The European Union, heading into a new year almost exclusively preoccupied with shaky economies in its midst and the fate of the euro, has effectively sidelined the already dwindling Turkish hopes of membership any time soon. The disconnect in the Brussels mindset is puzzling. If Europe’s single most pressing social concern now is the integration — or not—of its growing Muslim populations, nothing would seem to be smarter or more timely than positive gestures towards Turkey, potentially the EU’s first Muslim-majority member.
Turkey, with 77 million people, is also far from being an economic basket case, certainly compared with a few European nations now dragging the region down. It has largely weathered the global recession with periods of strong growth last year as it builds electronic and auto industries. (Think India without the astronomical Indian poverty rate or lagging health and education standards.) Constitutional amendments were approved last year by Turkish voters to strengthen democracy and subject the military to civilian justice. None of this seems to have caught Europe’s attention enough to speed up full integration of Turkey.
Turkey is not alone in feeling a European chill. Among the Muslim Bosniaks, there are suspicions that Europe’s reluctance to lean harder on the Bosnian Serbs who have carved out a virtually autonomous state-within-a-state from which they can hold up actions by the Bosniak-Croat-Serb tripartite presidency or legislature. That the nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot yet function as a collective whole has a lot to do with animosity toward or fear of Islam, both by ethnic Serbs and members of the EU, which assign a “high representative” to Bosnia-Herzogovina, who has often worked hard to temper Serb opinion.
In Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina’s weak national capital, critical government programs are languishing including on human rights and accountability for atrocities committed from 1992 to 1995, many if not most of them by ethnic Serbs, who maintained well documented rape camps where Bosniak women were abused and who massacred thousands of Bosniak men and boys. The Bosnian Serb republic (distinct from the neighboring nation of Serbia) created by the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which left a fault line between Bosnian Serb communities and the Bosniak-Croat federation. The result has been segregated education systems, mutually hostile media camps and competing truths about the war fought nearly two decades ago.
Muslim nations see a vacuum in Bosnia and are moving in to fill it, led by Turkey. Iran and Libya, among others, have also stepped up their presence with aid, the opening of cultural centers, support for mosques and links to the wider Islamic world.
The spread of Islamic militancy is not the major issue – at least not yet, despite what some northern Europeans and Americans fear, based on reports of Islamic religious schools springing up in the Bosnian countryside. Rather the increased activity in Bosnia by Muslim-majority nations appears to be a reflection of the desire, particularly of Turkey, to expand its sphere of influence in one corner of Europe while also buttressing a small nation that was once part of the Ottoman Empire and has had a Muslim majority for centuries. Turkey has been following similar policies in Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations for some time, officially and unofficially.
A few years ago, on a visit to Istanbul and Ankara with a group from the Foreign Policy Association, I learned heard from business leaders and economists that Turkish truck drivers, construction workers and other civilians heavily involved in the risky business of gaining a foothold in the Iraqi economy, were suffering casualties in the US war second only to those of the Americans. A high-ranking government official, explaining that Turkey had to look east, given European unwillingness to open its door, said that Turkey would not stand by and let its fate be decided “on the streets of Paris.” President Nicolas Sarkozy is adamantly opposed to Turkish membership and would carry the country, wary of French Muslims, with him.