Was Turkey Christian in 1999 or in 2005?
By Serkan Demirtaş
With the fatal Charlie Hebdo attack boosting and expanding the scope of ongoing discussions about growing Islamophobia on the European continent, we have started to hear more of a religious-based rhetoric from senior Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
It’s correct and natural for a country like Turkey, with around five million of its citizens residing on the continent, to urge European countries to adopt policies to fight against all sorts of discrimination, including Islamophobia, and to call on them to avoid hate speech against Muslims.
Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s attendance at the massive anti-terror march in Paris was right and meaningful to this end, along with his denouncements of the attack that was carried out by a group of extremist terrorists’ claiming that they killed cartoonists in the name of God.
Since then, however, it has become obvious that the government and President Erdoğan have begun to use this sour incident and its consequences for their domestic political interests through strong language - mostly bashing the West. In their daily, long and comprehensive statements, both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu devote much space to religion-related issues, with plenty of calls for the Islamic world to unite against Western dominance.
Davutoğlu recently said a new public relations campaign would be launched across the world, with the contribution of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), to fight against Islamophobia. Turkey is making Islamophobia into an issue on the international platform with such initiatives - not as the leader of an Islamic world with a population of 1.5 billion people, but as the only Islamic country that still has strong institutional bonds with the Western world, particularly the EU.
It was good to hear from Davutoğlu about his government’s determination to join the EU one way or another in the future, but it was equally weird to hear from Erdoğan that Turkey represented a test for the EU to show whether or not it is a "Christian club." For Erdoğan, if Turkey is excluded from the EU then it will be because of its Muslim nature. But as he said, “It is not important whether they accept us or not. We keep up with our work. We are testing Europe. Will Europe be able to digest and accept Turkey, whose people are Muslims? If you oppose Islamophobia, then you must admit Turkey into the EU.”
This may be a good point for a politician like Erdoğan, who sees the world and world affairs only through a religious prism, without paying attention to simple realities. Turkey’s long journey to EU membership began in the early 1960s with the signing of the Ankara Agreement, which set the legal framework for proposed Turkish membership. As an immature democracy, Turkey could not well improve its ties with the EU until the late 1990s because of - three "full" and one "half" - coup d’états between 1960 and 1999.
Turkey entered into the Customs Union in 1996 and three years later the EU pledged Turkey the status of full membership candidacy. Turkey was not a Christian country at that time. In December 2004, the EU decided to begin full membership negotiations with Turkey on Oct. 3, 2005, after the Erdoğan-led ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had undertaken a series of reform packages for the democratization of the country.
On Oct. 3, 2005, negotiations were launched, in a historical achievement for Turkey, which was still a Muslim country. It was that same Muslim Turkey which opened and provisionally closed the chapter on Science and Research a year later. An additional 13 chapters would subsequently be opened, although a good many of the remaining chapters are under the blockage of the European Commission by Cyprus or France, (citing the Cyprus problem). Still, when the 13 chapters were opened, Turkey was a Muslim country.
So, if Turkey was able to advance the negotiation process in the period between 2005 and 2010, it was because of its improvement in adopting democratic norms through reform packages - not because of the EU’s tolerance toward a Muslim country.
The point that Erdoğan and other Turkish officials neglect to see is that the test is not one-sided. The test that Turkish leadership has been undertaking is for democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Instead of giving European leaders a test, Turkish officials should better focus on fulfilling their promises to the Turkish people to democratize the country.