Who Lost Turkey?

Benedict XVI stood, shoeless, side by side with the Mufti of Istanbul beneath the cavernous great dome of onetime Constantinople's famed Blue Mosque, palms upraised in the traditional Muslim gesture of peace and supplication. What precisely the pope prayed for is a matter between himself and his maker--but surely it involved healing between Christians and Muslims, an issue that has come to define his pontificate and his era.

When prayer becomes a geopolitical strategy, there's a problem. The most immediate: an imminent breakdown of relations between Turkey and the European Union. Not so long ago, it seemed that Europe would overcome prejudice and define itself as an ideology rather than a geography, a way of being in the world rather than a mere agglomeration of nation-states. But that chance is now lost. "Turkey will never be a full member of the EU," predicts British M.E.P. Daniel Hannan. "There's a dawning realization of that reality on all sides."

This is a tragedy--a catastrophe, potentially--of epochal proportions. Europe's engagement with Turkey was a chance to show the world that the West is not incompatible with the East, that a democratic Muslim nation can be just as modern and European as a Christian one. As Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently, what's at stake is nothing less than "world peace, fighting global terror and the clash of civilizations." A European Turkey could have been a model for the rest of the Muslim world, too, playing "constructively the role the Ottoman Empire once played destructively--a bridge between the East and West," argues Egyptian political thinker Abdel Monem Said Aly. Accepting Turkey might well have helped Europe cope with its own issues of Muslim integration and identity. And for Turkey itself the lure of EU membership was a force for social transformation. The nation has come far in recent years; but it still has far to go in jettisoning its authoritarian legacy and creating a democracy that reaches broader and more deeply among its culturally and ethnically diverse peoples.

Now come the recriminations, with fingers pointing this way and that. Indeed, a glittery cast of geopolitical notables gathered just last week in Brussels for a symposium aptly titled, "Who Lost Turkey?" EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has worked hard to avoid what he has called a "train wreck," long seen coming but difficult to stop. The proximate causes are numerous as they are petty, from bickering over Cyprus to a vote by the French Parliament criminalizing denial of Armenian "genocide" at the hands of the Turks in 1915. The rift isn't formal yet, as the EU will likely opt for only a face-saving partial suspension of negotiations after a deadlock on Cyprus failed to be resolved last week. But it takes no special reading between the lines to see that a fundamental tipping point has been reached. Late last week Cyprus threatened to "veto" Turkey's entire bid. French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, kicking off his campaign, also called for the suspension of further talks. "Turkey's place is not in the EU," said he.

Officially, politicians in Ankara insist that they will plod on regardless. "There is no Plan B," says Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. "Our goal is to continue on the same road" toward EU membership. Yet in truth, with the EU as a guiding light, Turkey now risks careering off on an entirely different geopolitical trajectory, the direction and consequences of which can only be guessed at. Indeed, attitudes are already changing. A recent poll in the newspaper Milliyet shows support for joining the EU has fallen to just one third, down from 67 percent in 2004. If they don't want us, the prevailing sentiment goes, we don't want them. Europeans, meanwhile, are doing some devaluing of their own. Said Rehn last week: "Turkey's strategic importance should not be exaggerated."

Now what? Gul and others may speak of "business as usual," but European pressure has been the catalyst of a host of vital reforms in recent years that no internal Turkish political force could ever have accomplished. They range from reducing the role of the military in politics to granting cultural rights to the country's 14 million Kurds. Without the gravitational pull of EU membership, will these changes continue? Or will the ethnic, religious and cultural wars that have long raged beneath the surface of the Turkish republic finally erupt in earnest?

The visit of the pope, a deeply controversial figure in the Islamic world, has exposed the deepest of these: tension between secular Turks and Islam. Ever since the founding of the Turkish republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by Gen. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's rulers have looked to the secular West rather than the more religious East. With the election of the mildly Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party in 2002, however, that line has been blurred.

A recent study by Bosporus University found that more Turks are defining themselves by their religion these days than by their nationality; 45 percent said they were "Muslims first" (up from 36 percent in 1999) and 19 percent said they were "Turkish first" (down from 21 percent). Erdogan has taken pains not to push overtly Islamist policies--for instance, he's studiously avoided repealing Turkey's draconian law banning Islamic headscarves from government offices, schools and universities. But he sent his daughters to be educated abroad, in the United States, rather than have them remove their headscarves at a Turkish university, and in 2004 tried (but failed) to introduce a controversial law prohibiting adultery.

Erdogan's engagement with the Middle East is no less worrying for Turkey's secular elite, particularly the generals who see themselves as the guardians of Ataturk's modernizing (read: antireligious) values. He is the first Turkish leader in years who's deliberately looked East as well as West, making reform in the wider Islamic world almost as much a priority as Turkey's EU project. A devout Muslim--he recently passed out in his car during October's Ramadan fast because of low blood sugar--Erdogan has campaigned for global Islam to reinvent itself. In 2004 Ankara helped to wrest control of the Organization of the Islamic Conference from conservative Islamists and backed a worldly Turk, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, as secretary-general. Last week Erdogan told an OIC session in Istanbul that women are "the most productive part of society," and that they were discriminated against in Islamic societies because of "traditions portrayed as religious rules."

That's revolutionary stuff, at least within the traditionally conservative Muslim world. But back home, Erdogan's crusading rhetoric has played into the hands of potential enemies, many of whom suspect him of being a crypto-fundamentalist and aim to use the failure of his EU bid to stop both him and his reform programs. As support for the EU wanes, so Turkish ultranationalismrises. According to a confidential AK Party poll earlier this year, more than 20 percent of first-time voters support the chauvinist Nationalist Action Party, or MHP. Its leader, Devlet Bahceli, complained last week that "the EU project is a treacherous plan designed to weaken, divide and disintegrate Turkey," and he vowed to undo "anti-Turkish" human-rights legislation (such as freedom of speech) pushed by Brussels.

A nationalist backlash could prove especially ugly at a time when the aspirations of Turkey's 14 million Kurds have been raised by half a decade of rapid (though still incomplete) liberalization. Recent unrest flaring in Turkey's southeast saw a score of towns and villages across the region wrecked in riots that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. And the consequences for Cyprus would be nasty, too. Already there has been talk from the opposition of absorbing the Turkish northern part of the island into Turkey itself, which would put an end to efforts to reunite the island for generations--and, of course, deliver a death blow to Turkey's lingering EU aspirations.

Perhaps most dangerous of all, Turkey's generals--the "pashas"--are becoming more vocal after years of relative silence. This year they've blasted Brussels for promoting dangerously liberal reforms from broadcasting in Kurdish to the right to nonmilitary national service. (Though, in truth, their real concern is undoubtedly the EU's insistence that the military stay out of politics.) "The Turkish armed forces will never turn a blind eye to the basic values of the Turkish republic for the sake of the EU," stormed naval forces commander Adm. Yener Karahanoglu in September. Meanwhile, there is evidence of an unholy alliance between ultranationalists and anti-EU elements in the Army, some of whose members have been implicated in attempted extrajudicial killings of Kurdish activists.

The stage is set for a showdown between the military and Erdogan next May as the AK-dominated Parliament selects Turkey's new president. The choice is entirely Erdogan's, thanks to his control of the legislature. Some speculate he will take the post himself--a move likely to infuriate Turkey's secularist bureaucracy, judiciary and military, who suspect him of harboring a hidden Islamist agenda and cannot forgive him his past as a leader of the radical Islamist Welfare Party, banned in 1997. Erdogan himself was jailed four months for sedition as recently as 1999.

Perhaps things are not as bleak as they appear. The collapse of Turkey's EU bid may sharpen the country's internal ethnic, religious and political divides--but that does not necessarily mean they will erupt into open conflict of the sort that, most recently in 1997, prompted the country's military to step in. And while the mutual disillusionment between Turkey and Europe may be deep, Turkey remains more Western, in terms of culture and economics, than it has ever been before. From this it will not retreat. "Turkey's place is in Europe; any talk of 'alternatives' is just talk," says former ambassador Ozdem Sanberk. And yes, Turks may be turning more religious. But those same polls from Bosporus University also show that support for purely religion-based political parties has fallen, from 41 percent to 25 percent, over the past seven years. In other words: religion yes, but religion-based politics, no. Meanwhile, another sign of the times: while more people now favor scrapping the longstanding ban on wearing headscarves in schools and public offices, the number of Turkish women actually wearing them has dropped from 16 to 11 percent over the past seven years.

Whatever the outcome, Turkey's struggle is going to have serious repercussions. Europe's alienated and angry Muslim minorities, for instance, will hardly be encouraged to come to terms with Western culture if Europe sends a clear signal that Turks cannot be full Europeans. And in the wider Middle East, Turkey's growing role as a model will be undermined by a break with Brussels. "Middle Easterners' disillusionment with the failures of Arab nationalism and the extremism of fundamental Islam is making them reassess the Turkish route," says Hugh Pope, a writer on regional affairs. "More and more opinion leaders see hope in what appears to be Turkey's successful synthesis of Islam and modernity." Will that leadership evaporate if Turkey fails to join the European club?

Many strategists in Washington--and not just neoconservatives--fear that an EU-Turkey split will resonate through the Muslim world as a major geopolitical defeat for Western values. "Turkey is to the West what Germany was in the cold war ... a frontline state," former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke told EU Commissioner Rehn at the "Who Lost Turkey?" symposium. Turkey's progress "is keenly watched" by its neighbors, acknowledges Foreign Minister Gul. "We have been a rare beacon of stability in an inherently turbulent region."

Will that beacon flicker and die without the EU? "The government can't turn its back to the EU," says one Erdogan foreign-policy adviser, who is not authorized to speak on the record. "And the EU cannot turn its back on Turkey." The two sides have too much in common to split completely. Rather, there's the makings, long term, of an entente. Europeans already talk of a special partnership, short of membership. Turkey has said it will never settle for that, but we'd best hope for some accommodation. Everyone is poorer for the failure of vision that has scuppered one of the great civilizational projects of our times.