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Turkey Takes the Cultural Route to the EU

June 20, 2003

Turkey may have a long way to go politically before it is accepted in the EU, but the mainly Muslim nation is making strong cultural inroads into Europe, making it difficult for Brussels to ignore its EU aspirations.

Big coup -- Turkey's Sertab Erener, center, won the Eurovision Song Contest in Latvia last month.Image: AP

In a latest bout of EU-inspired reforms, Turkey’s parliament on Thursday passed a series of human rights reforms aimed to help Ankara improve its position in membership talks with Brussels in 2004.

The reforms, disputed by Turkey’s powerful military, boost broadcasting rights in the Kurdish language for its Kurdish minority and abolish further laws restricting freedom of thought and expression. The reform package also scratches so-called anti-separatist laws that allow the state to suppress non-violent protest against the government and to imprison and prosecute human rights activists and political dissidents.

"This package is one of the most important steps Turkey has taken on its way to a more contemporary society," Justice Minister Cemil Ciecek told parliament after the vote.

EU accession a delicate issue

Though the latest reforms are intended to reassure EU officials that Ankara is on the right track, the country's accession to the EU remains a complicated issue.

While the EU exerts pressure on the nation’s leaders to meet European political criteria before it can join the bloc, opponents of Turkish EU membership such as France argue that Turkey with its population of 70 million is too big and too "culturally different" and doubt whether the EU can accommodate an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

However, the "culturally different" label notwithstanding, in recent years Turkey has made significant strides on Europe’s cultural scene with its success in music, sports and art.

Miss World 2002 Azra Akin aus der Türkei
Miss World 2002 Azra Akin from Turkey waves to the crowd after winning the event in London Saturday Dec. 7, 2002Image: AP

Turkish soccer scores big

In May 2000, Turkey made sports history when Galatasaray Istanbul won the Football Uefa Cup Final in Copenhagen by trouncing British club Arsenal and thus becoming the first Turkish club to win a European soccer championship.

An editorial in the English-language Turkish Daily News at the time said the victory would show Europe a new facet of Turkey. "We are seen as a country where human rights are trampled upon, freedom of thought does not exist, torture is practiced on a wide-scale basis. Now, for the first time Europe is meeting with a new aspect of Turkey," it said.

Last year, the Turkish national football team, a relative outsider, came in an unexpected third at the Football World Cup held in South Korea and Japan. And last August, Turkish sportsmen walked off with a raft of gold medals at the European Stars Weightlifting Championship in France.

"She conquered Europe"

Türkische Fußball Fans in Kreuzberg
Turkish soccer fans in Berlin celebrate their team's victory against Senegal at the World Cup quarterfinal match in Japan, June 22, 2002.Image: AP

Beyond the sports field, Turkey came in tops at an international beauty pageant in December last year, when Miss Turkey, 22-year-old Azra Akin (photo) claimed the Miss World title. The unexpected Turkish winning streak continued this year when Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the runner-up Grand Prix prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival for his film Uzak.

Topping the list of impressive Turkish triumphs in Europe was last month’s win at the popular Eurovision song contest in Latvia when singing sensation Sertab Erener elbowed out her European counterparts.

Given a national hero’s welcome back home in Turkey, Erener’s win was celebrated for days with people racing around in their cars and hooting on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. The country’s media and politicians hinted at possible political implications tied to the victory with the leading daily Milliyet printing a front page article headlined "She conquered Europe".

A Turkish parliamentarian, Kursat Tuzmen, told the Anatolia news agency at the time he felt that Eurovision success could aid Turkey’s entry into the European Union. "This is a milestone in creating an atmosphere for entry in the EU like we deserve," he boasted.

Cultural life within Turkey still restricted

But while there is little doubt that Turkey’s victories in Europe are fueling the country’s enthusiasm for the EU, the situation within the largely Muslim nation remains precarious for artists and cultural minorities.

Caught between the powerful influence of the country’s military generals, who still dictate public life and strive to preserve the country’s secular credentials, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is rooted in a banned Islamic movement, Turkey still sees controversies over the role of women in public life, the wearing of headscarves and the censorship of film and literature that allegedly nurture separatist inclinations.

Last year the Turkish government banned the showing of Handan Ipekci’s Big Man, Small Love, which dealt with Turkey’s relations with its 12-million strong Kurdish community. Ipecki, the film’s director, said the film "underlines the fact that people can live together in this land despite all ethnic differences" and condemned the banning as a "prohibitive attitude against art."

While Turkey struggles for EU approval, some politicians like German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder suggest Turkey can only fully embrace Western values if it’s given a chance. "We must strengthen the pro-Western forces in Turkey," he said last year. "And that can only happen if they are being given a perspective. That perspective is called Europe."