Perspectives on Europe
This weekend the Academy of the Arts in Berlin hosted a two-day event about Perspectives on Europe. As Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in his opening speech, the conference sought the advice of intellectuals and writers, mostly from outside Europe such as Wole Soyinka, Wang Hui and Carlos Fuentes, but also Imre Kertéz and Andrzej Stasiuk, in order to get a clearer picture of the various meanings Europe has in the world. Which role do people in other parts of the world want Europe to play? How do they see us and what do they expect of us?
From most politicians such a self-reflexive call would sound empty, but surprisingly enough the German foreign minister, a member of the Socialist Party (at the moment forming a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats), actually does seem to care. In numerous earlier speeches – on the role of cultural politics and cultural identity in international relations – he has consistently pushed for a very open culture concept, saying not only that societies develop through discussions between self and the other, but also that policy “cannot work with culture as a homogeneous, fixed block or canon of works, values or cultural goods limited by the nation-state. … He who understands culture or identity in a static way cuts short cultural possibilities, particularly the possibilities to choose and to identify, that one’s society offers its citizens.” Pretty good for a mainstream politician.
The writers present at the session I attended, obviously surprised being asked for advice by a politician, seemed to come back to one thing: the worrying tendencies within Europe, especially since 9/11, to define itself as a “Christian Club”, epitomized by the conflict around Turkey’s bid for accession to the EU. Now Steinmeier and his party have long shown their support for Turkey’s accession, but many other political forces in various European countries have blocked the issue, hiding behind a large percentage of citizens who explicitly cite “cultural and religious differences”, i.e. Islam and the treatment of women, as a major reason for their opposition.
The coming to power of the Islamic Justice Party in Turkey seemed to confirm the fears of those worried Europeans. Yet, things are a bit more complicated. In a report also published this weekend Sex And Power In Turkey. Feminism, Islam And The Maturing Of Turkish Democracy by the European Stability Initiaive (ESI), Turkey is portrayed as a country which – after far-reaching reforms under Atatürk – completely stagnated as far as women’s rights were concerned. In a 2006 survey measuring the gender gap, Turkey occupied place 105 from 115, way behind India and Burkina Faso. Yet it is precisely the Islamist Justice Party which has inaugurated a new wave of radical reforms, partly due to E.U. pressure, but also because of the highly successful lobbyism of Turkish women groups. The report is worth while reading and points to many paradoxes and surprising counter-intuitive trends such as the following:
“On the one hand Turks are becoming more religious in private – the number of people who say that they are ‘very’ or ‘quite’ religious increased from 31 to 61 percent between 1999 and 2006. On the other hand, support for the secular state has grown stronger. The proportion of people supporting Islamic law (Sharia) has fallen since 1999 from 21 to 9 percent. Although from current political debates one has the impression that the headscarf is becoming ever more prevalent, in fact the number of women appearing uncovered in public increased from 27 percent in 1999 to 37 percent in 2006”.
Thus Turkey today is considerably more secular than Ireland and Malta, both of which prohibited divorce at the time of their admission (Malta still does).
For the book Pál and I are writing we recently met with an advisor to the Foreign minister who told us about an interesting policy change regarding “intercultural exchanges”: In order to break down the frontiers between a supposedly Christian Europe and an Islamic Turkey, the German Foreign Office has launched a cultural exchange which departs from the conventional idea of showcasing mainstream German high culture by holding exhibitions of romantic painters or discussions between political philosophers, but also from the standard “dialogue of cultures” that involves, for example, inviting women from Germany to discuss child-rearing practices with their Turkish counterparts. Instead, the ministry organised a show on a Turkish television channel that involved young local Turks and their co-ethnics from Germany, including, among the latter, footballer Malek Fatih, rapper Mohabet, and actor Adnan Maral (star of the German soap opera “Turkish for Beginners”). Steinmeier’s advisors hope that exchanges showing the actual diversity of lifestyles and opinions in both societies will do more to foster mutual trust than polite roundtables at which participants express their respect for each other’s irreconcilable views, treated as representative of their respective nations.
At a time of increasing cultural nationalism in most parts of the world – a number of which have been mentioned on CM – this seems like a very positive counterweight.