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Engaging with the EU: Why Ireland should have sympathy with Turkey

European Studies expert Kerem Oktem examines the common ground between Turkey and Ireland – and why Lucinda Creighton, who was supposed to launch his latest book, is “misguided” in her outlook on his country.

Kerem Oktem

LAST MONTH, Oxford academic Kerem Oktem called off the launch of his book about the contemporary history of Turkey – ‘Angry Nation’ – which had been scheduled for NUI Maynooth. Here, Oktem writes for TheJournal.ie about why he opposed the invitation to Lucinda Creighton, Minister for European Affairs, to launch the book – and how Ireland and Turkey have so much in common in terms of their development and their engagement with the European Union.

THE LAST WEEK of Anglo-Irish relations came as a reminder of the significance of history: The Queen’s visit to Ireland in itself was a symbolical act that marked a momentous turning point in the relations of the two countries.

Her unprecedented bow to the men and women who fell in the struggle for the Irish Republic, and hence against the very institution which she represents, may have been short of an apology for the horrors British colonial rule.

Yet the visit to the Croke Park stadium nevertheless makes clear how things we take for granted and see as immutable can indeed change, sometimes rapidly and radically.

Ireland’s engagement with the European Union is another such impressive example of the course of history and the power of politics. Before joining the Union, Ireland was a largely agricultural country and a socially conservative society, much like Turkey ten years ago. Young people and innovative minds often saw no other way but to search for a better life in the UK or in the US.

Cultural vibrancy

EU membership created the conditions for the country’s gradual transformation into what we came to know as the Celtic Tiger: a centre of attraction for foreign investment, services and industry, and a country whose cultural vibrancy came to its own in the European context. The current economic crisis should not distract from the massive achievements which Ireland has been able to make thanks, in large measure, to the liberalising impetus of the European anchor.

It was precisely for these reasons that I accepted with great enthusiasm an invitation from the Centre for the Wider Study of Europe at the University of Maynooth in April to launch my book with the title, ‘Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989’.

What better place could there be to discuss Turkey’s current transformation from a largely isolated economy and inward-looking society in the 1980s to an increasingly assertive regional power and the world’s 16th largest economy? Or to discuss how the European Union can make a real difference for societies that are eager to modernise and that are striving to engage globally? These are some of the questions I was hoping to raise with the audience in Maynooth. I also wanted to examine the shortcomings of Turkey’s democracy, the prevalence of its non-elected guardians, and the deep-seated notion of majoritarianism. I wanted to address how one deals with social conservatism, religion, diversity and difference, all questions that resound in one or the other with historical experiences in in Ireland.

Alas, none of my questions ever reached the Maynooth audience because of a row over Lucinda Creighton which TheJournal.ie has reported. While this was a fleeting moment of fame which books like ‘Angry Nation’ rarely receive – after all, it is a specialist publication, if an accessible and engaging one I hope – it did leave me with a plaintive feeling: Would Irish people think of me as one of those smug Oxford dons who would love to snub a member of the Irish government out of habitual haughtiness? Would they think I have had too much exposure to the conceit of English elite circles which are not so easy to avoid in Oxford?

Some of the comments which reached me suggested so. Others were supportive of my stance and praised my critique of Lucinda Creighton’s position towards gay marriage. Many felt dismayed by the populist tone of her comments.

The reason for this row was not Lucinda Creighton

To be fair, the reason for this row was not Lucinda Creighton, who is of course entitled to her views, populist or otherwise. That she is Minister of European Affairs is not reassuring in terms of the priority the Fine Gael government gives to the European portfolio, but the democratic process, every now and then, brings people into positions which they are probably not best suited to fill. And who would say that Silvio Berlusconi is the best man to lead Italy?

Whether populist, right-wing, extremist or simply inadequate, I do believe in the need for engagement and the ideal of persuasion by way of better ideas. I also believe in the role of academia to offer well-researched and solid evidence to counter the myths, half-truths and misrepresentations which are so widespread in the debates on Turkey, migration and Islam, and some of which Ms Creighton espouses.

A spokesperson for Creighton had suggested that I based my opinion on ‘third party views’. Her perspectives on Turkey, however, from her characterisation of President McAleese’s support for EU membership ‘as misguided’ to her equation of Turkey with Morocco – despite Turkey’s six decades of EU association – are still available on her website. In short, my problem was not so much with the Minister. I would have loved to counter her views in a public forum and hopefully I would have succeeded in showing that her statements on Turkey’s economic backwardness and potential migration pressure are not supported by evidence.

“Self-hating Turk”

The real fuss was caused elsewhere. While I still believe that the ‘Centre for the Study of Wider Europe’ is an excellent academic institution, it would be my opinion that it mishandled the affair: It was a mistake to ask Lucinda Creighton to host the book launch, as it would have put both of us in an awkward position. My critical stance on Turkey’s politics would have been misconstrued as being anti-Turkish, and apparently there were already rumours in other circles that I might be a ‘self-hating Turk’. We probably would have had a series of awkward moments in which I would have had to fundamentally disagree with my host. Why the organisers at Maynooth have not been able to see this, I still have not fully understood.

My primary objective as author of ‘Angry Nation’ is of course that as many people as possible read the book: After all, I argue that Turkey’s recent history has been written, to this day, mostly by the powerful, by the elites who have been unsympathetic to the plight of the members of minorities, be they Kurds, Alevis or Christians and who have happily looked the other way when it comes to the dark sides of Turkey’s past, of which there are many. I represent a critical alternative reading, which weaves into our understanding of Turkey the experiences of those who suffered repression and arbitrary treatment at the hands of a polity that is transforming into a more inclusive democracy, whose future is
largely dependent on the continued engagement with the European Union.

Sympathy

I also write about the breathtaking economic and societal transformation, which Turkey is already going through – without being a member of the Union. And I do believe that people in Ireland will find the book worthwhile reading: I assume they will feel sympathy with a country that has experienced tough times of poverty and division and that has gone a long way due to the hard work of its citizens. These achievements alone, I believe, are proof of the country’s potential to transform itself into a liberal democracy with a strong middle class, as long as the EU perspective remains in place, and of the contributions Turkey could make to the European Union in economic and cultural terms.

Ultimately, what matters is that everything we believe may believe is solid as a rock -religious and ethnic identities, wealth and poverty, even geography does in fact change all the time. This is why history matters and why Lucinda Creighton’s view on the “perils of Turkish accession”, at least in the long run, are misguided.
Kerem Oktem is a Research Fellow at the European Studies Centre, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is author of ‘Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989′.

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