The World

The origin of today's relations between Europe and Turkey

With this article, historian Gerardo Ferrara continues a series of three studies in which he introduces us to the culture, history and religion of Turkey.

Gerardo Ferrara-April 21, 2024-Reading time: 6 minutes

The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ©OSV

According to the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, the term "Turk", from a political point of view, includes all citizens of the Republic, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Ethnic minorities, in fact, have no official status.

Between modernity and tradition, secularism and the rebirth of Islam

Statistics show that the majority of the population speaks Turkish as a mother tongue; a sizeable minority speaks Kurdish, while a small number of citizens use Arabic as a first language. Although estimates of the Kurdish population in Turkey have not always been reliable, at the beginning of this century Kurds accounted for approximately one-fifth of the country's population. They are present in large numbers throughout eastern Anatolia, where they constitute the majority of the population in several provinces. Other minority ethnic groups, in addition to Kurds and Arabs, are Greeks, Armenians and Jews (who live almost exclusively in Istanbul), and Circassians and Georgians, who live mainly in the eastern part of the country.

As in other Middle Eastern countries, the patriarchal and patrilineal model survives in Turkey in most rural areas, where families gather around a chief and form real solidarity and social structures within the village, often living in common or adjacent spaces. In these areas, where traditional society is still the prevailing model, ancestral practices and customs survive and permeate all phases of family life (considered the center of society, often to the detriment of the individual): from the celebration of marriage, to childbirth, to the circumcision of sons.

According to official statistics, 99 % of the Turkish population is Muslim (10 % Shia).

In addition to the Muslim majority, there are also small minorities of Jews and Christians (the latter divided between Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants).

The country is constitutionally secular. In fact, since 1928, due to a constitutional amendment, Islam is no longer considered the official state religion. Since then, there have been numerous moments of tension caused by the strict secularism imposed by the institutions, perceived by some as a restriction on religious freedom. For example, the wearing of the veil (as well as the traditional Turkish headdress, the tarbush), was long banned in public places until a new constitutional amendment, passed in February 2008 amid great controversy, allowed women to wear it again on university campuses.

Until 1950, moreover, the teaching of religion was not allowed; only after this date did state law permit the establishment of religious schools and university faculties of theology, as well as the teaching of religion in state schools. This shows a rather interesting element: apart from a secular and urbanized elite, a large part of the population in rural Turkey remains deeply anchored in the Islamic faith and traditional values.

Over the years, the armed forces have constantly asserted their prerogative as guarantors of Turkey's secularism, the importance of which they consider fundamental, to the point of intervening on several occasions in the public life of the state whenever any kind of threat to secularism itself is perceived, in recent times, seems more questioned than ever both by the presence of a president, Recep Tayyp Erdoğan (who, together with the party that supports him, the AKP, declares itself a moderate Islamist), and by the widespread awakening of religious claims in all areas.

The Fethullah Gülen movement

Fethullah Gülen was born in 1938. The son of an imam, Gülen was a disciple of Said Nursi, a mystic of Kurdish origin who died in 1960, and, having become a Muslim theologian, he founded a mass movement - based on the adhesion of passionate volunteers who also contributed their own economic resources to the cause - which, starting from the education of students in the 1970s, has come to count, in Turkey alone (where it was initially supported by Erdoğan, who later became his archenemy, to the point that Gülhen himself was accused of being one of the instigators of the failed 2016 coup against Erdoğan), more than a million followers and more than 300 private Islamic schools. There are said to be more than 200 educational institutions spreading Gülen's ideas abroad (especially in the Turkish-speaking countries of the former Soviet area, where the need to regain an ethnic and spiritual identity after centuries of obscurantism is strongest). In addition, his supporters have a bank, several television stations and newspapers, a website in several languages and charities.

Fethullah Gülen's movement is presented as a natural continuation of the work of Said Nursi, who defended the need to fight atheism using not only the weapons of faith, but also those of modernity and progress, joining Christians and the followers of other religions in pursuit of this goal. For this reason, he has become famous, both in his own country (from where, moreover, he chose to move to the United States because of the risk of accusations against him by the Turkish institutions, which, together with the secular elite, consider him an unacceptable danger), He has even met with prominent personalities of the main confessions, such as Pope John Paul II in 1998 and several Orthodox patriarchs and rabbis.

In fact, the main objective of Gülen's movement is to make Islam once again the protagonist in the state and institutions of Turkey, exactly as it was in the Ottoman era, and to make his country an enlightened leader for the entire Islamic world, especially the Turkish-speaking world. It follows that the matrix of the movement itself is Islamic and Pan-Turkish nationalist and is destined, by its very nature, to clash with another type of nationalism present in Turkey, the secular and Kemalist one, which, on the one hand, looks to Europe and the West as ideal partners of Ankara, but, on the other, does not address the outstanding issues that still damage the country's image in the world and cause suffering to entire peoples: the Kurds and Armenians, as well as the Greeks and Cypriots in the north.

Turkey and Europe

Turkey applied for membership of the European Community (now incorporated into the EU) in 1959, and an association agreement was signed in 1963. In 1987, the then Prime Minister Özal applied for full membership. In the meantime, economic and trade ties between Turkey and the EU (already in 1990, more than 50 % of Ankara's exports went to Europe) became increasingly strong, which gave a considerable boost to the demands of the Republic of Turkey in Brussels, which, however, still harbors strong doubts towards the Eurasian country, mainly due to Turkish policy on human rights (in particular, the Kurdish question, which we will analyze in a later article), the sensitive Cyprus issue and the growing resurgence of the conflict between secular and religious (another cause for concern is the very strong power of the military in the country, as they guard the Constitution and the secularity of the State, which seriously threatens some fundamental freedoms of the citizens).

Despite these misgivings, a customs union was established between Ankara and the European Union in 1996, while successive Turkish governments multiplied their efforts in the hope of imminent accession: reforms in the areas of freedom of expression and the press, the use of the Kurdish language, the innovation of the penal code and the curbing of the role of the military in politics followed one after the other. In 2004, the death penalty was abolished. In the same year, the EU invited Turkey to contribute to the settlement of the long-standing conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, encouraging the Turkish faction - which occupies, with Ankara's support, the north of the country - to support the UN-sponsored unification plan, which was to precede Cyprus's entry into the European Union. Although the Ankara government's efforts succeeded in getting the Turkish-speaking population in the north to vote in favor of the plan, the overwhelming Greek majority in the south rejected it. Thus, in May 2004, the island became part of the EU as a divided territory and only the southern part of the island, under the control of the internationally recognized Cypriot government, was granted the rights and privileges of EU membership.

Formal negotiations for Turkey's accession to the EU finally began in 2005. However, negotiations are stalled to this day because Ankara, while recognizing Cyprus as a legitimate member of the EU, still refuses to give the Cypriot government full diplomatic recognition and refuses to open its air and sea space to Cypriot aircraft and ships. The political problems, however, are but a small aspect of the more complex Turkish-European issue.


It is not only Cyprus that stands in the way of Turkey's entry into the EU. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself is a symbol of Turkey's oscillating balance between East and West.

Erdoğan, born in 1954, held several political posts before becoming Turkey's president in 2014. He emerged as a leading figure in Turkish politics during the 1990s as mayor of Istanbul on a conservative Islamic platform. In 2001, he co-founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he led to electoral victory in 2002. During his tenure, Erdoğan led the country to a period of economic growth. However, his government has also been the subject of controversy regarding democracy, human rights and freedom of the press. Erdoğan has effectively consolidated power through constitutional reforms (including the 2017 reform on presidentialism) and has faced both domestic and international criticism for his authoritarian policies, including repression of political opposition and restriction of freedom of expression. Its foreign policy has been characterized by active involvement in regional conflicts (including support for various Islamic fundamentalist movements) and an opportunistic policy towards international partners.

With his defeat in the last local elections in March 2024 in the country's largest cities, the Erdoğan era may be headed for decline. Or is it?

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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