- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Since the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, secularism and the Kurdish national identity have been extremely sensitive issues. And since September 11, the restlessness in Turkish society about these issues, which should have been resolved long ago, has been exacerbated by increased threats along the country’s borders that further complicate the trouble. As a result, Turkey finds itself in what is arguably the most crucial turning point in its history.

Last week, President Bush stressed these two important points when he and Turkish President Abdullah Gul appeared before the cameras after their White House meeting. “I think Turkey sets a fantastic example for nations around the world to see where it’s possible to have a democracy coexist with a great religion like Islam,” Mr. Bush said. “I view Turkey as a bridge between Europe and the Islamic world. … It’s in the interest of peace that Turkey be admitted into the EU.”

Former Turkish Ambassador Faruk Logoglu said he thinks Mr. Bush’s statement is positive, but lacks a critical point that calls into question whether the United States is sincere in supporting Turkey’s membership in the European Union. “While [Mr. Bush] was referring to democracy [in Turkey], I believe the thing that was missing in the statement was him not emphasizing secularism,” Mr. Logoglu said. Since Mr. Bush’s first term, he explained — when then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called the members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) “moderate Islamists” — in their view, there exists in Turkey both a democratic system of government and an Islamic state as well.

When First Lady Laura Bush hosted a tea party for visiting Turkish first lady Hayrunnisa Gul, however, Mrs. Bush knew she was talking to a Muslim first; Mrs. Gul’s head is covered and she dresses in the Islamic style. However, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father, opposed anything that set his people apart — which is why he made external expressions, like the way people dress, so important. Yet, there’s an image of Turks in the European Union — an image created by many Turkish immigrants who have taken their headscarves and Islamic-style dress with them when they’ve gone to live in various European countries.

That’s significant, and while Mrs. Gul has been their face at the White House, “Europe, like many societies, largely defines its identity by who is not us,” explained Professor Catherine J. Ross of George Washington University Law School. “Who we are is defined by who is the ‘other’ — and Muslims and Turks fulfill that role.” Speaking about secularism and Islamic identity in Turkey at American University Law School, she raised the example of Turkish immigrants in Germany drawing parallels with their educational and economic status. “[T]he teaching of religious classes in the public schools in Germany and how Turks have not assimilated there is very important,” she said. Then she opened this question to debate: If Turks are “[f]ree to wear veils to school … have they in some way been misled by the fiction… that it would be a positive thing to go public with their religion in a way that [could] actually backfire, as it may diminish their chances of assimilation and success?”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has raised yet another question. He says he needs time to “find the ways and means to create a European Islam.” And while it’s difficult to agree with all of Mr. Sarkozy’s criticism on Turkish membership in the EU, his point deserves to be underlined. Evidently he needs time because Europeans are not convinced that Turks have built a “contemporary Islam.”

Ataturk’s definition of “secularism” is viewed by traditionalists as a kind of destiny in itself, and they deem it as a form of atheism. On the contrary, like the founding fathers, Ataturk was a deist, who believed in God, but that God maintains no relation in determining people’s faith. That’s why he prioritized science and wisdom to traditionalist religious faith. Therefore, the larger debate should not be about Islamists or Islamist rooted government in Turkey, but the report card of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Like the numerous economic crisis that Turkish people have suffered, it’s that failure that threatens secularism in Turkey.

Finally, Professor Feruz Ahmad of Yeditepe University in Istanbul points out a trend that has been growing since the AKP came to power: When a male Islamist marries, his wife stays home — and that could be a problem. Recently, the Turkish media reported a ridiculous claim that working women become “adulterers” — surely a message to Islamist men that they should keep their women at home. Quite simply, it is not the headscarf but what is underneath — the culture that it represents — whether traditionalist Muslims can build a contemporary society is being questioned.

One can only hope that Mr. Bush sides with Mr. Sarkozy on the need to create a “contemporary Islam” — which means an active observance of secularism that denies “political Islam” — and to better address the challenges of the future.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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