‘Turkey and the Dilemma of EU Accession: When Religion Meets Politics’
‘Turkey and the Dilemma of EU Accession’ is a book that takes on the challenging task of exploring to what extent religion presents an obstacle to Turkey’s EU accession process. Author Mirela Bogdani claims Turkey’s Islamic values are a factor in its inability to comply with the Copenhagen criteria. However, the book was written before the Arab Spring and does not necessarily reflect the political realities of the region today In her book, “Turkey and the Dilemma of EU Accession: When Religion Meets Politics,” Mirela Bogdani takes on the challenging task of exploring to what extent religion presents an obstacle to Turkey’s EU ambitions. Bogdani has devoted much of her career to studying European Union enlargement and politics and has previously written two books focusing on this subject in relation to Albania. Bogdani approaches this work with what she identifies as a personal understanding of Muslim culture and also a distinct interest in the interplay between politics and religion. Her scholarship on the subject of religion and culture’s influence on international politics is particularly influenced by the works of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, giving her arguments a distinct “clash of civilizations” and “cultural determinism” flavor.
Bogdani’s aim is to discover if religious and cultural factors are a primary obstacle to Turkish EU accession, or are only part of a number of issues that together complicate Turkey’s move toward joining the European club. After examining the evidence, including some scholarly works and public opinion poll results, she draws the conclusion that since economic issues and democratic principles are not the only reason behind European opposition to Turkey’s accession, religion is at least a contributing factor to the prolonged accession process. However, she is careful to qualify this conclusion, and after making these claims in the last page of her book she points out that there is a lack of conclusive data, so this statement can at best be identified as probabilistic rather than proven. Along the same lines, she also concludes that the combination of Turkey’s huge population and its religious makeup are perceived to be a threat to the cultural balance of the EU.
Bogdani has divided her book into five parts, which focus on different aspects of the relationship between the EU, Turkey, and religion and culture. She begins by examining the revival of religion around the world, and the relationship between religion and politics, specifically in the EU. She follows the evolution of this relationship by examining the secularization of society, subsequent desecularization in certain parts of the Western world, excluding Europe, and then finally Europe’s recent desecularization as Europeans once again begin to embrace Christianity in the political sphere.
From here, she turns her attention to Turkey and the EU, discussing the bloc’s eastward expansion to include Balkan countries, and Turkey’s history of Westernization and its relationship with the EU. In this
section, Bogdani examines the official obstacles to Turkey’s EU accession, including the domestic political and economic reform necessary for membership, as well as Turkey’s stance on its minority Kurdish population, Armenia, and Cyprus. She also discusses the semi-formal obstacles, including geography, demographics and regional security. Finally, she introduces the informal factors that are the main focus of the book: religion and culture. She argues that although Turkey is a secular state on the government level, Islam still plays a prominent part in Turkish culture. She also makes a controversial claim, positing that Turkey’s Islamic values are one factor in its inability to comply with the political Copenhagen criteria required for EU accession.
In the third section of her book, she asks the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy. Drawing only from arguments made by Huntington and by Seymour Lipset, Bogdani argues that European and Muslim societies are fundamentally different, and that some of the values and norms that shape Islam make it incompatible with Western, liberal democracy. She specifically focuses on human rights, arguing that Islam does not allow for the separation of church and state that Europeans are used to.
After looking at Islam and democracy more broadly, Bogdani focuses on what place religion and culture have in the debate on Turkey’s EU candidacy. She argues that religion is the most influential component of culture, since it dictates societal norms and cultural mentality. She also points out that religion acts as a common bond between Muslims across the world, regardless of their individual culture. Bogdani notes that while Europeans are generally not overtly religious, Judeo-Christian values make up the foundation of European identity, including modern democracy. The end of the fourth section identifies the actors in the debate on Turkey’s accession, focusing largely on the opinions of European citizens, but also on those of EU institutions, leaders and politicians.
According to Bogdani European opposition to Turkey’s membership has increased since 2001. She identifies and elaborates on a number of potential factors in this negative trend: the rise of Islamic funda- mentalism worldwide; the increase of Europe’s Muslim population and its comparatively low integration levels into European society; the fear that such a sharp increase in the European Muslim population will lead to the “Islamisation of Europe” (p. 105); and political Islam as part of Turkey’s mainstream politics.
Bogdani has taken on the incredibly challenging task of exploring a topic on which there is little documented information. She acknowledges these challenges, and although she was warned of the difficulty in proving her central propositions, she makes a very bold claim in her book, arguing that she “succeeded in assessing the impact of religious and cultural factors on Turkey’s accession process and on European actors’ opinions, as well as in drawing conclusions about the reasons for their reluctance to let in a country like Turkey” (foreword, p. x). However, as she concludes, there is simply not enough data to make a conclusive statement one way or another; one can only continue to speculate. This reviewer believes that some of the information Bogdani presents as fact does little to enlighten or educate the audience, and does not actually appear to contribute to the findings of the book.
The third section, in which the author examines the compatibility of Islam and democracy, was particularly striking. The section completely overshadowed many of Bogdani’s relevant arguments. While it is legitimate to
examine Islam’s relationship with democracy in the Turkish context, the author makes extreme arguments, suggesting that Islam and liberal democracy are completely incompatible. She makes the leap that the reason many countries with predominantly Muslim populations have dictators is because the Muslim faith is best suited to dictatorships and suppression of freedom. She seems to completely ignore the impact of Western colonialism in installing and propping up dictatorial strongmen as leaders of these countries, and that for many dictators political Islam is actually seen as a threat to their power. In making this argument, she mentions Turkey, the subject of the book, only briefly, saying that Turkey and Indonesia are exceptions. However, all countries have political situations shaped by their unique historical experiences, culture, and economic situations; in the case of majority Muslim countries’ experience with authoritarianism, religion and the presence of an authoritarian regime is correlation rather than causation.
This book was published in 2011 and written before the Arab Spring democratic movements, so Bogdani’s analysis and arguments do not necessarily reflect the political realities of the Middle East and North Africa today. However, while reading this book one cannot help but think of the inspiring movements the world has witnessed as people rose up in predominantly Muslim countries across the Middle East, demanding democratic reform and attempting to overthrow dictatorships. The author’s failure to consistently distinguish the difference between political Islam and Islamist movements based on complete adherence to Shariah further weakens her argument.
She spends little time discussing Turkey’s experience with religion and democracy; rather she focuses on more repressive regimes. While she acknowledges that the Muslim world is diverse, most of the third section draws conclusions based on broad generalizations about Muslim countries on human rights, governance, economics, and appreciation for science and education. She uses examples of the most repressive societies, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, to draw conclusions about majority Muslim states in general. This section does little to help her overall argument. Perhaps some of her points could have been used as support elsewhere in the book, but the way she presents her arguments here does not assist readers that may be unfamiliar with Middle Eastern history or Islam; rather it projects an anti-Muslim bias that colors the way the reader approaches the rest of the book.
Bogdani could have benefitted by offering by a more balanced approach to her investigation. When she argues that Turkish society’s Islamic values will remain an obstacle that will prevent it from meeting the human rights criteria for accession, it would have been useful to identify the human rights obstacles the most recent members faced and why ¬-- as majority Christian societies -- it was easier for them to change. In addition, she spends quite a long time discussing European citizens’ opinions, but does not really discuss Turkish public perception of EU membership. Addressing this question would have made her argument more complete.
Finally, she frames the discussion on Islam and democracy in a highly biased and not entirely accurate fashion. She overlooks certain parts of history in order to make the argument that the Christian religion is peaceful and Christian values are fundamental to a successful democracy, while Islam is an historically violent religion and incompatible with democracy and respect for human rights. The interaction between religion and politics is a challenging topic to tackle, because it is a sensitive issue and actors are not always willing to have an open, candid conversation. While this reviewer would not necessarily recommend this book, the author’s other work, “Albania and the European Union: The Tumultuous Journey Towards Integration and Accession” (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007), co-authored with John Loughlin, would certainly reward readers interested in the journey to EU membership.
Mirela Bogdani, “Turkey
and the Dilemma of EU Accession: When Religion
Meets Politics,” I. B. Tauris, London & New
York, 2010 (228 pp.)
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discuss recent economic developments. (Aug. 16, 2011)