanbul in 1972, and Ankara in the 1980′s when my company had an office there. The Republic of Turkey was founded less than a century ago by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on October 29, 1923. His government changed the local culture from an Islamic dominated society into one that was modern, democratic and secular. One of the major changes was that women were given the right to vote. They were also given the freedom and encouraged not to wear the veil. But today Turkey is returning to its Islamic traditions under the government of Prime Minister Erdogan who took office in 2003. He belongs to the Justice and Development Party which was founded by former members of an Islamist political party. Whereas I never saw women wearing the long black burqas during my visits, I did notice in the 60 Minutes segment that women are now doing so. (Under the Shah of Iran burqas were banned by law, but under the law of the Islamic Republic of Iran they are required.) Will that someday happen in Turkey also?
What Huffington describes is terribly, terribly true. As you are all aware, I have a very difficult relationship with hejab—defined loosely as Islamic dress for women. And hejab in Turkey is just a symbol of the creeping Islamism in the country. Alcohol has been banned in many places in Istanbul for Turks. (Of course, for an economy that derives a quarter of its GDP from tourism, foreigners can still drink to their hearts content.) The freedom of the press in the country has been losing ground for a decade. You Tube is unavailable in the country. Instead they have a what is called, “Turktube,” or some such. Evolution is being challenged in the public schooling system. Honor killings happen more than most will admit. Harassment of key secular intellectuals and artists. I could continue but the point is that the Islamists are pushing the outer boundaries of Turkey’s secular past for the worse.
Now, to Huffington’s other comment: could Turkey go the way of Iran? Not any time soon, because the civic space is still very vibrant and filled with the secularists. But they are losing ground. Were the economy really to head into a tailspin? Perhaps. The larger point is to remember what I wrote when I was out East near Lake Van: I really felt like I was in Iran already. Less than 10% of the women were uncovered. Worrisome, indeed.
It is clear that Turkey is a different place than it was in 1987 when it originally made its application to accede into the EU. If Turkey were ever allowed to join the European Union, the consequences would be reminiscent of those that happened to the city of Troy when it allowed the Trojan Horse inside its fortified walls. The Muslim culture would ultimately dominate Christian and secular Europe. As can be seen in Turkey today that country does not welcome or protect other religions within its borders. They have seized Orthodox Church properties, closed churches, monasteries and schools. If one walks with a priest down the streets of Istanbul it is not a comfortable feeling. Many priests will change out of their church clothes and wear business suits once they leave the confines of the Phanar. This is not religious freedom as we know it in the west. While we welcome people of all faiths in America we cannot be so naïve as to expect all countries to do the same. But we cannot allow their cultural mores to snuff out our religious freedoms or the freedom of women to have equal rights.
This is where I get off the Huffington bus. He’s engaging in the whole, “Muslims are going to take over Europe” concern trolling here. Nonsense. As I have repeatedly stated in posts about Iran and Turkey: the best way to counter the Islamists is to engage them and play their own game. Tell Turkey, sure, you can join the EU, but remember, hejab in the EU is a no-no. You don’t like it, too bad. Moreover, religious tolerance is a key virtue in the EU and a fundamental aspect of the acquis communitiare, and if you can’t ratify that, well, you’ve got no chance of joining the EU. The bottom line here is that the EU has leverage over the Islamists in Turkey it’s too pusillanimous to use.
France and other European countries rightfully have serious and well-founded reservations about admitting Turkey into the EU. If Turkey were admitted any Turkish citizen could travel, work and reside in any EU country because they would no longer need a visa. There are Islamist fundamentalist in Turkey as there are in Iraq, Iran, Egypt and other Muslim countries. This would be a security nightmare. The American Administration should butt out of this issue and let the Europeans make their own decisions.
Clearly Huffington has been huffing some glue here. Yes, of course, there are Islamists in Turkey. But not of the virulent al Qeada type. Please. Are there terrorists? Yup, sure are. But they are Kurds. A people who speak an Indo-European language who value secularism just as much as the secular Turks and Europeans do. Again, the Kurdish issue is more leverage the EU could and has used. But I do agree with Huffington in that the US should butt out.
This brings me back to the interview with Patriarch Bartholomew. At the end of the interview the Patriarch says that he feels crucified in his own country. It is clear that over the last century the church has been crucified in that there are only 4,000 Orthodox Christians left out of a population that totals 72,000,000 people. In the Bible Luke 9:5 says “And whosoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet for a testimony against them.” It is probably past time for the Patriarchate to leave its homeland. The Turks have made it unbearable to live and work there. There are many other countries in this world that would welcome the Patriarch and the several dozen priests that remain. And why should the next Ecumenical Patriarch of 300,000,000 souls have to be a Turkish citizen just because the Turkish government “won’t allow” any other citizen of any other country to hold that position? A government should not hold a veto right over the spiritual leader of any religion. Orthodoxy will grow faster and more soundly if its roots are planted in nourishing soil. After all Jesus Christ did not stay in Jerusalem or Bethlehem for most of his ministry. He had no physical house or building to live and work in. Instead he wandered the countryside meeting all who wanted to listen.
I agree. The Patriarchate would be better off in Greece. Will it happen? Probably not. It would be a serious blow to the Turks internationally if the Patriarchate announced it was leaving. But if it did, it might force the Turkish Islamists into a nasty little corner, one the secularists could capitalize on.
I’ll let my friend have the last word here. He’s much more positive than I am about Islamism in Turkey:
On the topic of Turkey, I’m less concerned than you are, but keeping a very watchful eye on things. Yes there is harassment, which is not good, buts its unclear to me to what degree this is being done by isolated but vocal fundamentalists, part of a broader movement, supported by the Erdogan government (directly or indirectly) and so on.
Like you, I know and have had conversations with a range of people in Turkey. My general feeling is that while Erdogan’s government is introducing religion into the government its happening in a way that is different than the religious fundamentalists here or elsewhere in the Middle East. While it may seem similar I think that something different is happening, that at least so far, does not raise the same alarms for me as elsewhere. Of course I could be smoking crack, but it feels different to me.
Having said that, I also don’t think that Ergogan can take things very far. Both the military and the “deep” government (there’s a word for the permanent part of the Turkish government that I’m blanking on at the moment) control too many levers of power and will not permit much movement on the issue. As such I suspect that introduction of religion into Turkish society and government will be more superficial than all encompassing. Enough to sate the majority of the vocal supporters while leaving the real crazies disappointed, think abortion clinic bomber types.