13 Juli 2010

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View point: Why Obama is talking Turkey

In Istanbul for a conference, I picked up a copy of the oldest English language newspaper, The Hurriyet Daily, only to find a very familiar Jakarta face: Barack Obama. No, he wasn’t in Turkey, but he sure was talking turkey!
Turkey was a critical ally, he said, and an important part of Europe. And he spoke frankly about the fact that if the European Union (EU) keeps Turkey “dangling over its bid for membership”, it will seek other alliances… non-Western ones.

Unfortunately, Turkey’s already been dangling for too long – about half a century, in fact. Turkey’s application to the EU was made only in April 1997, but it has been knocking on the doors of EU predecessors since 1963. In fact, Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949, one of the first after the 10 founding members, and it was a founding member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1963. And as Obama said when visiting Ankara in April 2009, the “greatest legacy” left by Ataturk (the founder of modern Turkey) is “a strong and secular democracy”.
The list goes on, but it’s clear that Turkey’s EU qualifications are strong.
So what’s with EU’s reluctance? Sure, there are 35 chapters of the acquis communitaire (the total body of the EU law, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acquis_communautaire) with which any country seeking EU membership must comply, but these are mostly economic and technical rules. Might the real reasons for the EU’s distinct lack of enthusiasm in fact be political and ideological? After all, Turkey’s a European state and a democracy but it’s also Eurasian and a Muslim majority nation – and 99 percent of 72 million sure is a lot of Muslims!
Is it a coincidence that President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, a country that bans the burqa, is the most vociferous opponent of Turkey entering the EU? Perhaps the French have the heebie-jeebies about the prospect of Turkish immigrants adding to what they already perceive to be an overly large Muslim community (at 6 percent? Relax, mes amis).
Whatever the reason for their unwelcoming attitude, the leaders of France, Germany, Austria and other European countries that oppose Turkey’s entering the EU, need to stop and think again. They need to wake up to the fact that with growing global tensions between Muslim societies and the West, Europe may need Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe.
Turkey has traditionally had a West-facing foreign policy, but with ties with Israel at breaking point after the flotilla attack, and Europe’s snub, Turkey is being “forced” into the other camp.
It has always had multiple alliances and retained plenty of options in the Muslim world, and it is starting to exercise them. That’s why Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the ruling Islamist party AKP (Justice and Development Party, Turkey’s equivalent of Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party, PKS), recently announced a free-trade zone pact with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, only days after voting against a US-sponsored resolution on Iran.Turkey’s no turkey, Erdogan seems to be saying!
I wouldn’t support Erdogan’s conservative Islamism or his authoritarian streak, but I can vouch for the fact Turkey is unique and really does straddle different worlds, both Eastern and Western, secular and Muslim. And it’s now recognized as an emerging economic powerhouse, once again fulfilling the promise of its strategic location between Europe and Asia.
It was this that underpinned the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire for a thousand years and then the mighty Ottoman sultanate, which once stretched from the gates of Vienna to the Persian Gulf.
Long before I left Jakarta, I was very excited to be traveling to Turkey because of all the parallels between the two countries. Like Indonesia, Turkey is a Muslim majority nation, secular, a melting pot, and it sits at cultural and political cross-roads. And like Indonesia, Turkey’s modern pluralist democracy also has its own internal enemies, including both terrorists and men in uniform, as well as secessionist movements.
But Turkey was for centuries a major world power, and was never colonized in modern times by Europeans like Indonesia was, and this seemed to be reflected in the character of the people I met in Istanbul. They were friendly and accommodating without being subservient, offering without being pushy, dignified without being arrogant, efficient without being stern or cold. I’ve traveled to many countries, and maybe I was lucky, but it seemed to me that the Turks got the pitch just right.
Take mosques, for example. Despite Indonesia touting itself as a moderate Muslim society, there are many mosques that won’t admit foreigners – including the big Baiturrachman Grand Mosque in Aceh, which recently ejected foreign friends of mine with hostile shouts of “kafir” (infidel). In Istanbul, however, I visited major mosques – the Sultan Ahmet Blue mosque, the Yeni mosque and the Suleymaniye mosque – where all foreigners were welcome, not just Muslim ones. Amid throngs of tourists and worshipers, a welcoming atmosphere of peace and acceptance prevailed.
So if Indonesia aspires to gain the kind of recognition that Turkey has won from Obama and the rest of the world (EU aside, that is!) we’d better get our act together.
Our two countries have much in common, but Obama’s been to Turkey and made a major speech there … and he’s canceled his visit to Indonesia twice.
And that makes us the turkey!

Julia Suryakusuma
(www.juliasuryakusuma.com) is the author of Julia’s Jihad.

Opini The Jakarta Pos 14 Juli 2010