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GTE Question of the Month, March 2015


After Charlie Hebdo and phenomena like Pegida making the headlines, Islamophobia seems to be on the rise in Europe. How is this perceived in Turkey and what impact can it have on EU-Turkey relations?

Ergun Özbudun

The tragic Charlie Hebdo event displayed, once again, the complexities and inconsistencies in Turkish society and politics. While the official circles and most of the media strongly condemned the murders, they often pointed to the rising Islamophobia in Europe and the allegedly discriminatory actions in some European countries against their Muslim population as attenuating or explanatory circumstances. A few even attributed the event to the machinations of foreign intelligence services. A more sensible line of thought, including some prominent conservative columnists, however, described it as a “chicken-and-egg” story. Thus, while Islamophobia is partly responsible for the rise of Islamic militanism, the reverse is also true. Indeed, Islamophobia rose perceptibly after the 7/11 incident. The same authors consequently called on Turkey and other Muslim countries to conduct a sincere stocktaking and to condemn violent Islamic militanism in the strongest possible terms. In any case, the Charlie Hebdo crisis and the rising Islamophobia in Europe put further strains on Turkey’s already stalled negotiations with the EU.

(Ergun Özbudun is Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law at İstanbul Şehir University)

Sinan Ekim

Islamophobia in Europe has instilled a sense of fear in Muslim immigrants across the continent. Attacks on churches in several European countries, as well as the proliferation of anti-Islam and anti-Turkish graffiti on school walls in Germany, are often marshalled as evidence that Islamophobia is on the rise and has a solid social grounding. What are even more alarming are the results of a recent study conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation that found that 57% of non-Muslims in Germany regard Islam as a threat, and 61% believe that Islamic values are incompatible with the Western/European form of modernity.
Many observers are of the opinion that these developments will add a pessimistic postscript to the narrative of EU-Turkish relations. There is a prevalent assumption that the EU wishes to function as a ‘Christian Club’ – an unwritten rule for membership that Turkey will never be able to satisfy. Subscribers to this line of thought now assert that the EU has more substance at its disposal to prove that Islam is a threat to, and diametrically at odds with, European values.
Erdoğan, on the other hand, has taken a different stance on the matter: he believes that the rising Islamophobia in Europe bodes well for the future of Turkey-EU relations. As the only Muslim nation in Europe’s immediate neighborhood with a secular democracy, Turkey could assist Brussels in rolling back the rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiments – or so the President thinks.
This is not an entirely groundless ambition. The AKP administration has already made a show of solidarity with the victims of Islamic fundamentalism and supporters of freedom of press, when Prime Minister Davutoğlu marched in Paris with foreign leaders in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. This delivered a clear message: despite its overwhelmingly Muslim population, Turkey’s government is avowedly secular, and upholds the same set of fundamental rights and freedoms as any other European state that was represented in that march.
This, however, will not suffice. As many commentators have mentioned, Turkey has consistently slid backwards in global freedom rankings. Its government has now imprisoned more journalists and reporters than any other country in the world, and has brutally clamped down upon its citizens’ freedom to openly criticize the administration. In order to make a credible case for itself as a Muslim state based on the rule of law, Turkey will have to push through fundamental reforms and fine-tune its own version of liberal democracy.
And now might be the most opportune time to step up the efforts, as Turkey’s failure in this regard might portray the country as an inadequate ally in combatting Islamophobia. If Turkey proceeds in the right direction, however, it has a chance to make an invaluable contribution to Brussels’ fight against Islamophobic populism, behind which Merkel and several other European leaders have thrown their support. The AKP was applauded in its first term for successfully infusing Islamic values and democratic governance; the model it had then forged into existence is similar to, if not the model Europe needs. If Turkey demonstrated once again that a democratic government could operate in a Muslim country, this could generate political capital that might be cashed as votes in favour of its accession process.

(Sinan Ekim is research assistant at the Istanbul Policy Center)

Ayhan Kaya

Migration has been framed as a source of fear and instability by the ruling elites for the last two decades or so. Yet not so long ago it was actually a source of contentment and happiness. Several different reasons, such as de-industrialization, changing technology, unemployment, poverty and the neoliberal political economy, can be enumerated to explicate the reasons for the current discontent. The enormous demographic change caused by the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in the 1990s should not be underestimated either. The period starting in 1989 signified the beginning of a new historical epoch leading to massive migration of ethnic Germans, ethnic Hungarians, ethnic Russians, ethnic Poles and Russian Jews. The mobilization of millions of people stimulated nation-states to change their migration policies in a way that encouraged the arrival of immigrants from similar ethnic backgrounds. This period is also known as the period of re-ethnicisation of the nation in Europe.
This demographic change in Western Europe went in tandem with the rise of discourses like the “clash of civilizations,” “culture wars” and Islamophobia that presented societal heterogeneity in an unfavorable light. The intensification of Islamophobia was also made easier by al-Qaeda-type violence and the radicalization of some segments of Muslim-origin immigrant communities in several countries, which reinforced the societal unrest resulting from immigration. The result was the introduction of restrictive migration policies and increased territorial border security vis-à-vis the nationals of third countries who originated from outside the European continent. However, keeping in mind that both demographic deficit and emigration in the European countries are now becoming the realities of everyday life, one could conclude that such a migrant-phobic and Islamophobic discourse is not sustainable.
The Breivik incident leading to the death of 79 Norwegian citizens on 22 July 2011 was the last drop signaling the unsustainability of Islamophobic discourse, or what I call the ideology of Islamophobism, by the neoliberal, conservative states. Until very recently, Islamophobia was not really on the agenda of the EU countries, which have all been somehow hit by the current financial crisis, austerity measures, unemployment and social upheavals. But the rise of ISIS in the Middle East has triggered again the societal fear against Islam in the EU countries; PEGIDA was one of the first signs of these growing Islamophobic sentiments. The question moving forward is whether these Islamophobic sentiments are going to be exploited by the ruling political elite in order to reformulate an ideology of Islamophobism.
I believe that many European states, having experienced the detrimental effects of September 11, have chosen not to exploit the rising tide of Islamophobic sentiment. There are already some positive signs coming from France, Germany and Spain, indicating that the EU is on the verge of transcending the binary oppositions brought about by the political and societal climate of September 11, and the Clash of Civilizations versus Alliance of Civilizations paradigm that dates back to the Bosnian War in the 1990s. I say France, because François Hollande and the French officials were very careful in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo massacre to use a cohesive political discourse in order not to bash Islam, in a way that was very different from the former Sarkozy presidency. François Hollande was very articulate in saying that Charlie Hebdo massacre has nothing to do with Islam. And the French security officers were calling those who initiated the murder as “three French terrorists” without using any other adjective to externalize the perpetrators from the French society and politics. Similarly, Angela Merkel and the German state officials were also very careful in picking their side with the anti-PEGIDA movements denouncing the rise of populist racist discourse against Islam, migrants and the Turks. Finally, a very interesting move came from the Spanish state, which officially decided to withdraw from the Alliance of Civilizations initiative that it had coordinated together with Turkey under the UN umbrella since 2005.
Hence, I believe that Charlie Hebdo is the end of the September 11 era in the European space. Many European states have chosen to let the world know that the issues of Charlie Hebdo, or PEGIDA, are domestic issues resulting from structural problems in the EU. They have chosen not to portray the sources of these incidents as originating from outside forces such as Islam or the Middle East, and instead have chosen to frame them as internal and structural problems. I am nowadays more inclined to believe that culturalist, religious and civilizational rhetoric, which has been very popular since the 1990s, specifically since the birth of the Huntingtonian Clash of Civilizations paradigm, is now coming to an end, and a social-economic and political discourse is taking the upper hand in the Western world at least. In other words, the EU is on the verge of showing the world that there is a European way of dealing with incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre that is very different from the former American way of handling it.
However, the ways in which these incidents have been discussed in Turkey by the political elite, so-called scholars and media experts were mostly ill-defined. The murder of 17 French citizens was immediately discussed by the Justice and Development Party elite, public intellectuals and the mainstream media in a way that underlined Islamophobic sentiments in the West. However, the grief of the French nation should have been shared before trying to somehow legitimize the murder of the seventeen French citizens by the three French terrorists. The state actors as well as most of the public intellectuals discussed the Charlie Hebdo incident by reifying the right to assault someone under the conditions of humiliation of what is sacred. Almost no one thought about the possibility of the idea that freedom of speech may also be perceived by some societies in the West as as sacred as one’s faith. My impression is that the leading political party, the Justice and Development Party, and its professional intellectuals were setting the tone of discussion within the old civilizational discourse, and thus attempting to go on benefiting from the global rhetoric of the Clash of Civilizations vs. the Alliance of Civilizations that brought them to power back in 2002. Hence, the EU is trying very hard to transcend the borders of the political culture shaped by September 11, while the Turkish state actors are still trying to reproduce the civilizational rhetoric, which is actually disappearing in many parts of the world.

(Ayhan Kaya is Professor and Director of the European Institute at the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, Department of International Relations, at Istanbul’s Bilgi University)