Have pity! Stop going on at us about Turkey

By Elif Kayi

Article awarded with European Young Journalist Award 2009 (previously published on the French online newspaper Mediapart)

OPINION. Some subjects are clear cut. Quite simply, you are either for or you are against. Whatever your views, you do not remain undecided. Indecisiveness concerning these kinds of topics would be dismissed as typical political vacillation. And, in politics, if one is without a clear opinion, one is obliged to keep quiet, thank you very much.


Certain issues also gradually mutate over time, fading into insignificance or becoming reserved for “experts” propping up bars the world over. This is precisely one of those subjects which some might think had been relegated to the backburner – only for it to return to haunt our newspapers, sites, blogs and bars so that we have to dust off the cobwebs and start discussing it all over again.

The subtlety of the debate is rarely striking, but the sheer passion involved, well……..that is universal. We become animated, we exult, we attack, we lambast, we defend and we regroup. If perhaps you don’t feel ready for the confrontation yet, why not take a few moments to immerse yourself in Wikipedia to at least acquaint yourself geographically with the region in question? Or try to recollect a few snippets from your dim and distant history lessons. And then, because as in all matters political, it is often practice that makes perfect, go right in to battle!

Are you for or against Turkey’s entry into the European Union? This is a question to which any politically and reasonably normal individual ought to have a clear and precise response. The more uncertainty you tend to show, the less likely you are to be trusted. Let’s take, for example, the instance of the president of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, having a dig at the American president Barack Obama, who had dared to pressurise the Europeans by supporting the Ottoman…excuse me…..Turkish candidacy. Sarkozy said:“I have always been opposed to their entry and I remain so.” That’s the kind of strong politicalconviction that we like, is it not?

It’s much better than the bluster of certain politicians, such as François Hollande, who “thinks that there is a sort of confusion, that Europe’s interest is the interest of NATO and the interest of the United States (…) it is there that we are able to understand that Nicolas Sarkozy has made a real error in fully entering into NATO.” If anyone in the room reading that statement understands even vaguely what this stance means, please raise your hands. No…..for this question an acerbic response is required, accompanied by as little commentary as possible; otherwise, we will get completely bogged down in the whole issue.

Abandoned after the launch of negotiations in October 2005, and having become painful to listen to at the time thanks to its incessant repetition, the subject of Turkey’s EU accession has just become flavour of the month again

due to Obama putting his foot in it during a press conference at the EU-US summit in Prague. With the arrival of the European elections, there were indeed some spoilsports who once again waved the spectre of this bogeyman under our noses. But on the whole, in this time of global economic crisis, steep unemployment, and social as well as human distress, Turkey could well have done without it.

Recently, while looking up the profile of a friend on the much-loved social networking site that is Facebook, I noticed (nothing or almost nothing goes unnoticed nowadays…) that she had just joined a group answering to the charming name of:“I bet I can find one million persons who don’t want Turkey in the EU”. Well, despite the rather proselytising moniker, everyone has a right to their own opinions. I sent her a brief, humorous message asking her what was the meaning of this “mischievous anti-Turkish propaganda” to which she had signed-up. I think that my friend took this message seriously, as she replied that it was not a matter of propaganda, but of a serious group where everyone was able to express their position freely and openly, and that I was welcome to join. Well, I wasn’t really sure that “welcome”, in this case, was the appropriate word, but I understood what she meant by her remark. If I was “for”, it was up to me to come and offer my views. Usually I like discussing these kinds of subjects, but in this instance, I must admit that just the very title of the group had already worn me out.

At school (in France), I chose German as my first foreign language. In the 5th grade we used to use a textbook entitled “Komm mit nach Deutschland!” (Come with us to Germany!). It dated from the period prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and, as with the majority of linguistic textbooks, it aimed to show
different facets of the Federal Republic of Germany. Addressing the phenomenon of migration, one one chapter dealt with Germany’s Turkish population, and told the story of little Ali who had come from his home village – somewhere in the depths of Anatolia – to Stuttgart.

The first pictures depicted scenes of Ali and his parents’ daily life in the village: no electricity; no running water; and no car, although there was
transport by donkey. Ali’s mother was totally delighted when, on arriving in Germany, she discovered the fantastic light-switches and the whistling kettle that was heated on the stove, as well as all the other formidable inventions of modern times. Little Ali – whose skin, eyes, hair and eyebrows were inevitably very dark – was not liked by his classmates. This is how he came to befriend another “Aussenseiter” (outsider). Tiny Uwe, spotty and shortsighted, had also been rejected by the majority. On their way home from lessons, Ali and Uwe often walked past a department store. In the window, there was a small radio-cassette player. Ali dreamed of possessing
such an object, but he had no money. So he decided to steal one. But he was apprehended by the security guards who called the police, who then in turn called his father. When his father arrived he was furious, and the story ended with a lecture, and Dad declaring sharply to his crestfallen son in front of the policemen: “But what do you want? Do you want us to be sent back to Turkey?”

This is how French kids got to know Germany’s Turkish immigrants. Ja, komm mit nach Deutschland!

Curiously, in class, nobody spoke to me about this subject. Nobody even asked my opinion on this story. Nobody asked me whether things really were like that in Turkey, or whether people really did travel about by donkey. I wouldn’t claim that I was an expert on the country, but having visited it several times by that point, I would have been able to contribute a comment or two. With hindsight, I realise that my classmates really couldn’t have cared less about Turkey. The Turks, in Germany or elsewhere, came way down on their list of priorities. Just between you and me, why should they have had any particular interest in it when I can clearly remember (when I was in my ‘teens) having to point out to several adults exactly where
Turkey was geographically situated? No, it was not next to Yugoslavia – which by that time no longer existed – nor was it in the Arabian Peninsula, nor on the continent of Africa…

For a long time, for most French people Turkey’s image was that of a faraway land, vaguely sunny (purely by way of information, you can ski in Turkey), vaguely Muslim, vaguely touristy and frankly, above all else, uninteresting.
But, as ever, times change and “everything’s going to the dogs”……as they say in old-folk jargon.

Nowadays, everybody – or almost everybody – knows where Turkey is. Or believes they know where Turkey is. And, thanks to Mr. Philippe de Villiers, we have, moreover resolved the oh-so-tiresome issue of whether the country is situated in Europe or in Asia; Turkey belongs to “Eurasia”. I would be eternally grateful if my geographer friends would take pity on me for my lack of education, and explain to me exactly what and where this continent called Eurasia is.

Nowadays, everybody also knows that Turkey demonstrates shortcomings in the realm of human rights: the Kurdish question; freedom of the press; rights for women and homosexuals, etc. However, there are some good souls who are passionate about equality and democracy in Turkey, and who are involved in a daily struggle to change this situation. So, does anyone offer to give them a helping hand? No. They shut the door on them. The thinking goes something like this: ‘Our own democracy poses us enough problems already, we don’t need to go around poking our noses into other people’s troubles’. To use the old proverb, we look after our own back yard and let other people look after theirs. In other words, we mind our own business and let others take care of theirs. But what of those who can’t or won’t? That raises one or two interesting questions….

For example, nowadays, everybody knows that Turkey is a big country. Err, precisely how big, in fact? Sixty million? No, one hundred million…is that it? More? Well, let’s just say that there are very many people living there. And, furthermore, everybody knows that Turkey is a rather poor country and, given EU regulations concerning the free circulation of labour, its membership of the union would lead to an invasion of Turkish workers in search of jobs here. This is without taking into account the cost to the European union of such a membership. No, really…in a time of econom ic crisis, too…it is not a good idea.

Nowadays, everybody also knows that Turkey is a Muslim country. Phew, there it is, I said it!That’s the cat out of the bag. There, that single thought begins to make people wriggle in their seats and perspire under their armpits. We have finally arrived at the famous question of the continent’s cultural tradition. For, million migrants originating from Muslim nations also live in the countries of the European Union. Others will go on to say that Turkey also possesses a significant Christian cultural heritage (it is suggested that those who don’t believe this immerse themselves in the current edition of ‘Géo’).

But who will dare to claim that culture and identity are not seen as timeless and finite values that are in a state of perpetual motion and transformation? Europe is built on an idea, and around a collection of values, the foremost of which are democracy and peace. It was also initially built on the bedrock of warfare. The idea of union germinated after the Second World War. The notion of a realised European identity could therefore leave some people feeling very sceptical. Did our grandparents’ generation imagine Europe in the same way as young generations today? Probably not. But this is not the kind of Europe that many like to think about or project. It’s much better to be open and positive, rather than be in thrall to dark and dramatic thoughts.

In the weekly debate between Laurent Joffrin of Libération and Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette of Le Point (on Libération’s website), Madame Pierre-Brossolette mentioned that European values “were not quite like those of Turkey” – the same old song. Once more, I have to confess my ignorance, but in all honesty, I do not understand which “values” we are talking about and why they would be alien to Turkey. Honestly, I eally do not understand.

I do not claim to have a fixed view on the subject and I am ready to discuss arguments for and against Turkey’s accession into the European Union objectively. But preferably within the framework of a discussion that is free of sentiments that are as sterile as they are obsolete, and that undermine any debate even before it has begun. By all means, let’s discuss the issues of Islam and human rights, democracy and national debt, unemployment, geostrategic position, etc.!But, for pity’s sake, let’s put an end to all the
ideological discourse (or, more correctly in certain cases, populist discourse). All it takes is just a touch of rationality informing the comments, that’s all.

Curiously, when I switch on the television or dive back into the newspapers these days, an overwhelming sense of fatigue seizes me once again. This fatigue makes me want to throw in the towel and respond in the manner of many young Turkish people, i.e.: “Well, we don’t want to be part of the European Union either.”

Perhaps I am going to end up thinking like them. But no, come on, a small shot of vitamins and we are good to go at it all once more!Indefatigably, we get ready to repeat the same things and rehearse the same old arguments over and again…Truthfully, it’s a subject worthy of much more than that. And just dream of what would happen if we were finally able to change the recor

2 Comments

Filed under EU, Opinion

2 responses to “Have pity! Stop going on at us about Turkey

  1. a great read! I love this piece! Many of the ideas presented have been bouncing around my head without me being able to formulate it. Yes, when you don’t have a clear yes or no, which usually means gravely simplifying the issue, it is difficult to “win masses”. I hate this about politics. And the notion of “European values” which is just something so sacred that it is supposed to shut down any discussion. But if somebody still dares to challenge this notion, nobody can really explain what those values are. Could it be that it is just a way to hide, even justify, xenophobia?
    Maybe I am reading more than you meant into your text, but it is very well written and I really enjoy your style of expressing ideas and thoughts.

  2. Elif Kayi

    Hello Marina,
    I think you are quite right when you talk about “a way to hide, even justify, xenophobia”. Or maybe to use it since populism and xenophobic attitudes are often a tool used in politics to win masses (as you also wrote).
    The interesting thing regarding Turkey and France is the complete lack of interest of the French population (and politicians as well) for the country until recently. Actually France “discovered” Turkey only in the last years, in a context of post-9/11 and talks on EU accession, which led to quite “explosive” and very emotional discussions.
    I just wish more objectivity at least at a political level… it is too much to ask? Maybe…

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