Brutality, poverty and religion stand between Turkey and EU
The Times (London) ^ | September 30, 2005 | Ben Macintyre
Talks on Turkey's membership of the EU are due to begin on Monday, with the issue dividing both the country and Europe. Today, in the first of two articles, our correspondent looks at the case against letting it join
ON A tiny island in the middle of Lake Van, on the far eastern edge of Turkey, a team of architects is working feverishly to restore one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the world for tourism
Holy Cross Church, on Akdamar island, was built by the Armenian King Gagik in AD921 and was once the spiritual focus for more than a million Armenian Christians.
Today there is no one left to worship in it. The entire Armenian population here was killed or driven away by Turks and Kurdish militias during the First World War, in what Armenians claim was the first genocide of the 20th century — a charge vigorously denied by the Turkish State.
For 90 years the church was left to rot. Its frescoes disintegrated as the rainwater seeped in, and its delightful carvings were used for target practice by local gun-toting shepherds.
In the run-up to planned EU accession talks next week, however, Turkey has come under intense pressure to acknowledge its bloody past and improve its treatment of minorities.
Four months ago the restoration work finally began, and today Muslim stonemasons are busily rebuilding this church without a congregation. The scaffolding-clad church is proof that attitudes are changing, but it is also a poignant symbol of how much work — economic, political, cultural and historical — still needs to be completed.
The membership negotiations are expected to take ten years or more, and there is no guarantee that Turkey will ever enter this hitherto white, Christian club, for the idea faces widespread public hostility within Europe. For many, this poor, populous and overwhelmingly Muslim country is simply a different culture, separated from, if not actually inimical to, Europe.
Nowhere in Turkey feels less European than Lake Van, the starkly blue inland body of water on the country’s volcanic eastern edge. At dusk the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, barefoot Kurdish children herd ragged sheep, and a pair of women, ageless and faceless in the all-enveloping burka, trudge through the dust to their mud-brick home.
An hour to the east is Iran; to the south is Iraq, and to the north, beyond Mount Ararat, lie Armenia and Georgia. Ancient, biblical and Middle Eastern, this is the land of Noah; but if Turkey gains admittance to the EU, it will mark Europe’s eastern border.
For many Europeans, that is a step too far. “No to Turkey”, rallies in France cried before the EU constitution was roundly rejected this year. On the shore at Copenhagen, the famous naked Little Mermaid was draped in an Islamic headscarf with a sign reading “Turkey in the EU?”
Turkey’s supporters are quick to point out that Europe is not a race or a religion, but an idea. Yet the image of Turkey as an alien power is deeply embedded in European history.
Indeed, the very concept of Europe was to some extent born out of Christendom’s common cause against the great Muslim empire to the east.
Gladstone, as Prime Minister, expressed the common prejudice against a corrupt and violent Turkey threatening Europe’s very existence: “From the black day they entered Europe, the one great anti- human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went a broad line of blood marked the track behind them.”
As archaic and racist as those ideas seem today, they still have some currency, most notably in those parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire that remember, with an inherited shudder, the Ottoman Janissaries at the gates of Vienna.
Turkey’s critics need not look far to find evidence of cultural and political incompatibility with European norms. Turkey’s military continues to play an important (though reduced) role in the country’s politics, while freedom of speech and other human rights lag far behind the European standard.
Turkey has thrown off the Midnight Express image of official brutality, but the rights and liberties of individuals are still often at the mercy of an authoritarian State. Last year police torture was still widespread, according to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation.
Turkey has made significant reforms in recent years, but critics, including many inside the country, worry that such reforms are skin-deep, a pragmatic shift to gain admittance to Europe rather than a genuine change of heart.
Economically, despite a recent upswing, Turkey remains far behind the poorest EU members, while many fear that an influx of poor Turkish workers could flood European labour markets. Education levels are below those of all European and most Latin American and Asian countries.
Another fear is that Turkey’s addition to the EU would unbalance what is already a fractious organisation, uncertain of its identity and anxious about the future.
By 2010 there will be an estimated 80 million Turks. With population determining voting power, this would give Ankara the same clout as Berlin, Paris and London.
Meanwhile, the running sore of Cyprus remains; Ankara has yet to recognise formally the Greek Government of Cyprus, already a member of the club that it now seeks to join.
The Turkish State remains staunchly secular, yet some argue that bringing millions of Muslims into Europe could provide a springboard for Islamist fundamentalism.
Turkey, after all, was until 1924 the seat of the Islamic caliphate which Osama bin Laden has repeatedly spoken of restoring to its former power. Even Turkey’s most avid supporters agree that Ankara has much more to do before this vast, teeming land straddling Europe and Asia can be ushered into the EU.
Turkey has made progress towards addressing the EU political requirements, but to join the Union it would have to adopt uncountable numbers of laws and regulations, ranging from maritime safety to sewage to food hygiene.
Even if Europe could be persuaded to admit Turkey, it is by no means certain that Turkey will agree to be crushed into the preordained European shape.
Support for joining the EU is falling in Turkey, from three quarters a year ago to two thirds now. Many Turks have taken deep offence at what is seen as foot-dragging by some European countries, and there is a growing body of nationalist and traditionalist opinion, angered by the abrupt changes in Turkish society, that would rather pull out of accession talks altogether than submit to the Brussels straitjacket.
The sense of former imperial glory is as pronounced in Turkey as it is Britain; neither country relishes being told what to do by its former European rivals.
That view is poignantly expressed by Ümit Özdag, a Turkish nationalist politician, who insists that EU membership is an unachievable fantasy because Europe will keep shifting the goalposts.
Yet for many Turks, Union membership remains attainable — and logical. Even in remote Van, there is strong enthusiasm for membership of a greater Europe, based on national pride as much as admiration for Europe.
“We are a young country, we are a growing country, but Europe is becoming old,” declares Celal Basak, my huge Kurdish guide, as we bounce along a rutted track that passes for a road in Van but would dismay any European transport commissioner. “Turkey can help Europe as much as Europe can help Turkey.” Van is predominantly populated by Kurds, who for decades have suffered discrimination at the hands of the Turkish State. Kurds such as Mr Basak believe that EU membership would give his people the autonomy and recognition they have long craved. “I know Europe will end the troubles for my people,” he declares with a grin. “One hundred per cent.”
We are heading for the village known, in Turkish, as Koy. Another former centre of Christian Armenian culture, the Kurds still refer to it as Six Churches.
Turkey’s continued refusal to acknowledge the fate of the Armenians has crystallised much of the opposition to Turkey’s EU membership. This week the European Parliament declared that Turkey must acknowledge the “genocide” before it can be admitted.
Slowly Turkey may be inching towards that point. Yet the State stands by its own version of events, insisting that just as many Turks and Kurds perished in a civil war sparked by Armenian rebels. That view is enshrined in Turkish law, though rejected by most historians.
The acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is today facing prosecution on charges of “belittling Turkishness” for stating that “30,000 Kurds and 1,000,000 Armenians were killed in Turkey”.
The whiff of wilful historical amnesia also hangs over Six Churches, a once magnificent monastic complex in the mountains that is now a ruin.
When I ask the village headman, Mehmet Goban, about the fate of the local Armenians, a chill descends on the warm afternoon. “Kurds and Armenians always lived happily together here. We do not know why they left. We don’t know what happened to them,” he declares, after a long, painful pause.
This wild and tribal land seems a world away from the Brussels of suits and communiqués, where everything is ordered and regulated, including the horrors of history. Whether Turkey comes to terms with its past may decide whether it becomes part of Europe; that decision, in turn, could redefine European identity for the next century.
A thin and beautiful cat picks its way among the lonely stones of Six Churches. Eastern Anatolia, like neighbouring Iran, formerly Persia, is famed for its cats. Indeed, the symbol of the region is the Van cat, a beautiful, lithe creature with a genetic quirk that gives it one blue eye and one green.
As the debate over Turkey begins in earnest, this cat may stand as a symbol not just for Van, but for Turkey itself: with one blue eye trained westward on Europe, and one green eye looking to the East.
Denmark’s Little Mermaid sculpture dons burka
Denmark’s national symbol, the Little Mermaid sculpture perched on a rock at a Copenhagen pier, was draped in a burka and a sash reading “Turkey in the EU?” overnight, Copenhagen media reported Thursday.
The coup, which came as European Union leaders gathered in Brussels to decide whether to launch membership talks with Turkey, was discovered Thursday morning by a Japanese tour guide who arrived with a bustling group. The tourists’ cameras clicked wildly as the tour guide removed the full-body black veil worn by Muslim women in some countries, footage broadcast by Localeyes television showed.
“The Japanese were surprised to see the Little Mermaid veiled, and clicked madly and applauded as she was unveiled and the statue appeared,” Wido Schlichting, who filmed the scene for Localeyes, told AFP. Schlichting was the first person on the scene, having been tipped off by an informant.
The Little Mermaid, one of Denmark’s biggest tourist attractions, is based on the character created by Hans Christian Andersen in an 1837 fairytale. The burka incident is just the latest of a slew of mishaps that have befallen her. In the past 40 years, the 90-year-old mermaid has been decapitated twice, most recently in January 1998 after a 1990 attempt failed. She has had a bra and knickers painted on her, have been entirely covered in paint on more than one occasion, and have had her right arm cut off.
The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross - 921 AD
The Cathedral is significant because it is the only surviving medieval Armenian church in which most of the wall paintings are still intact, although in very poor condition due to neglect by the Turkish state.
The interior walls are covered with frescoes which are contemporary with the sculptural decoratives found on the exterior.
It is the earliest medieval church extant in the Christian art of both the east and the west to be entirely covered with sculptured relief's.
So now the Turks say they going to fix decades of neglect and for what - tourism? Bah! Let's hope they don't make a mess of it like they did with a couple of other Churches where they said they fixed them yet whitewashed off all the frescoes!
You can see in the close-up pictures bullet-holes where this sacred and ancient Church was used for target practice!!!