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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clashing Civilizations Across the Bosphorus

The rituals of the "clash of civilizations" are by now well established. Somebody somewhere in the West "insults Islam" -- Salman Rushdie writes a book; a Danish paper publishes a cartoon; the pope makes a speech -- and the demonstrators take to the streets. What better way to prove that Islam is a religion of peace than to burn the pope in effigy?

For years, secular, Westernized Turkey was regarded as largely immune from this sort of zealotry. But some of the fiercest reaction to the pope's recent speech came from Turkey. Before the pontiff issued his apology, Salih Kapusuz, the deputy leader of the ruling AKP party, likened him to Hitler and Mussolini.

This is ominous -- and not just because the pope is due to visit Turkey in November. For those politicians who are struggling to improve relations between Islam and the West, Turkey has long been the great hope -- the demonstration that a largely Muslim country can also be secular, democratic and at ease with the West.

As a result, Turkey's bid to join the European Union has taken on iconic status. U.S. President George W. Bush has said that including Turkey in the EU would "be a crucial advance in relations between the Muslim world and the West." Leading Turkish politicians often make the same argument. But Turkey's bid to join the EU is in trouble. A dispute over its relations with Cyprus -- now a member of the union -- is threatening to escalate to the point where EU negotiations are suspended. Olli Rehn, the European commissioner charged with overseeing the whole process, has talked of the possibility of a "train wreck" later this year.

Even if Turkish and EU leaders somehow manage to finesse the Cyprus question, the Turkish effort to join the union will still be in deep trouble. The EU is suffering from "enlargement fatigue" and cannot summon up much enthusiasm for admitting a very large, relatively poor Muslim nation -- most of whose land mass is in Asia. At a time when the integration of Muslims into Western Europe is highly sensitive, the idea of allowing free movement of people from Turkey is a tough sell. All 25 EU countries must agree to let Turkey in. But in the most recent Euro-barometer opinion polls, 15 of 25 current EU members were opposed to the idea.

This souring within the EU has provoked a counter-reaction. Many Turks feel angry and humiliated when a leading politician such as France's Nicolas Sarkozy declares that they can never be members of the EU. Even pro-European Turks complain that they are being asked to make painful concessions over issues such as Cyprus as part of a negotiation process that looks increasingly like a charade. In Turkey, where support for EU membership was running at more than 70 percent three years ago, it is now down below 50 percent in some polls.

Given this mutual disillusionment, might it be sensible to call the whole thing off? It is arguable that Turkey's application to join the EU is now actually proving counterproductive because it is forcing the two sides to confront each other in ways that stir up public opinion. Perhaps they should just accept that Turkey is never going to join the EU -- and strive for the kind of "privileged partnership" about which Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and others have sometimes spoken.

The idea that Turkey's secular pro-Western orientation is dependent on the country's application to join the EU is certainly debatable. After all, Turkey's decisive turn towards the west took place in the 1920s -- long before the EU was even established. The country's economy is growing quickly. It is already a member of important Western clubs such as NATO. Does so much really hang on Turkey's bid to join the EU?

Many Turkish and European observers argue passionately that it does. Islamism and anti-Western sentiment are gaining ground both in Turkish politics and in society at large. More women are wearing headscarves and public opinion is far from immune to the radicalism that is sweeping large parts of the Islamic world. The "trans-Atlantic trends" opinion poll, published this month, showed that Iran is now more than twice as popular in Turkey as the United States. Last year, a Turkish translation of Mein Kampf made the bestseller lists.

The AKP government is often described as mildly Islamist. But some Western diplomats worry that rejection by Europe would encourage the government to turn towards the Arab world in foreign policy and to pursue a more radical form of Islamism at home. That, in turn, might provoke a coup by a military that regards itself as the guarantor of Turkish secularism.

A stress on Turkey's potential instability cuts both ways. It might encourage European leaders to keep talking, but it will not necessarily make the country a more attractive long-term partner for the EU. It is like telling a man: "Your fiancee is on the point of madness, you must marry her immediately or she will have a nervous breakdown." A chap might justifiably hesitate at the altar.

The political logic, therefore, points to a long engagement. Even if Turkey never joins the EU, the application process is already acting as a spur to economic and political reforms that are making Turkey a freer and richer society. Restrictions on freedom of speech are being eased, minority rights are being strengthened and government finances are improving. "None of this is irreversible yet," pleads a Western diplomat, "but in a few years it will be." Some suggest that even if Turkey never joins the EU the application process will be crucial in transforming the country.

It is a sophisticated argument -- perhaps a little too sophisticated. It is equally possible to argue that the longer the whole process is spun out, the more bitter the disillusionment will be when it comes to an end. How would Turks feel if, after a decade-long negotiation, their membership was blocked by the promised plebiscites in France and Austria? And surely it will ultimately be deep social forces within Turkey that determine the country's relationship with Islam -- rather than any external constraint from Brussels?

A better reason to press ahead is that it is simply too soon for pro-European Turks to despair. There is no guarantee their application will end in success; but equally there is no guarantee it will end in failure. As long as the Turkish government sincerely believes it is in the country's interests to pursue EU membership, it is in Europe's interests to keep talking.

Gideon Rachman is a columnist for the Financial Times, where this comment was published.