Camel greeting

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Turkey and the European Union

OK – A geography question for all you pub trivia freaks out there. What’s the capital city of Estonia? Yeah, I know it’s on the tip of your tongue. Come on, spit it out! Tallinn, right? Bravo, well, done! And, of course, you knew it would be European Capital of Culture this year, right? Along with Turku, Finland? Seems the gnomes of Brussels accept that they erred last year. Essen, Pecs and Istanbul were just too many culture capitals for one year, so from now on, they’ve decided two at a time will be enough.

So, it seems we have two things to congratulate the Estonians on. The other, of course, is their elevation to membership of the EU Euro club as of 1 January 2011. No doubt the Germans will be delighted to know they’ve got the ‘Baltic Tiger’ at their side to help bail out those frailer members of the club: Greece, Ireland, and the other ones making up the economic barnyard of ‘PIIGS’.

But seriously, folks, I really have to admit I knew nothing about Estonia until I read that news item on the latest member of the Euro Club . . . so I checked them out, and I want to share my findings with you.

I had previously heard of the ‘Baltic Tiger’ – apparently a reference to their booming economy around the time they were accepted into the EU in 2004. Sadly, it seems the growl has gone out of the tiger in recent times. The CIA World Factbook website reports that, since the real estate bubble burst in 2008, their economy has been contracting at an annual rate of around 15%, one of the highest (or lowest) rates in the world.

Still, the Germans don’t need to fear a major drain on their financial largesse. According to the 2000 census, Estonia had a total population of 1,370,000 – not a figure to strike fear into anyone’s heart. Interestingly, according to latest estimates, that population has fallen by 30,000 in ten years. Wonder where they went?

Another item of interest I came across on the CIA site, and I’m quoting here:

Estonia is a ‘growing producer of synthetic drugs; increasingly important transhipment zone for cannabis, cocaine, opiates, and synthetic drugs since joining the European Union and the Schengen Accord; [there is] potential money laundering related to organized crime and drug trafficking is a concern, as is possible use of the gambling sector to launder funds; major use of opiates and ecstasy.’

Well, that’s enough on Estonia. I don’t want to dwell on their plight – looks like they’ve got enough troubles to go on with. However, the news about their joining the Euro club did prompt me to check out one or two other recent additions to the united Europe. Bulgaria and Romania were judged to have met the EU’s membership conditions, and joined on 1 January 2007. BBC News, around that time, ran an article on the subject, asking, among other questions, whether these two former Communist countries were really ready for membership. Again, I’m quoting:

‘Officials at the European Commission [were] quoted as saying that they are not really ready, but that delaying accession may not be the best way to encourage further reforms. The Commission was hoping, for example, that Bulgaria would take big steps over the summer to tackle high-level corruption and organized crime, but officials in Brussels say they have been disappointed.’

According to the same report, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia are expected to join in the near future. Meanwhile, Turkey’s membership talks are on again-off again, which brings me to the point of this article. I’ve just been reading an interview with a Turkish academic, Dr Armağan Emre Çakır, assistant professor at the European Union Institute of Marmara University in Istanbul. Dr Çakır has apparently, recently published a book entitled ‘Fifty Years of EU-Turkey Relations: A Sisyphean Story’.

Now Sisyphus, as I’m sure you are aware, was a king in ancient times who was punished by the gods in a particularly infuriating way. A thoroughly objectionable character, Sisyphus apparently let it be known that he considered himself superior, not only to his mortal subjects, but to the gods themselves. His divine punishment was to roll, for all eternity, a huge boulder to the top of a hill. The fiendish nature of the punishment was that, with the summit in sight, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom, whence the unfortunate king would have to begin his task again.

Now, I haven’t read Dr Çakır’s book, so I can’t say whether, with this analogy, he is comparing Turkey to the obnoxious King Sisyphus, justly punished; or Turkey’s attempts to join the EU to the task of rolling the boulder uphill. In the interview, the learned professor claimed that he had taken great pains to avoid seeming biased in Turkey’s favour, so it may, indeed, be the former.

Nevertheless, I checked out the other part of the title, and it’s true: Turkey did, in fact, first apply to what was then the EEC (European Economic Community) for associate membership in July 1958. Almost 30 years later, in April 1987, after making little appreciable progress, the Turks applied for formal membership into what was now the European Community. Since then, the occasional crumb has been thrown their way. In 1995, for example, a customs union agreement was signed between the EU and Turkey. One assumes, the thinking behind this is to keep them nibbling at the hook – to keep them believing that acceptance is just around the corner, if they’ll only try a little harder.

You can understand why Europe would want to do that. Turkey has been a member of NATO since its inception, and has always been a major contributor to its military forces. The US maintains at least one important air force base on the Turkish mainland, and makes it clear to all and sundry that Turkey is an important ‘friend’. Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949 and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in 1973. Coming straight out and telling them to get lost is clearly out of the question.

On the other hand, to accede to the EU, Turkey must first successfully complete negotiations with the European Commission on each of the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the total body of EU law. Afterwards, the member states must unanimously agree on granting Turkey membership to the European Union. And the day that happens, a squadron of flying pigs will land at Istanbul International Airport, and be given an official welcome.

Call me a cynic, but I can’t see either event happening. Whatever misgivings Europe has about Turkey’s political and social fabric, it is clear that, when they want to accept a country into their fold, they do so, in the stated belief that desirable change is more likely to take place once that country has become a member. One of the major sticking points in Turkey’s on-going negotiations for membership is the Cyprus situation. In 2004, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, submitted a plan for the reunification of the island. The plan was supported by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots, but rejected by the Greeks. Shortly thereafter, the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus was admitted to membership of the EU.

I can’t escape the feeling that the antics of Western leaders re Turkey’s application for EU membership are simply a variation of the ‘good cop-bad cop’ routine. The UK Prime Minister and the US President, and the occasional other high profile politico, regularly go public with statements about the desirability of admitting Turkey. However, for my money, I’d give more credence to the words of French President Sarkozy, and German Chancellor Merkel, both of whom have made it abundantly clear that they see no place for Turkey in the European Union.

Would it be surprising, then, if Turkey began to take an increasingly independent stance on international affairs; and to seek economic and strategic alliances elsewhere?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Merry Sufi Christmas and a Happy Chinese New Year! - Globalising Religion

First up, I want to wish all my loyal readers (and any new-comers to the fold) health, happiness and prosperity in the New Year, the Year of Our Lord, 2011. Uh oh, hang on a minute – let me adjust that – 2011 CE. It was a measure of the grip globalisation has on us all, that midnight, December 31st was celebrated with parties and festivities from Sydney to Seoul; from Auckland to Amritsar and Allahabad; in Times Square, New York, and Times Square, Hong Kong; that the world’s most expensive Christmas tree was to be found in Abu Dhabi, and the tallest New Year fireworks display, in Dubai, on the 828 metre Burj Khalifa. Even the Chinese joined the party, despite the fact that their new year, the Year of the Rabbit, incidentally, and 4707, 4708, or 4647, depending on who’s counting, will not click over until February 3rd.
Burj Khalifa Tower, Dubai

I kind of liked that. I’ve never been a big capitalist, but you have to respect the power of an idea to bring people together, don’t you! Socialism has been dead and buried for a few years now, and life is getting increasingly difficult for religious fanatics. But Mammon is hard at work out there, binding Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, atheists and reformed Communists into one big happy family. It’s pretty clear that there’s never been an ‘–ism’ like it!

However, in the midst of all the Santa Clauses, Father Christmases, New Year pyrotechnics and what not, another date slipped by pretty much unnoticed . . . the 17th of December. I hope the Sufis among you will forgive my stating the obvious, but that day marked the 737th anniversary of the death of Mevlana Jalal al-din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, philosopher and Sufi mystic, known in the West more simply as Rumi. I have to admit, though, I might have missed the date too, if one of my students hadn’t pointed it out to me. Nevertheless, once it was drawn to my attention, it got me thinking . . .

Those of you who read this column regularly will know how much I love my adoptive home, the Republic of Turkey, and the respect I have for my Muslim brothers and sisters who have become my friends, neighbours and even family. You will perhaps have marvelled that the son of a nation which once joined a military invasion to subdue this land, could have stayed so long, and developed such affection for former enemies. But there it is, and I make no apologies.

Still, if there is one thing I can’t get my head around, it’s the lunar calendar. I’m a firm believer in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay – but I like holidays, nonetheless. I’m used to my Christmases and Easters and New Years and Labour Days and Queen’s Birthdays, and all that stuff we take as an inalienable human right back in New Zealand. I may have seemed to take it for granted when I was younger, but I have always been grateful to those nameless activists who fought to ensure that, even though no one was exactly sure when Jesus was nailed to that tree, we would get a Friday and a Monday off school or work every year in sympathy. No doubt those in the know always got together on the correct day to cheer Elizabeth Regina as she blew out her birthday candles – but we in New Zealand could always count on the first Monday in June as the day for honouring our sovereign lady queen.

It therefore seems to me that no one would suffer much harm, and the devout could continue to sacrifice and fast, if the Muslim holy times of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha (Kurban Bayram) were similarly fixed, perhaps sometime in autumn and spring. I understand that, for tribes living in a harsh desert environment not much conducive to sowing and harvesting, solar seasons were pretty irrelevant, and the phases of the moon seemed as good a measure of the passing of time as any other. If you can sleep through the heat of a desert day, fasting from dawn till dusk may not be such a trial. If you’re not bound to the five-day working week, it may not matter much if your days of feasting fall on weekends or weekdays. But these days, when we are all, to a greater or lesser extent in the clutches of the above-mentioned Mammon-ism, it makes a big difference. We need to feel that we can plan our lives (including our holidays) and that important festivals will take place at stable and predictable times each year - and, for better or worse, that means the solar year.

Sure, I know what you’re thinking. Those Islamic months are set in stone. God gave the Koran to the Angel Gabriel, who gave it to the Prophet Mohammed, and that’s it, end of story. No amendments, no interpretations, no alterations. Lunar months are ordained by God. The Ramazan month of fasting will start when the ‘Hilal’ crescent at the beginning of the ninth lunar month is spotted by the official ‘spotter’. Any government of a Muslim country that tried to ‘rationalise’ the calendar for the modern world would be committing political suicide. But spare a thought for the poor school kids, who will soon face an academic year without a break because the religious holidays all fall during the summer vacation. What of the employed faithful who will have to work through 30 summer days without letting a sip of water pass their lips? Anyway, with Muslims spread all over the globe, there’s no way that one ‘spotter’ can do the job for the whole community any more.

And there’s another thing – the reason I brought up Mevlana Rumi in the first place, in case you were wondering. Did you notice that date, 17 December, 1273? And did you wonder, as I did, why it wasn’t 6 Jumada al-Thani, 672 A.H.? Well, again, I have to admit, I found a site on the Internet to do the conversion for me, but you get the point I want to make. There was a guy who was born, lived and died a Muslim in important cities in an Islamic empire at a time when that religion was assuredly in the ascendant. Thousands of devout Muslims visit his tomb in the Turkish city of Konya every year. Without doubt, the date on his tombstone would read (if we could read Arabic) 672, and not 1273. Yet every year, around 17 December, a clearly non-lunar date, Muslim Turks welcome the faithful and the interested, to join them in commemorating the passing on of the great Sufi mystic.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to find there is one other ‘–ism’ with an interest in bringing folks together, rather than tearing them apart. I don’t want to get into the debate about whether Islam is a religion of war or peace. It seems to me that, depending on where you’re starting from, you could argue either way, just as you could for most other religions and ideologies.

Mevlana Rumi, however, was ‘. . . not a Muslim of the orthodox type. His doctrine advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. To him and to his disciples all religions are more or less truth. Looking with the same eye on Muslim, Jew and Christian alike, his peaceful and tolerant teaching has appealed to [people] of all sects and creeds.’

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) organised events to commemorate, in 2007, the 800th anniversary of the birth of Mevlana Rumi. They did this because they believed that his ideas and ideals coincided with the ideals of UNESCO, which you can find on their website:

UNESCO works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values. It is through this dialogue that the world can achieve global visions of sustainable development encompassing observance of human rights, mutual respect and the alleviation of poverty, all of which are at the heart of UNESCO’S mission and activities.
UNESCO’s mission is to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.

Pretty good stuff, you have to admit. And if Rumi believed in that, then I’m with him, even if he was a Muslim.