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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

October 10, 2005

LONDON - The Turks, a nomadic people who originated in Central Asia, have had a national identity crisis for the past seven hundred years. They simply cannot decide whether to look west, and be Europeans, or look East and remain part of Asia. Their peninsula, Asia Minor, puts them squarely in the middle of this giant conundrum.

In the Fifteenth Century, the great Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II, surnamed the Conqueror, dreamed of restoring the Roman Empire under Ottoman rule by capturing Constantinople and Rome, and making them his twin capitals.

In 1453, Mehmet’s forces stormed Constantinople. He at once ordered his armies to invade Italy and capture Rome.

The only way for Mehmet’s armies to reach Italy was to cross the wild mountains of Albania to get to the Adriatic coast. From the Albanian coast to southern Italy is only 65 km across the narrow Strait of Otranto.

But 30 years of ferocious Albanian resistance led by national hero Skenderbeg defeated every Ottoman invasion, thwarting Mehmet’s ambitions to conquer Italy.

Only after Skenderbeg’s death was Albania finally conquered. In 1480, Turkish forces landed in southern Italy at Bari and advanced north. The feeble, feuding Italian city states were incapable of resisting the large, efficient Ottoman Army; their small armies would have been swept aside.

When the Turks were only 200 km from Rome, Mehmet suddenly died. Successor Bayazid II cared nothing for Europe. He halted the invasion of Italy and sent his armies east to conquer Persia. The Italian Renaissance was saved by Albania’s resistance and sheer luck.

Since the 15th century, the Turks have kept oscillating between the two poles of Europe and Asia, torn by the geopolitical and cultural magnetism of West and East.

However, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919, and the rise to power of Mustafa Kemal, oriented Turkey firmly westwards - or at least its urban parts. Ataturk banned Arabic script, the fez and Islamic customs. He became the most ruthless oppressor of religion after Josef Stalin.

For the past 40 years, Turkey’s ruling elite has been painfully trying to become part of a less than enthusiastic Europe. Last week, Turkey finally opened membership talks with the European Community after last-minute objections by Austria. Turkey’s effort desire to join Europe comes at a time when the EU is deeply conflicted over its nature and direction, rent by indecision and discontent, and worried that expansion has already gone too far.

These talks will drag on for a decade before Turkey’s 72 million citizens will hopefully become full EU members, and will demand Turkey undergo a social and legal revolution to comply with over 800 pages of EU laws.

Turkey’s popular, capable prime minister, Racep Erdogan, a moderate Islamist, and foreign minister Abdullah Gul, have already implemented important political and legal reforms to prepare Turkey for EU admission, including curbing many human rights abuses and making a peace of sorts with rebellious Kurds. The EU’s influence over Turkey has so far thus been most positive.

But Turkey is not yet a full, European-style democracy. The powerful 580,000-man armed forces, NATO’s second largest, remains dangerously politicized. Its bullying, hard line, anti-Islamic generals are a constant menace to democratic governments, whom they have repeatedly threatened to overthrow. Erdogan was even once jailed by the generals for daring to recite an ancient Islamic poem.

Turkey’s generals, allied to big industrialists and bankers, consider themselves guardians of the 1930’s semi-fascist ideology of dictator Mustafa Kemal, a great national hero turned dictator and oppressor of Islam in his later years. The cults of Franco, Mussolini, and Peron are gone, but Ataturk’s dour ghost still rules Turkey through the army.

Before Turkey can become a full EU member, its generals must get out of politics and business and return to their barracks. Kemalist ideology, which is used to protect the economic and political interests of the pro-western ruling elite, needs to be buried.

Many Turks want to be part of Europe. The economic advantages for Turkey would be enormous. The US and Britain are pushing hard for Turkey to join. They hope the pro-US Turks will dilute the power of France and Germany, providing a Trojan Horse that will split the EU, and help police the rowdy Mideast and serve as an example of how good Muslims should behave — i.e. by keeping Islam firmly out of politics and economics.

Turley’s small, secular ruling elite is totally Europeanized. But the rest of this great and distinct Muslim nation is not. Nor are Turks Mideasterners. They are simply Turks.

Britain’s Tony Blair and Jack Straw exaggerate when claiming Turkey `has always been a European country.’

Only a small chunk of Turkey is in Europe. North Africa is closer to Brussels than Turkey’s capital Ankara, and as much part of Europe’s history and economy as Turkey. Anyone who has traveled across Turkey’s interior knows its rural citizens are certainly not part of Europe in any important sense.

More important, 55% of Europeans ­ particularly in nations with large Muslim immigrant populations like France, Germany, Holland, and Austria ­ don’t want any more Muslims in Christian Europe. Neither does the new Pope. In 10 years, Turkey will surpass Germany as Europe’s most populous nation. Turkey would them hold a leading position in the European parliament and the EU Commission in Brussels.

Europe’s old bogeymen of the `Unspeakable Turk’ coming to ravish Christian maidens is resurfacing. So will legitimate fears that waves of migrant Turks will take scarce jobs across the continent, swamp welfare rolls, and devour the lion’s share of EU farm subsidies.

I’ve always been pessimistic a Euro-Turkic marriage will work. Turkey might be better off with a privileged economic-political partnership with Europe than full union in which it ends up an unwanted, second-class relative.

Hopefully, I’m wrong. But there’s a real danger anti-Muslim Europeans will spend the coming decade finding a thousand nitpicking reasons for blocking or delaying Turkish membership, leaving the proud, prickly Turks embittered and enraged.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2005


  • Good news from the Balkans. Albania has a new, democratic government. Former Prime Minister Sali Berisha has been re-elected in a reasonably open election. Berisha, whom I’ve interviewed, supports free markets, is hugely pro-American, understands the need to attract foreign investment and is the finest political leader in Albania — honest and incorruptible.

    Berisha’s victory means the Albanian Communist Party, re-named Socialists, a bunch of Stalinist thugs and murderers, which was kept in power by the EU, are now gone, at least for the time being. Good riddance. Many of them, who date from the nightmare days of dictator Enver Hoxah, should be jailed for turning Albania ­ as I saw with my own horrified eyes ­ into a gigantic prison camp.

  • Threats of terror attacks on New York’s subway. Bah! As a native New Yorker who rode the subways since he was six, I say nothing can or should scare away tough New Yorkers. Roll on, IRT!

Published at Bigeye.com since 1995 with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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