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Rejecting Turkey, And the Future

By Fareed Zakaria
Tuesday, September 21, 2004; Page A21

Here's a quiz: Over the past two years, which developing country has undertaken the most dramatic economic, political and social reforms in the world? Some hints: This country has deregulated its economy, simplified its tax code and put its fiscal house in order, resulting in 8.2 percent growth this year and a 10 percent rise in productivity. It has passed nine packages of major reforms that have reduced the military's influence in government, enshrined political dissent and religious pluralism, passed strict laws against torture, abolished the death penalty, and given substantial rights to a long-oppressed minority.

The answer is Turkey. Even if it were not a Muslim country situated in the Middle East (sort of), its performance would be stunning. And yet, thanks to events last week, its long quest to become a full member of the European Union may be thwarted.

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The Turkish government's insistence on introducing a law making adultery a criminal offense may have derailed matters. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has angrily pointed out that the issue of adultery is not part of the criteria laid out by the European Union. He's right technically, but foolish politically. The reality is that there are many in Europe who want to keep Turkey out of the union because it is large, poor and, most important, because it is Muslim. The adultery law gives them a highly public issue to symbolize their fears.

But even if the adultery law passes, so what? European hysteria about this is absurd. Many are claiming that this represents the dangers of Islam in Europe. Have Europeans forgotten their own history? Adultery is banned in the Ten Commandments and was a criminal offense in almost every European country until recently. Ireland abolished such a law in 1981, France in 1975, Italy in 1969. In the United States, 23 states still have such laws on the books.

Don't get me wrong: I am opposed to the Turkish law. But to judge a developing country such as Turkey by the standards of postmodern Europe circa 2004 seems to miss the point. If Turkey were a fully modernized society, it wouldn't need E.U. membership. Besides, were Turkey to become an E.U. member, the adultery law would quickly be null and void, since the European courts would rule against it.

What is being lost in the uproar over adultery is that even last week, while debating this one relatively trivial issue, the Turkish parliament passed 218 laws that reform the penal code in accordance with the European Union's criteria. Turkey's record of reform is the equal of most previous candidates for E.U. membership. A distinguished group of Europeans, including former Finnish prime minister Martti Ahtisaari, released a report two weeks ago pointing out that Turkey compares well with two other E.U. applicants, Bulgaria and Romania.

And what is truly being lost is perhaps the most significant point: All these progressive, modernizing moves are being made by a ruling party that represents the people, unlike so many of the liberals in the Arab world, who are an unelected elite. The AK Party has shown that a devotion to Islam is compatible with liberalism, pluralism and democracy. For this reason it is the most powerful symbol of modern Islam in the world today, a symbol that could have resonance for the Middle East, Europe's own Muslim population and the entire Islamic world.

For decades people have held up Turkey as a model for Muslim politics. But as Graham Fuller points out in an insightful essay in the Washington Quarterly, this was a Western fantasy. Kemal Ataturk's hypersecular republic, allied to the United States and Israel, was never going to move the hearts of Muslims.

The AK Party has changed even that. By softening the edges of Turkey's secularism, by emphasizing clean government, by reaching out to the Middle East, it is becoming a more approachable model for Muslims. But to build this image it must be able to do things that reflect the concerns of the Muslim masses, not the elites.

That might include laws that reflect the deep concern in every Muslim country that as they modernize, they will become permissive and licentious. This concern is not uniquely Islamic. Every conservative movement and party in the Western world has worried deeply about this for the past 200 years.

In the end the European Union decision will not be about Turkey's performance, which has been better than anyone could have hoped. It will be made by a Europe that is either confident or scared of the future. The former would see that Turkey could help solve its labor shortages, help with its problems assimilating Muslim populations and send a powerful signal across the world. The latter is best symbolized by the leader of the German conservatives, Angela Merkl, a bitter opponent of Turkish membership who acknowledged these positive effects but said recently, "I look inward." Alas, there are too many European leaders today who look only inward.

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