Turkey and Religion; included or excluded in the EU?

Prime Minister Rutte and Prime Minister Erdogan in debate. Fotocredit: ANP.
Prime Minister Rutte and Prime Minister Erdogan in debate. Fotocredit: ANP.

Today’s post shows Ella Sebamalai’s reflection on Turkey’s accession to the EU. On the one hand she reflects on religion and  secularism as part of the public debate, on the other hand she also illustrates the consequences of specific perceptions.

In a crisis custody case between the Dutch government and a Turkish migrant family in the Netherlands, the child protection organisation decided to place a neglected son in a foster home in the early 2000s. Whereas the placement of children in foster families is, unfortunately, not an odd practice of the child protection organization, this time they decided to place boy with a Dutch lesbian couple. The child, Yundus, has turned 9 years old in the mean time and has lived with the foster family for almost all of his life. Nevertheless, this did not stop the mother from an emotional outrage on Turkish national TV, two weeks ago. In her story, she emphasized that it is very problematic that her biological son is staying with a lesbian couple in the Netherlands.

Since then, both Dutch and Turkish media have illustrated stories and opinions about the situation with emphasis on the increasing disappointment among parts of the Turkish population. More specifically, it was underlined that Turkish individuals interviewed in Turkey vocalized their disagreement with the fact that a Turkish Muslim boy was placed with a Dutch lesbian couple. To their understanding it is not right and not coherent with Muslim norms and values to place this boy with a gay couple. Meanwhile, both the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte and the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan have expressed their opinion on the situation. On the one side, Erdogan stresses that is unacceptable that a Turkish Muslim boy was placed with a gay couple while on the other side, Rutte explains it is unacceptable that Turkey interferes with a national situation that falls under the authority of the Dutch government and Dutch child protection services.

While both Dutch and Turkish media represent the bickering between the two countries on this topic, there is only little attention for the fact that Turkey decided to make public statements at all. In fact, Erdogan has expressed religious discourse in his public statements about the situation that in turn illustrates the religious foundation in the governance of the state. By approaching the situation with an emphasis on the religious affiliation of the Turkish family, Erdogan shows the importance of religion for the Turkish state. More specifically, I wonder what consequences this will have for the self proclaimed ‘secular’ state that wants to be part of the European Union (EU). And, if there are any consequences, does Turkey still want to pursue membership of the European Union?

One of the most important facets of the accession of Turkey to the EU is the role of religion in the state. While Turkey has known a very strict secular model of governance since Ataturk in the 1930s, this does not entail that Islam, as a main religion, was not a substantial part anymore of daily life. It was just not that visible in the public domain. As such, during the negotiations for accession of Turkey in the nineties, the role of Islam was subject of a heated public debate in many of the Western European countries. Together with the Copenhagen criteria for membership, the role of religion was one of the most dominant discussions in the negotiations for accession. Especially after 9/11 the pessimistic side of the debate strengthened, which had its effect on the negotiations for accession of Turkey.

Although, in the mean time, Turkey had facilitated and required the necessary changes to meet up with the conditions outlined in the Copenhagen criteria, the EU was still not willing to allow Turkey to become a member. Turkey saw other countries; such as Estonia, Bulgaria and Romania obtain membership to the EU while Turkey remained excluded despite their efforts to live up to a European liberal ideal. The disappointment among the Turkish governance and the Turkish population was portrayed in the media, and when asked in 2011, only roughly half of the population was still wishing for Turkey to become part of the EU. Many felt that their way of life, especially in Muslim families, would not be given room due to the European ideal. While the government continued to emphasize the secular and non-Muslim ‘identity’ of the Turkish state, the EU and also parts of the Turkish population wondered whether the secular identity was not problematic and whether Turkey would not be better off acknowledging the religious affiliations with Islam in their governance.

Thus, when Erdogan clearly emphasized the role of Islam in daily life of Turkish families by disapproving of the placement of a Muslim boy with a gay couple, the religious affiliations again became visible. Whether this illustrates an increasing inclination to leave the European ideal for what it is, is unclear. However, statistics do not lie, as was illustrated by a poll in the Dutch intellectual talkshow “Pauw en Witteman”: an estimated amount of 15% of the Turkish population would still want to be part of the EU. Clearly, the wish for EU membership has dipped extremely.

Whether this dip is only the result of European critiques towards Turkey, is very questionable. Whereas Turkey’s accession was considered problematic because of the association with both secularity and Islam, the debate on religious and non-religious identities is not the only topic involved. In fact, since the Eurozone is subject to a very intense crisis, it is also likely that Turkey does not want to access a sinking ship. Although the abovementioned statistics are often portrayed as connected to the European and ‘Western’ critique on Islam, I wonder whether that is really the case. Surely, it may also very well be the case that European media have been blinded by the political debates on secularism and religious affiliations while there are other processes going on as well. The media portray the outrage of the mother, and with her the Turkish population, as connected to Islam, but might it not be the case that this outrage is just related to a conservative perspective? Obviously the critique on homosexuality is not just restricted to Islam; as one may recall, Berlusconi has expressed critiques on homosexuality more than once as well.

Yet, I wonder for how long the lobby between the EU and Turkey will still continue. It could be because of the Euro crisis, it could be because of an increasingly visible role of Islam in the Turkish republic, but I expect that current developments in the lobbying process might constitute a full stop.

Ella Sebamalai is a Master student in Religion, Conflict and Globalization and Intern with the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the Faculty for Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. She is also pursuing a Masters in International Security at the Faculty of Arts. Her main research interest is the leverage of faith-based organizations to International Relations. More specifically, her research focus is the role of FBOs in the post-conflict reconstruction phase such as that of Sri Lanka.

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