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Last Updated: Friday, 17 December 2004, 18:11 GMT
Turkey's long journey to Europe
By Kemal Karpat

Turkey has agreed with the European Union to begin EU accession talks next October - albeit with a compromise over the thorny issue of Cyprus. For Turkey this is the latest success in a 40-year struggle to join Europe's top table.

A pro-EU ad in Ankara next to a picture of Ataturk, the "father of the Turks"
A pro-EU ad in Ankara and photo of Ataturk, "father of the Turks"

So how did the Republic of Turkey, with its origins in Central Asia two millennia ago and a 700-year Ottoman legacy, come to embrace the European dream?

Of course, four centuries ago the balance of power was in favour of the Ottomans who preyed on the land of neighbouring, weak European states.

The Ottomans possessed large standing armies, a true fighting spirit and overwhelming firepower through superior technology.

But by the end of the 16th Century decline had set in across the empire. As its star fell, Europe was gaining strength and the House of Osman soon resorted to diplomatic means to meet the increasingly powerful European powers.

In the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Ottoman state, Judaism, Christianity and Islam coexisted in an atmosphere of mutual acceptance and respect that today's European Union would envy.

Developing an identity

The Ottomans had no national identity. The term "Turk" was derogatory, meaning unskilled peasant.

The name Ottoman originates from the ruling dynasty, not from a ruling ethnic or national group, despite Turkish being the official language.

Beginning in the 18th Century the age of European enlightenment and the doctrine of the nation-state provided the impetus and models for the transformation of the Ottoman entity.

Turkey: Facts and figures

Ethnic groups within the Ottoman realm awoke to ideas of ethnicity and language. This intensified after 1878 with the creation of a number of independent national states from Ottoman dominions.

By the beginning of the 20th Century the drive for modernity and the politicisation of a Turkish ethnic identity became the priority of an emerging Turkish nation, which until then identified itself in terms of religion.

But with the loss of Arab Muslim territories after 1918, an identity based on Islam proved to be inadequate.

The increasing emphasis on Turkishness was aided by new literary genres, which did not exist in the classical Ottoman literature. These were borrowed from Europe and helped develop today's colloquial Turkish.

It reinforced a new Turkish identity nurtured by the civilisations of Asia and the vision of the future anchored in the West.

Muslim and European

The Turks probably are the only nation to have turned modernity into their national religion and Islam into the source of their individual spiritual faith.

The overwhelming majority of Turks share this unique feature of being good Muslims, and Turks and Europeans at the same time.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - the so-called "father of the Turks"
Ataturk was a dedicated modernist and accepted Europe as the source of civilisation and modernity

Despite its origins, contemporary Turkey is a new society - the result of a "melting pot" similar to the one that produced the United States.

Between 1856 and 1980 some nine to ten million former Ottoman Muslim subjects belonging to different ethnic and linguistic groups immigrated from the Balkans and the Caucasus to settle in Anatolia.

Despite a number of setbacks - military coups, human rights issues - modern Turkey has emerged from the embers of the Ottoman empire as a dynamic society with a "Euro-Islamic" faith and a pro-European outlook.

The formation of a new Turkish identity and nation-state have parallels, not in the Muslim world but in the West.

These processes were set in motion through philosophical debates among Islamists, nationalists, Turkists and pro-Europeanists. These developed into new ideological foundations which guided the new Republic's policies after 1923.

Turkey's 'sacred myths'

The modernist agenda was greatly accelerated during the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who is credited with having created a new state and society.

The "newness" of the Republic and its creator have become sacred myths in Turkey.

Yet practically all of Ataturk's reforms, including the acceptance of a new alphabet, were discussed in a variety of ways after 1870.

Ataturk synthesised the main ideas of preceding decades and applied those measures that could produce a modern, secular and democratic nation sure of its own identity.

Cyprus, and disputes in the Aegean, will have to be sorted out sooner or later

He ignored much of the Ottoman legacy, not necessarily because he rejected the value of historical knowledge, but to forestall irredentist and pan-Turkist, pan-Islamic movements.

Above all, he was a modernist and secularist who unequivocally accepted contemporary civilization for national survival.

Ataturk was a Turkish nationalist and believed in the existence of a nation with its own unique culture and identity, like other nations.

He was a dedicated modernist and accepted Europe as the source of civilisation and modernity - the main goals of the new republic.

Secular pride

To borrow a political slogan, Turkey identifies itself as national and Islamic secular in form and European in content and it will preserve this character, regardless of the outcome of its candidacy for membership of the EU.

View of Istanbul/Bosphorus
Europeanism is deeply ingrained in the Turkish psyche

Membership will greatly strengthen Turkish democracy and become an example for other nations to emulate. The Turks have managed to modernise and Europeanise themselves, but the job is not yet finished.

The EU holds concerns about the stability of democracy in Turkey and its history of human rights abuses.

But it also knows that Turkey holds influence across the Middle East and Central Asia - with which it shares language, culture and historical ties.

In 1915, the Young Turks leader Enver Pasha envisaged a Turkish empire expanding east across Central Asia. But after World War I, Ataturk focused on consolidating the land the new Turkish nation was left with.

But Central Asia is back on the agenda. The independence of Caucasian and Central Asian states has reopened the region.

Economically, the region offers new markets for Turkish products. And Turkey can offer help to the region on how to integrate with the West, both economically and politically.

So, if Turkey is able to maintain its image as a developing, progressive democracy dedicated to freedom and progress, not only will it succeed in joining the EU, but it will have a greater say in world affairs.

Turks have faced a long journey to Europe. But that journey is still not over.

Kemal Karpat is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He has written several books on the history of the Ottoman empire.

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