A Peril in Turkey?
The streets of Istanbul were deserted of Istanbul when Jean Paul II went to Turkey for the first time, invited by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the primate of the Orthodox Christianity. On that November 28th, 1979, Muslim public opinion was completely indifferent to the visit. However, two days earlier, Mehmet Ali Agça, the young Turkish terrorist and member of the Grey Wolves, had threatened to kill the Pope, eighteen months before his attempt. Twenty-seven years later to the day, Benedict XVI will fly to Ankara and Istanbul at the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew. But different from 1979, the indifference of the Turkish street threatens to be openly hostile.
The terrain is a minefield for three reasons. The first is the dispute caused by the Pope’s address in Regensburg on September 12th. His remarks inflamed even the countries of mainstream Islam like Morocco, Egypt or Turkey. Second, after his pronouncements of September 2004 (“Historically and culturally, Turkey has little in common with Europe”), the reputation of former Cardinal Ratzinger as an adversary to EU admission by Turkey precedes him. Third, although the Patriarchy of Constantinople, unlike that of Moscow, remains the best disposed ally of Roman Catholicism, the weakened Orthodox world has reacquired its old anti-Roman reflex reaction. “Dostoyevsky’s old myth of the Grand Inquisitor has returned”, observes François Thual.
Following his address in Regensburg, which pointed the finger at the risk of violence within Islam, Benedict XVI did not issue an apology as the Muslim street had demanded and which the Islamist nationalists of Turkey still hold against him. The Pope is unlikely to cave in to their pressures. And then there is the absence on his scheduled day of arrival of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, connected to the upcoming Turkish elections in 2007, in which Islamist candidates are expected to do well.
In Rome, the fact that this speech was a “gaffe” has been acknowledged and the Pope has since expressed contrition never before seen in history. And he at least had the merit of reopening the debate on faith and reason and the seeds of violence within all religions. Muslim intellectuals clung to his words. They say that they have been disinherited by the radical from the legacy of Greek reason (the philosopher Averroes) which Islam had brought to Medieval Christianity. For them, reopening the doors of ‘ijtihad, i.e,. the interpretation of sacred texts, is no longer a taboo subject. At the Jesuit University of St. Joseph in Beirut, a colloquium was recently held on faith and reason attended by Shi’ites. There is nothing in the Koran, they insist, that justifies bombing. In Tunis, a conference on the same subject is soon to take place in Tunis and will include Christian, Jewish and Muslim researchers on religion.
Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey is both a risk and an opportunity. He could worsen tensions if he gives another speech viewed as provocative to Islam or if Islamist nationalists demonstrate their impatience. But there is also the chance of a new understanding between Christianity and Islam in a secular Muslim country whose 20th century experience showed that it is, despite crises and repression, able to be melded with democracy (although of the strong-arm variety) and secularism.
However, Turkey is such a powder keg that this bet is far from being won. It is the cradle of the worse ethno-religious fractures in history. It was in Constantinople in the 11th century that Christianity exploded into pieces, divided between Byzantines and Latins. Their burning hatred led to the sack of Constantinople in 1204, seared into the memory of all Easterners, even unto today. In 1453, Constantinople, the Second Rome, fell under the blows of its Muslim enemy, whose threat then extended as far as Vienna. And there is the memory of nations such as Greece, Serbia and Romania which is marked by five hundred years under the Ottoman yoke. Even today, in secular Turkey, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian and Chaldean Christians, are reduced to tiny minorities without status and rights. They live in a climate of insecurity. A priest was killed in Trabizond in a climate of passion stirred by the Muslim cartoon scandal.
ISLAM, ORTHODOXY AND EUROPE
The Muslim memory is also streaked with blood (François Thual), marked by episodes of sectarian violence with Christian Europe and by the massive expulsions of Balkan and Caucasian populations during the 19th century wars of “liberation” as the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating. It also suffered from the brutal secularization carried out in the 20th century by Mustafa Kemal, for who all the sorrows of empire were the fault of Islam. Turkey under the Ottoman sultans quickly became a secular Nation-State, having nothing over its French Jacobin model.
The themes of Benedict’s trip –Islam, Orthodoxy and Europe– are confused. Benedict XVI is haunted by the collapse of the Christian faith in Europe. Never before has a pope drawn the attention of the world to the issues of civilization which to him represent the weakening of Christian values and its vulnerability vis-à-vis the rise of Muslim radicalism. This is the key to understanding his combat in the defense of Christian identity of the Old Continent and the preservation of the traditional legacy of the Church (Latin Mass), his rejection of militant secularism, his intransigence concerning his speech on Islam and his skepticism on the entry of Turkey into the European Union. He is coming to Turkey to seek the support of the Orthodox world by visiting the Patriarch of Constantinople, before going to Moscow.
"Turkey serves today as the “catharsis” of European identity", explains Nilüfer Göle, Professor at the High Institute of Social Sciences in Paris. “We have never heard so much about European values as since the start of the debate on the admission of Turkey. European values, which had been tacit in Europe before, and Christian identity, have now become explicit.” And this is what is worrying the Turks, who are impatient before stalled negotiations on admission. The mission of the Pope in Turkey is a dual one: To reassure Christian minorities and to explain to them that Islam and Christianity have an interest in working together if only to defend the idea of the sacred and of transcendence in Europe. Given its position and its history, Turkey is well placed to play the role of a bridge between two religions and cultures at odds.