The Fading Dream of Europe

Andreas Herzau
A portrait of Atatürk in the Cagaloglu 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 the 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 Frantz 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…

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