Nine centuries after Pope Urban II sent the first Crusaders off to fight “the Turk,” 321 years after the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, Turkey and Europe are approaching a historic encounter. In December, leaders of European Union countries will vote on whether to begin negotiations that would lead to Turkey’s joining the EU. Every day it seems more likely that they will say yes.
If they do, it will be for two rea-sons. The first is that under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced AIR-doe-an), Turkey has entered a period of astonishingly far-reaching change. Since taking office in March of last year, Erdogan has pulled Turkey further toward democracy than it had moved in the previous quarter-century. In fundamental ways, today’s Turkey is almost unrecognizably different from the country I lived in until just four years ago. European leaders are beginning to admit that Turkey has become democratic enough to join their club.
The second reason why these European leaders may give Turkey a “yes” vote when they assemble in the Netherlands at the end of this year is that saying no could be dangerous. Islamic fundamentalists preach that Muslims must turn inward because the rest of the world wishes them ill. This argument has been immeasurably strengthened by the American invasion of Iraq, and European leaders are eager to counter it. The EU is concerned above all with stabilizing a large region of the world, and it cannot risk setting off the destabilization that would follow from rejecting Turkey after all Turkey has done to qualify for membership.
In little more than a year as prime minister, Erdogan has proven himself more committed to democracy than any of the self-proclaimed “secular” leaders who misruled Turkey during the 1990s. He has secured passage of laws and constitutional amendments abolishing the death penalty and army-dominated security courts; he repealed curbs on free speech, and brought the military budget under civilian control for the first time in Turkish history. He authorized Kurdish-language broadcasting, swept aside thirty years of Turkish intransigence on the Cyprus issue, and eased Greek–Turkish tension so effectively that when he visited Athens in May, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis proclaimed that the two countries now enjoyed “a relation of cooperation based on mutual trust.”
This reform program is especially important because Prime Minister Erdogan, who is leading it with passion and vigor, has had a long career in Islamic politics. He prays every day, and his wife wears a head scarf. By clinging so firmly to Islam while pulling his country toward democracy, he undermines the view that the two are incompatible.
December’s vote will be as much about Europe as about Turkey. It is a chance for Europeans to confront their fear of outsiders, and to emerge from centuries of hostility and suspicion directed against the Muslim world. The prospect of EU membership is a principal reason why Turkey is now moving so resolutely toward full democracy, which means that Europe has …