Politics & Policy

Erdogan Exploits the EU-Integration Charade

Turkey has never been, and will never be, welcome in the EU.

[On the Corner, Daniel Pipes notes that Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, has expressly stated that “Turkey is not part of Europe” and should never be “accept[ed] as a full member” of the European Union. This is a refreshing bit of honesty. It is a commonplace for European elites to hold this view privately while publicly supporting an “integration process.” In shrewd irony, Turkey’s Islamic-supremacist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has capitalized on this phantom process to facilitate his goal of re-Islamizing Turkey — i.e., destroying the secular underpinnings of Ataturk’s state, which looked to Western liberalism, rather than sharia, as its model. In Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, I outline how Erdogan has exploited the EU Integration Charade. This column is adapted from that section of the book.]

In 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) won just 34 percent of the vote in Turkey’s national elections. It was only by a quirk in Kemalist law — a quirk that, ironically, was designed to keep Islamic supremacists out of power — that the AKP wrested control of the government. The new prime minister realized he was in no position to challenge head-on the “deep state” — the elite inner sanctum of military, bureaucratic, and judicial officials that has historically served as Ataturk’s secular bulwark against ever-thrumming Islamist ambitions. Erdogan would have to find ways to erode and nullify it. Still, he had cards to play.

The deep state cared passionately about Europe and America. It had been a Kemalist dream to integrate fully into the West: to be accepted into the European Union; to strengthen ties with the United States — with which the Turks, singularly among Muslim peoples, ingratiated themselves by their membership in NATO as well as their warm trade and military relations with Israel.

Ingeniously, Erdogan grasped the brute, unspoken truth of this dynamic: Turkey would never in a million years be admitted into the EU because Europe’s leaders would never tolerate it. But, of course, to say this aloud would be so déclassé, so downright Islamophobic, that the French and German elite would rather be caught sipping California wine. So rather than be forthright, they constructed for Turkey an open-ended European integration “process.” It is a limitless series of hoops for the Turks to jump through, at the end of which Ankara will be admitted to the club, probably right around the time hell freezes over or the euro becomes the world’s reserve currency.

Like all Islamists, Erdogan has contempt for Europe and the West. The objective of Muslim supremacists is to dominate and Islamize Western countries, not emulate them. Yet Erdogan is resourceful enough to exploit to his advantage the Kemalist dream of European integration, and Europe’s responsive gamesmanship. For among the steps Turkey must theoretically climb on the ladder to Euro-worthiness are religious liberty, the separation of religion and the state, and civilian control of the military.

Erdogan has expertly leveraged these metrics to cow the deep state into abiding an Islamic cultural revival. Under the guise of improving religious liberty, he has maintained — even enhanced — governmental supervision of religious institutions, but he has replaced secularist bureaucrats with adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of Islamic supremacism. Most significantly, Erdogan has subdued Turkey’s armed forces as a threat to his power. Pointing to Western admonitions against military interference in government, he forced the generals to back down from their threat to block his ally, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, from becoming president. He then used his control over prosecutorial authority to trump up sedition cases that purged his opponents from the military’s upper ranks.

It is a European obsession not to be seen as “Islamophobic.” In their purblind insistence that aggressive supremacism is not the nature of mainstream Islam — that, in fact, Islam is the Religion of Peace and aggression is anti-Islamic — European elites, like their fellow geniuses in the United States, assume that they know Islam better than did such Muslim giants as Ataturk and Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna — to say nothing of iconic Western thinkers such as Churchill and Jefferson, who closely studied the subject. Yet mainstream, Middle Eastern Islam — Erdogan’s Islam, the Brotherhood’s Islam — remains stubbornly totalitarian. Consequently, the guidelines for religions that pose no threat to free societies cannot be applied to it without putting liberty in grave jeopardy.

In a truly free society, religious liberty is a bedrock. It must be safeguarded from governmental incursions. But an Islamic society is not free precisely because of its religion — or, to put a finer point on it, because of its dictatorial sharia system, which we inaccurately describe as a mere “religion” because of the spiritual components that adorn its thoroughgoing regulation of non-spiritual life.

I hasten to add that it is no insult to call sharia a “dictatorial” and “totalitarian” system. Devout Muslims believe Allah, omnipotent and omniscient, has ordained sharia as the template for virtuous human life — every detail of that life. In their view, it is profoundly offensive for His creation, to whom He has deigned to give this gift, to disobey. One need not be a believer to understand why sharia-adherent Muslims believe we must all submit. But to grasp this is also to grasp that liberty and sharia cannot share the same space.

In Turkey, Kemal’s government — which was composed of Muslims who understood Islam intimately — suppressed Islam not to deny freedom of conscience but to enable it. They were trying to establish exactly the sort of secular civil society Europeans revere, but they knew it could not coexist with sharia. Thus, the government assumed supervision of the country’s 80,000 mosques, vetted the imams, controlled the content of sermons and literature, and aggressively monitored the Islamic charities. The men running the Kemalist state understood that Islam would inevitably work against secular civil society if left to its own devices.

The Kemalists’ rationale for making the armed forces the secular order’s guarantor was not a desire that Turkey be a police state. To the contrary, on the occasions when it has intervened, the Turkish military has hastened to return power to civilian authorities. Indeed, even the New York Times — which, flush with the Spring Fever, hallucinates elections into democracy, and peremptorily presumes that a military government simply must be more repressive than an elected Islamist government — concedes that the army’s 1980 coup was a boon for freer government. The generals were keen to withdraw rapidly from politics and imposed a constitution that, while maintaining the military’s guardianship role, enabled the rough-and-tumble of partisan politics and “allowed civilian institutions to bloom.”

The Turkish military was given a role as the ultimate constitutional check for the same reason that, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, Western governments maintain the capacity to impose martial law (albeit under civilian direction) in dire circumstances. There are times when existential threats to the governing system can only be defeated by military means. The War of 1812 and the American Civil War, during both of which martial law was imposed, spring to mind. So does the bloody history of Europe. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court in the 1909 case of Moyer v. Peabody, “When it comes to a decision by the head of the State upon a matter involving its life, the ordinary rights of individuals must yield to what he deems the necessities of the moment. Public danger warrants the substitution of executive process for judicial process.”

The difference between the governments of Turkey and the United States is that the former is trying to cultivate freedom in an Islamic setting, not merely preserve freedom in a preexisting culture of liberty. In a mainstream Islamic society, the threat of reversion to a freedom-devouring sharia system always looms. Kemalist Muslims wanted a flourishing civil society. They realized they could not keep one unless Islam’s supremacist proclivities were permanently checked. Though their efforts were very far from perfect, they were trying to forge and fortify a prosperous, Western-style nation-state. Contrary to a sharia system, the Kemalists never sought to strangle freedom of conscience. There was never any prohibition on being a Muslim, believing in Islam, or privately adhering to Islam’s spiritual elements. It was Islam’s extra-spiritual aspects (political, social, economic, military, etc.) that were the issue. Without the military as a bulwark against Islamic supremacism, freedom of conscience and liberty in general would be doomed.

This is common sense. It is easily verifiable. Still, Europe will have none of it. It discomfits the conceit that, Islam or no Islam, history marches inexorably toward universal adoption of the Continent’s humanist societal model. If the matter were not so serious, it might be tempting to laugh off Europe’s hypocrisy: Turkey is not welcome in the EU precisely because European elites are well aware that Islamic culture is different from Western culture. And, as for Europe’s end-of-history pretensions, it is far more likely that France and Germany will be conclusively dhimmified than that Turkey will be conclusively Westernized.

All that said, though, the Europeans continue to make believe Turkey will someday be invited to a place at the adults’ table if it just addresses a few outdated flaws. Thus Erdogan continues to leverage this European pressure for Turkish reform because it serves the Islamist cause of weakening the Turkish military and, under the ironic guise of “religious liberty,” breaking Ataturk’s shackles on supremacist Islam.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, from which this article is adapted.


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