REMEMBER THE WOODEN HORSE OF TROY? Ancient Troy, as the current Brad Pitt movie reminds us, was situated in modern Turkey, across from Gallipoli on the Dardanelles (those straits that help link the Aegean Sea with Black Sea). The Greek adventurer Odysseus and his friends tricked the Trojans into allowing the famous wooden horse full of soldiers into the enemy camp. Hence the expression, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!’
Next month, European Union leaders are set to make an historic decision to invite Turkey to begin EU membership talks. Some are afraid that Turkey’s entry will be a Trojan-horse-in-reverse, allowing Islam an unprecedented official entry into what has been until now basically a ‘Christian’ club. History’s battles, for example, at Vienna’s gates in 1683, will have been fought and won in vain, some say, if now the gates of Europe are opened wide by our politicians to Turkey ‘s Islamic millions.
So, should we now be wary of Turks bearing gifts?
Talks over the last few weeks with Turks in Holland, Turkish Christians in Turkey and western Christians in Turkey-and a little background reading-have cautioned me not to assume this is yet another diabolic plot to overthrow the last vestiges of Europe’s Christian heritage. In fact, I suspect there just might be some grander divine purpose behind this historic development.
Two things are very clear. Firstly, unlike the famous wooden horse, Turkey will not be admitted overnight within the EU city walls. The process is likely to last at least a decade, perhaps a decade and a half. That could put us into 2019! And secondly, almost everyone I’ve talked to agrees the process so far has been a very healthy influence on Turkey, as the nation strives to meet the Copenhagen Criteria for starting the membership talks.
I’m not yet persuaded that full membership in the long run is necessarily the best for Turkey or for Europe. But I am convinced that Turkey is undergoing fundamental changes that promise to be far-reaching, not only within that nation but also with knock-on effects further east. I’ve become more aware of the uniqueness of Turkey’s situation in the world today. And also of how unhelpful some of the stereotypes are that we Europeans have of the Turks. To understand where Turkey may be in ten or fifteen years’ time, we need to get a little historical perspective on how much has changed in recent years, and therefore where it is headed as a nation.
Actually the process of EU membership has already dragged on for over forty years. An association accord was signed in 1963, giving no guarantee of membership, but raising expectations that if all conditions were met, Turkey would one day become a member. However, the 1974 invasion of Cyprus and several military coups stalled any real progress up until the turn of the millennium.
But the recent spurt of reform measures in response to the dangling carrot of EU requirements has finally led to a European Commission recommendation for membership talks to begin. Only two of the 25 heads of EU governments are presently in public disagreement with this recommendation: Cyprus (so-what-else-is-new?) and Slovakia.
Still, the prospects of a country that is 99% Islamic getting the green light on December 17 has alarmed Christians and secularists alike across the continent. The Vatican warns of Europe’s ‘cultural richness’ being threatened. The French prime minister-seemingly at odds with his president-asks if Europeans really want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism.
But what do we mean by 99% Islamic? And why should an Islamic nation want to align itself with western ‘Christian’ nations in the first place?
How deep is Turkish Islam? True, most country dwellers are strongly influenced by the local imam. But they also practice folk Islam – or rather, plain ol’ pagan superstition. The whole nation reads their fortune in their coffee cups, I’m told (no worse, of course, than western preoccupation with horoscopes). Especially in western Turkey, fasting during Ramadan is very lax, and the emphasis is more on the feasting each evening. Many a sultan has been more passionate about women and drink than his muslim obligations. Like western churches, mosques are often empty, and imams talk of setting up internet cafes in the prayerhouses to attract more ‘clients’.
Millions of Turks belong to the Alevi, a more secularised sect who don’t attend mosques, and who drink alcohol and worship trees. One group of Christians reaching out to this sect reported great openness as they prayed for Alevi at a pilgrimage site this summer. The Provincial Police Chief even visited their prayer stand and received a New Testament. He then invited the Christians to his office for tea. At the police station, they sipped tea with some police officers who had arrested them five years ago, and tried to deport them. The police chief admitted, ‘Yes, human rights have certainly changed in Turkey!’
Turkey is searching for her identity. What role does Europe want to play in shaping that identity? One western friend told me how an Ankara taxi driver, remarking on his good Turkish, had asked if he had become a Muslim. My friend answered, ‘No, I haven’t. And frankly, I haven’t met many real Muslims here.’ ‘You’re right,’ said the taxi-driver. ‘We came here from Asia a thousand years ago and became Muslims on the way. But we failed. Then 75 or so years ago we tried to become Europeans, but we failed at that too. We don’t know what we are.’
This comment referred to efforts by the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atat√ºrk, to coax his nation into the twentieth century after the First World War. Atat√ºrk-whose image adorns almost every public square in Turkey like Lenin’s used to in Russia-replaced the Arabic alphabet with the Latin, brought the mosque under state control, banned the fez and the headscarf in public institutions, encouraged mixed dancing and turned Turkey into the only secular state in the region. The nation’s constitution was modelled along French, Belgian and Swedish examples.
Yet for decades, secular Turkey has lacked the basis for a responsible democratic society – an active middle class who accept responsibility to participate at every level of the democratic process. When the Greek and Armenian Christian minorities were expelled early last century, Turkey lost its traditional middle class along with many other skills. Atat√ºrk had to train up new welders: no Muslim could be found who could weld two pieces of metal together!
With a largely rural population (40% of Turks are still farmers), and a literacy of only 7% in 1923 when the republic was declared, effective democracy was not deemed feasible. The army (probably rightly) believed that a democratic election would have voted control to the imams who in turn would have instituted sharia law, thus replacing democracy with a form of theocracy. Hence the repeated coups almost every two decades.
Today, that has changed and the army has stepped back out of the limelight. The paradoxes of Turkey’s unique situation today are personified in Prime Minister Erdogan (say, ‘Erdoan’). A devout believer, he heads the conservative Islamic Party for Justice and Development. Only six years ago he was imprisoned for mixing religion with politics, by citing a poem describing minarets as bayonets. Yet he sees the future in democracy and pluralism. As such, he has steered reform in many areas of society, passing laws guaranteeing rights for women, Kurds and others. As a conservative, he has been able to bring traditionalists along with these reforms. Some compare him to Nixon going to China. Government critics openly praise these changes, saying that the past two years have seen more change than the previous 80 years. Yet, some warn, it’s one thing to change the law books; it’s another to implement them locally.
The bottom line as I see it is that Europe’s
influence right now on Turke
y is very positive. Some are rightly afraid of liberal European influences, enforcing acceptance of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia. But insofar as Europe’s influence represents biblical notions of respect for our fellow humans, Turkey is being ‘discipled’ positively. And we should also ponder the possible long-terms effects of a changed Turkey on her eastern neighbours – surely a preferable option to the current efforts at democratising Iraq.
We need also to consider the new opportunities democratic freedoms are bringing for the fledgling evangelical church. Ten years ago, there were barely 1000 believers. Today that has more than tripled, and some project 10,000 within a couple of years. In a country of 70 million, that’s still a very small minority. But never in Turkey’s history has there been such growth.
And what if the EU said ‘no’? This would be a severe setback to the drive towards reform. Incentive for further change would be lost and some suggest radical elements would gain influence, resulting in a less stable, xenophobic, hot-bed of fundamentalism and terrorism. Perhaps. It’s a pity the choice is presented as a binary decision. This is a set up for disappointment in a shame-base culture. Some of my contacts have wondered if there was not a third option, recognising that full membership in the EU may not be the very best for Turkey. Was there not a special broker-nation status that would recognise Turkey’s unique place in the world, bridging west and east, Christian and Muslim, Middle East, Central Asia and Europe?
Whatever the decision next month, let’s not be so afraid of Turks bearing gifts. They’re our neighbours. And Jesus said we should love our neighbours.
Till next week,
Till next week,