Roving thoughts and provocations

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

The Fading Dream of Europe

A portrait of Atatürk in the Cağaloğlu neighborhood of Istanbul; photograph by Andreas Herzau from his book Istanbul, which collects his images of the city and includes an essay by Elif Shafak. It has just been published by Hatje Cantz.

In the schoolbooks I read as a child in the 1950s and 1960s, Europe was a rosy land of legend. While forging his new republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, which had been crushed and fragmented in World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk fought against the Greek army, but with the support of his own army he later introduced a slew of social and cultural modernization reforms that were not anti- but pro-Western. It was to legitimize these reforms, which helped to strengthen the new Turkish state’s new elites (and were the subject of continuous debate in Turkey over the next eighty years), that we were called upon to embrace and even imitate a rosy-pink—occidentalist—European dream.

The schoolbooks of my childhood were texts designed to teach us why a line was to be drawn between the state and religion, why it had been necessary to shut down the lodges of the dervishes, or why we’d had to abandon the Arab alphabet for the Latin. But they were also overflowing with questions that aimed to unlock the secret of Europe’s great power and success. “Describe the aims and outcomes of the Renaissance,” the middle school history teacher would ask in his exam. “If it turned out we were sitting on as much oil as the Arabs, would we then be as rich and modern as Europeans?” my more naive classmates at my lycée would say. In my first year at university, whenever my classmates came across such questions in class, they would fret over why “we never had an enlightenment.” The fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun said that civilizations in decline were able to keep from disintegrating by imitating their victors. Because Turks were never colonized by a world power, “worshiping Europe” or “imitating the West” has never carried the damning, humiliating overtones described by Franz Fanon, V.S. Naipaul, or Edward Said. To look to Europe has been seen as a historical imperative or even a technical question of adaptation.

But this rose-colored dream of Europe, once so powerful that even our most anti-Western thinkers and politicians secretly believed in it, has now faded. This may be because Turkey is no longer as poor as it once was. Or it could be because it is no longer a peasant society ruled by its army, but a dynamic nation with a strong civil society of its own. And in recent years, there has of course been the slowing down of talks between Turkey and the European Union, with no resolution in sight. Neither in Europe nor in Turkey is there a realistic hope that Turkey will join the EU in the near future. But to admit to having lost this hope would be as crushing as to see relations with Europe break down entirely. So no one has the heart even to utter the words.

That Turkey and other non-Western countries are disenchanted with Europe is something I know from my own travels and conversations. A major cause of the strain in relations between Turkey and the EU was most certainly the alliance that included a sector of the Turkish army, leading media groups, and nationalist political parties, all combining in a successful campaign to sabotage negotiations over entry into the EU. The same alliance was responsible for the prosecutions launched against me and many writers, the shooting of others, and the killing of missionaries and Christian clerics. There are also the emotional responses whose significance can best be explained by the example of relations with France. Over the past century, successive generations of the Turkish elite have faithfully taken France as their model, drawing on its understanding of secularism and following its lead on education, literature, and art. So to have France emerge over the past five years as the country most vehemently opposed to the idea of Turkey in Europe has been heartbreaking and disillusioning. It is, however, Europe’s involvement in the war in Iraq that has caused the keenest disappointment in non-western countries, and in Turkey, real anger. The world watched Europe being tricked by Bush into joining this illegitimate and cruel war, while showing immense readiness to be tricked.

When looking at the landscape of Europe from Istanbul or beyond, the first thing one sees is that Europe generally (like the European Union) is confused about its internal problems. It is clear that the peoples of Europe have a lot less experience than Americans when it comes to living with those whose religion, skin color, or cultural identity are different from their own, and that many of them do not warm to the prospect: this resistance to outsiders makes Europe’s internal problems all the more intractable. The recent discussions in Germany on integration and multiculturalism—particularly its large Turkish minority—are a case in point.

As the economic crisis deepens and spreads, Europe may be able, by turning in on itself, to postpone its struggle to preserve the culture of the “bourgeois” in Flaubert’s sense of the word, but that will not solve the problem. When I look at Istanbul, which becomes a little more complex and cosmopolitan with every passing year and now attracts immigrants from all over Asia and Africa, I have no trouble concluding that the poor, unemployed, and undefended of Asia and Africa who are looking for new places to live and work cannot be kept out of Europe indefinitely. Higher walls, tougher visa restrictions, and ships patrolling borders in increasing numbers will only postpone the day of reckoning. Worst of all, anti-immigration politics, policies, and prejudices are already destroying the core values that made Europe what it was.

In the Turkish schoolbooks of my childhood there was no discussion of democracy or women’s rights, but on the packets of Gauloises that French intellectuals and artists smoked (or so we thought) were printed the words “liberté, égalité, fraternité” and these were much in circulation. “Fraternité” came to stand for the spirit of solidarity and resistance promoted by movements of the left. But callousness toward the sufferings of immigrants and minorities, and the castigation of Asians, Africans, and Muslims now leading difficult lives in the peripheries of Europe—even holding them solely responsible for their woes—are not “brotherhood.”

One can understand how many Europeans might suffer anxiety and even panic as they seek to preserve Europe’s great cultural traditions, profit from the riches it covets in the non-Western world, and retain the advantages gained over so many centuries of class conflict, colonialism, and internecine war. But if Europe is to protect itself, would it be better for it to turn inward, or should it perhaps remember its fundamental values, which once made it the center of gravity for all the world’s intellectuals?

—Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments