February 8, 2016
By Serkan Aydin
The Christian view of Muslims began to change dramatically during the mid-ninth century. Upon the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims ruled it according to Sharia law. Sharia dictated that the death penalty is to be implemented for crimes of blasphemy and apostasy from Islam. One of the turning points in the evolution of the Christian perspective of Muslims was the incident with the ‘martyrs of Cordoba’ (850-59), wherein forty-eight Christians (mostly monks) were martyred, decapitated for publicly proclaiming their Christian beliefs and disparaging Islam.
In The Divine Comedy (1320) by Dante, the prophet of Islam is depicted in the “ninth ditch of eight circle of hell” whereas in Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le Prophete (1745) by Voltaire, the same figure is portrayed as a model of fanaticism and barbarism.
By the end of the Middle Ages, Europe took the succession of Christendom. On the Muslim side, it was the Turks who came into the scene of history. Pope Piccalomini (1458) stated that “We suffered in Asia and Africa, in foreign lands but now we are badly stuck in our own home, in our dwelling-place,” referring to the conquest of Istanbul.
Notably the first book (1455) printed by Gutenberg dealt with “the Turkish issue.” Erasmus (1466-1536) considered Turks as monstrous beasts, barbarians and the enemies of the church, who are contaminated by all manner of crimes and ignominies.
Turcophobia, a recurrent theme and a grave concern in the West had cropped up again ever since Turkey’s application to accede to the European Union. Much has been said to argue against the admission of Turkey into the European Union. A Bridge Too Far: Turkey in European Union (2008) is an outstanding book by Philip Claeys and Koen Dillen that casts light on the essence of this opposition. The authors assert that the consequences of including Turkey into the Union would be incalculable as Turkey is part of the Islamic civilization devoid of European-style parliamentary democracy. A striking part of their book is Taki Theodoracopulos’s opening paragraph in the foreword of the book: “Let’s not mince words. Inviting Turkey to become part of the European Union is the equivalent of a man recently married to a beautiful young bride and inviting Don Juan (a notorious diabolic character in literature who is identified as devil) to be his house-guest during the honeymoon. The concept is more than stupid — it is suicidal.”
President Erdogan had attributed these negative perceptions to orientalist theories based on race and ethnicity, thus accusing the West of reducing the ‘Orient’ to a culture of despotism and fanaticism. Yet, have we done enough to change this perception to anything more benevolent? Sadly – no!
Charlie Hebdo and Paris shootings, terror attacks against Western holiday-makers in Egypt and Tunisia, immigration problems, social unrest and radicalization of Muslim minorities in Europe, civil wars, sectarian confrontations, and never-ending bloodshed in the Middle East pose great obstacles to integration.
And Turkey? The main concern of the EU regarding Turkey was increasing authoritarianism of President Erdogan who is more focused on consolidating his power rather than promoting reforms. Amnesty International’s annual report is still peppered with numerous accounts of torture, free speech violations, denial of minority rights, unfair trials and failure to protect women. Dozens of jailed journalists, lack European level of democracy and corrupt state bureaucracy have been the primary impediments for Turkey’s accession in the last decade.
The migrant crisis has recently rejuvenated the talks with the EU. Europe urges Turkey to augment its system of asylum cases and toughen border controls. Liberalization of visas for Turkish nationals is a phenomenal success, yet conditional and not guaranteed. French President Hollande purported that: “This must be on extremely specific, controlled terms,” hinting at the lack of authenticity of such a deal.
This new push is considered an opportunity for Turkey and the EU to enhance collaboration in the face of contemporary challenges. Nonetheless, such partnership will not lead to a fundamental change in the way Western Europe views Turkey, as recent rapprochement and negotiations rely on mutual geostrategic pragmatism instead of realistic evaluation of Turkey’s progress toward European style democracy and improvement of human rights, hence temporary.
The longstanding skepticism of Europe has neither diminished nor vanished into the thin air and the prospect of Turkey, the Don Juan of Europe, joining the European Union seems more distant than ever.