Do Muslims not belong in this Christian Europe?
From Seville to Sarajevo and beyond, there is no corner of Europe that can claim to be free of eastern influence
By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
16 December 2002
Awfully dejected this week after Turkey was yet again rebuffed, discouraged from even thinking it could be considered as a member of a European Union described by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as a Christian club. The sentiments were echoed by Germany's conservative leader, Edmund Stoiber, and others too. Ah, yes, now I understand these particular values which form the basis of this wonderful Union of theirs. They are to be based only on Christianity. So that's why Europe had to energetically burn those millions of Jews 50-plus years ago. The continent's terrific human values could not be sustained when it contained such a large number of un-Christian souls. How interesting that it is the German and French leaders with their shameful anti-Semitic history who are keenest to keep Europe Christian.
And now other threats are being made by all manner of barbarians knocking at the doors: Hindus, Sikhs, Baha'is, Buddhists and most of all those infernal Muslims. We allowed them to enter our countries so we could exploit them, and now they think they can actually belong to this ancient civilisation. The cheek.
Their decision has knocked back reformist European Muslims who are fighting against Islamist ideologues who also see Europe as "Western" and a place with alien and abhorrent ideas which must be rejected or terrorised by true "jihadis". The humiliation of Turkey gives the ideologues ammunition against all that Europe stands for, including many of the precious principles so many of us Muslims espouse, not because they are white and Christian but because they are universal and right.
Turkey so far has proved itself worthy by holding a fair election and sticking with the result an overwhelming victory to the Islamic party even though the result alarmed the secularists who have held power for decades oppressing, among others, the opposition Islamic parties. (I think the West would have been better pleased if the victors had not behaved with such sophistication and as proper democrats. If only they had started chopping off hands and stoning adulterers, it wouldn't have been so hard to dismiss their latest application.) Yes, many human rights abuses still remain to be sorted out and Turkey's ruling party has to prove itself. But this should be another reason to encourage Turkey to join us and to start to live by the rules which the EU holds sacrosanct.
Millions of people live in Turkey today who, until this week, were undecided whether their destiny lay with the West or with the Islamic nations to the east. They supported Nato and they thought of themselves as a meeting place of cultures where hordes of Western tourists could drink themselves to a good time as long as they stopped to listen to the calls to prayer, always hauntingly beautiful. Many too many will, I fear, veer towards groups and nations which are uncompromisingly anti-West. Powerful people such as Abdullah Gul, an adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, already feel Turkey should stop begging to gain entry.
As an ardent European, I feel let down and embarrassed by the EU leadership this week. Tony Blair was the only one in Copenhagen who appeared to understand the consequences of the EU's stupid and discriminatory decision on Turkey, and its criminal lack of imagination and of basic knowledge on its own history.
The East bedazzled Europe for centuries and its goods, peoples, thoughts, ideas, books, fabrics, jewels, crafts, arts, music, sexual practices and foods were craved, hunted down, brought over, admired and absorbed by every corner of European life. From Seville to Sarajevo and beyond, no corner of Europe can claim to be free of Eastern influence. Espresso coffee, hand-painted tiles, fountains and squares, science, medicine and mathematics all contain the cultural DNA of the Ottoman empire (which was, like all empires, both good and rotten), of the Egyptian and Persian empires, and many other civilisations, including China and India. I was in that most English of places, Lewes in East Sussex, last weekend and loved it for its palpable presence of history, Tom Paine and all that. Wandering around the house of Anne of Cleves, I saw huge old tapestries with pashas and Turkish princesses as well as Chinese and Indian characters.
In his book Islam in Britain 1558-1685, Nabil Matar shows how "Muslims and their Arab-Islamic legacy were part of the religious, commercial and military self-definition of England". Coffee was brought here and installed in coffee houses by Turks, who took slaves from undefended British coastal areas. Love and hate came and went between the two just as it did, and does, between France and England. The influences were more profound and long-lasting in Spain, Italy, the Balkans and some former Soviet satellite states. Philosophers such as al-Farabi (who died in 950) re-established Greek thought and wrote on statecraft in books which informed Thomas Aquinas. Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna, who died in 1037) built on the teachings of Aristotle and wrote some of the most respected books on science and medicine.
Today the traffic is the other way around. The West bedazzles the East with its technological developments, arts, literature, goods, ideas and ideologies. These are craved, hunted down, found and absorbed by so-called Eastern civilisations. For centuries, neither the East nor the West has existed without the other.
The effects of the EU's decision on Turkey will be pessimism and more mutual antipathy. It gives strength to those with the meanest instincts, the determined xenophobes, and encourages a wilful ignorance and misrepresentation of Europe's identity. It is a betrayal of many of us who pay taxes to keep EU grandees in the lap of power. If the EU is only Christian where do we, the non-Christians, fit in? Do we bulldoze our temples, mosques and synagogues and walk with red holly wreathes whistling Beethoven's Ninth to show that we belong?
It is said that the EU is holding back Turkey to stop the increasingly popular, far right-wing parties from exploiting a mood which is at present susceptible to Islamophobia. I scream with frustration when I hear this dangerous garbage. Yes, as a BBC journalist, Angus Roxburgh, reveals in his new book Preachers of Hate: The Rise of the Far Right, since 11 September support for fascism has reached 17 per cent in Europe and is rising. But, by refusing to get going on Turkey's admission to the Union, such abominable ideas are only encouraged.
And how do reformist Muslims get out of this one? What do we say when we are asked, as I already am: "So what about your Europe now? Where is their equality? Where are their just values?" While Europe plays these games, hundreds more bright young Muslim men and women, who see through the cant, will seek affirmation in the company of people we should truly fear.
The EU has arrived at a moment of destiny. It needs to become a credible and dynamic world player to counterbalance the hyper-power. Unlike the US, it has a long relationship with the Muslim worlds and it is more trusted when it comes to the Middle East. Yet today it has betrayed these possibilities and stands condemned by those of us who had such hopes. What else, but dark despair?
©Copyright 2002, The Independent (UK)