December 23, 2010
In the schoolbooks I read as a child in the 1950s and 1960s, Europe was a rosy land of legend. While forging his new republic from the ruins of the Ottoman empire, which had been crushed and fragmented in the first world war, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did fight against the Greek army, but with the support of his own army he later introduced a slew of social and cultural modernisation reforms that were not anti- but pro-western. It was to legitimise these reforms, which helped to strengthen the new Turkish state's new elites (and were the subject of continuous debate in Turkey over the next 80 years), that we were called upon to embrace and even imitate a rosy-pink – occidentalist – European dream.
As much as the schoolbooks of my childhood were texts designed to teach us why a line was to be drawn between the state and religion, why it had been necessary to shut down the dervish lodges, or why we'd had to abandon the Arab alphabet for the Latin, they were also overflowing with questions that aimed to unlock the secret of Europe's great power and success. "Describe the aims and outcomes of the Renaissance," the middle school history teacher would ask in his exam. "If it turned out we were sitting on as much oil as the Arabs, would we then be as rich and modern as Europeans?" my more naive classmates at lycee would say. In my first year at university, whenever my classmates came across such questions in class, they would fret over why "we never had an enlightenment".
The 14th century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun said that declining civilisations kept going by imitating their victors . Because there has never been a time when the Turks were colonised by a world power, "worshipping Europe" or "imitating the west" has never carried the damning, humiliating overtones described by Franz Fanon , VS Naipaul , or Edward Said ; to look to Europe has been seen as a historical imperative or even a technical question of adaptation.
But this dream of a rosy-pink Europe, once so powerful that even our most anti-western thinkers and politicians secretly believed in it, has now faded. This may be because Turkey is no longer as poor as it once was. Or it could be because it is no longer a peasant society ruled by its army, but a dynamic nation with a strong civil society. And in recent years there has of course been the slowing down of talks between Turkey and the European Union, with no resolution in sight.
Neither in Europe nor in Turkey is there a realistic hope that Turkey will join Europe in the near future. To admit to having lost this hope would be as crushing as to see relations with Europe breaking down entirely, so no one has the heart even to utter the words.
That Turkey and other non-western countries are disenchanted with Europe is something I know from my own travels and conversations. A major cause of the strain in relations between Turkey and the EU was most certainly the alliance forged by a sector of the Turkish army and leading media groups with nationalist political parties, and their successful campaign to sabotage negotiations. The same initiative triggered the prosecutions launched against me and many writers , the shooting of others, and the killing of missionaries and Christian clerics. There are also the emotional responses whose greater significance can best be explained by taking France as an example: over the past century, successive generations of the Turkish elite have faithfully taken France as their model, drawing on its understanding of secularism and following its lead on education, literature and art ... so to have France emerge over the past five years as the country most vehemently opposed to the idea of Turkey in Europe has been hugely heartbreaking and disillusioning. It is, however, Europe's involvement in the war in Iraq that has caused the keenest disappointment in non-western countries and, in Turkey, real anger. The world watched Europe being tricked by Bush into joining this illegitimate and cruel war, while showing immense readiness to be tricked.
When looking at the landscape of Europe from Istanbul or beyond, the first thing one sees is that Europe (like the European Union) is confused about its internal problems. It is clear that the peoples of Europe have a lot less experience than the Americans when it comes to living with those whose religion, skin colour, or cultural identity are different from their own, and that they do not warm to the prospect: this resistance makes Europe's internal problems all the more intractable. The recent discussions in Germany on integration and multiculturalism are a case in point.
As the economic crisis deepens and spreads, Europe may, by turning in on itself, postpone its struggle to preserve the "bourgeois", in Flaubert 's sense of the word, but that will not solve the problem. When I look at Istanbul, which becomes a little more complex and cosmopolitan with every passing year, and which now attracts immigrants from all over Asia and Africa, I have no trouble reaching this conclusion: the poor, unemployed and undefended of Asia and Africa who are looking for new places to live and work cannot be kept out of Europe indefinitely. Higher walls, tougher visa restrictions and ships patrolling borders in increasing numbers will only postpone the day of reckoning. Worst of all, anti-immigration politics and prejudices are already destroying the core values that made Europe what it was.
In the Turkish schoolbooks of my childhood there was no discussion of democracy or women's rights, but on the packets of Gauloises that French intellectuals and artists smoked (or so we thought) were printed the words " liberté, égalité, fraternité " and these were much in circulation.
" Fraternité " came to stand for the spirit of solidarity and resistance promoted by movements of the left. But being callous about the sufferings of immigrants and minorities, and castigating the Asians, Africans and Muslims now leading difficult lives in the peripheries of Europe – even holding them solely responsible for their woes – is not "brotherhood".
One can understand how Europe might suffer anxiety and even panic as it seeks to preserve its great cultural traditions, profit from the riches it covets in the non-western world, and retain the advantages gained over so many centuries of class conflict, colonialism and internecine war. But if it is to protect itself, would it be better for Europe to turn inwards, or should it perhaps remember its core values, which once made it the centre of gravity for all the world's intellectuals?