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Sam Schneider

Sam Schneider hails from Sandy Spring, Maryland and is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences majoring in Government and minoring in Theology. He is studying at the McGhee Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies in Alanya, Turkey. While abroad, Sam looks forward to learning about the evolution of political and social dynamics in modern Turkey and traveling as much as possible. At Georgetown, Sam is an active member of the International Relations Club and plays on the Men's Club Soccer Team. He also served as the Opinion Editor for The Hoya last semester.

Turkey's Long Awaited Middle Ground

November 30, 2011

Throughout the 20th century, Turkey was plagued by a destabilizing socio-political conflict between Westward looking secularists and Eastern looking Islamists. The absence of a middle ground between these two perspectives magnified the apparent irreconcilability between them. Today, however, a more nuanced, albeit controversial, centrism appears to have filled that void and is tentatively flourishing within it.

At its inception, modern Turkey was marched resolvedly in one direction. In the 1920s and 30s, the nation’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal "Attaturk," scripted an avidly Western, "assertively" secular character and attempted to subdue and bury many of the vestiges of its traditional Eastern, Islamic orientation.

Ataturk saw Islam as a modernity-threatening remnant of the country’s Ottoman past. In his fabled shrewdness he recognized the salient role Islam played in the lives of Anatolia’s largely rural, uneducated population. His domineering approach toward Islam was an attempt to keep entrenched religiosity from undermining liberal reform, which he believed it had an inherent drive to do.

Since Ataturk’s death, loyal "Kemalists" have reaffirmed his principles of secularism as nonnegotiable dogmas. This assertive secularist tradition was and still is pushed by an urban, educated elite most often represented in the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) tireless dedication to preserving Ataturk’s ideology. This group is bolstered by a popular cult of Ataturk, and ideologically supported by the most powerful of all secular watchdogs – the Turkish military.

On the other side of the aisle, Turkish political Islamists capitalized on bad economic times and accentuated Islamic values to work their way into office on the backs of the underprivileged masses. They subtly, and at times more explicitly, purported aspirations of an Islamic oriented Turkish state. Founded by popular conservative figure Necmettin Erbakan in 1969, the most prominent face of political Islam in Turkey in the 20th century was the Milli Gorus movement.

Secular elites saw their traditional hold on power threatened by these popular Islamists. But the fires of political conflict were most virulently stoked by the political Islamist groups’ conspicuous rebukes of the canonized Kemalist secularism that the traditional elite held so dear. Over the course of the 20th century, this destabilizing conflict resulted in three separate military coup d’états against democratically elected governments.

Claiming to defend liberal democracy through unabashed authoritarianism may strike one as contradictory, yet in a country where over 95% of the population self-identifies as Muslim, the traditional assertive secularism sacred to the West-oriented elite and military has proven difficult to maintain along side true democracy. In 2001, this volatile and polarized conflict sparked a new political party that sought to bridge the divide.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been the ruling party in Turkey since 2002 with little meaningful electoral competition. From the beginning, the party embodied nuance, being founded by a potpourri of leaders from various existing parties representing reformist Islamists, social democrats, and even some nationalists. Its platforms and policies, guided by principles of "conservative democracy" have largely reflected its hybrid beginnings.

The AKP has built a massive support base in Turkey and abroad through rhetoric and policies that incorporate both its Islamic foundation and liberal aspirations. Despite many of its leaders open religious conservatism, early on, the AKP made a point of denouncing the idea of an Islamic state.

Moreover, it has backed this talk with a steady flow of liberal legislation. The AKP government has fully committed itself to Turkey’s EU accession process, instituting one Copenhagen Criteria compliant reform after another. In addition to liberal economic and political changes, an area of focus of its EU-linked reforms has been human rights and rule of law, which in turn has led to an improvement of gender equality, minority rights, and freedom of religious expression.

The AKP's liberalized approach to religion marks a critical and controversial shift away from the traditional assertive secularism of the Kemalist establishment toward a type of "passive" secularism, similar to that exemplified in the US. In this vein, one of the AKP’s most publicized reforms was its 2008 constitutional amendment repealing the law that banned headscarves from university campuses, which they argued dissuaded women from pursuing higher education. Despite staunch opposition from the secular elite and Constitutional Court, the effort was lauded by national and international human rights groups and has been accepted on campuses across he country.

Even with the popularity and unprecedented centrism of the AKP, there remains a lurid opposition movement led by the Kemalist, urban, and educated elite who have largely run dominated politics since the days of Ataturk.

Over the course of my semester here in Turkey I have encountered and spent time with many of these pure blood secularists. Both in formal settings like a program-organized dinner with a CHP Member of Parliament, and informal ones at my host family’s house, I have played audience to suspicions about the AKP’s hidden Islamic agenda. They point to certain reforms and maneuvers of the AKP as being attempts to infiltrate secularist institutions and weaken the power of secularist safeguards.

Strongly voiced opposition to government, particularly when it is so patriotically toned, is valuable. Checks and balances brought people like Erdogan to the political center in the first place, and it is likely necessary in keeping them on the liberal path in the future.

In reality, claims that Turkey is becoming an Islamist Republic are based on entirely circumstantial evidence. It is also important to see traditional secularists' vociferous opposition in the context of their deteriorating political clout and frequently expressed disdain for the uneducated and "backward" masses of Anatolia.

The AKP represents the nuances of modern day Turkey, a country bridging East and West. Rising out of the ashes of nearly a century long battle between the uncompromising forces of puritan secularists and political Islamists, the AKP has secured a sturdy voting block at home and widespread support abroad by striking an enigmatic balance between Islamism and liberal reform.

The Treadmill of EU Accession

December 26, 2011 | 1 COMMENT

Over a decade ago, Turkey began a run down of what appeared to be a clear path to European Union membership. Much has changed in Turkey and in the EU since then, and a great deal of time and energy has been expended in the name of this process. But today, many are skeptical Turkey will ever reach its final western destination. Some even say it never had a chance from the beginning. However, as any runner can attest, even when on a treadmill to nowhere, tremendous progress can still be made.

Since the late days of the Ottomans and early days of the Kemalist Republic, greater Westernization and incorporation into Europe has been a fundamental aim for Turkish leaders. Turkey has held roles in various European cooperative efforts, from the Concert of Europe in the 19th century to the Council of Europe today.

However, these connections have never held the muster to secure Turkey’s place in the flagship of modern European integration. Thus the EU’s formal declaration of candidacy status for Turkey in 1999 was a crucial turning point in the nation’s long running bid for a stronger Western orientation.

To become a member of the EU, candidate countries are expected to meet a set of standards under what is called the Copenhagen Criteria. An applicant country is expected to be functionally democratic with respect for human rights and the rule of law; have a functioning market economy; and be capable of absorbing the existing body of laws and policies of the Union. Based off of these principles, more specific conditions in the areas of politics, economics, and law are negotiated between the EU and the candidate country through a series of “chapters.”

Since the 1990s, Turkey has embraced one EU-inspired reform after another as Turkish politics, economics, law, and society all slid under the microscope. Monumental reforms have been undertaken, including liberalization of the political system, strengthening of civil society, development of a market economy, greater integration with foreign markets, and increase trade and investment.

Human rights have also been promoted through reforms like the abolishing of the death penalty, prohibition against torture, and improvement of women’s, children’s, and union’s rights. Overall there has been a unanimously acknowledged rise in Turkey's standard of living over the past decade.

Nevertheless certain issues remain unaddressed. Currently, only 11 out of the 35 chapters needing to be opened, completed, and closed in order for Turkey to be accepted to the EU have been initiated. The opening of chapters occurs solely at the behest of the EU, and there has been much hesitancy from certain leading countries to do so.

In 2006, the Council of Ministers went so far as to freeze eight chapters in response to Turkey’s refusal to open its ports to Cyprus. More generally, the EU remains highly critical of the state of human rights in Turkey. Concerns regarding freedom of expression, minority rights, and gender equality persist as hot button issues for many Europeans.

In fact, opposition to Turkey’s accession to the EU is quite daunting. Over half of EU citizens polled by the EU barometer survey said they were against Turkey’s acceptance. European scholars, talking heads, and politicians alike have frequently claimed Turkey’s accession impossible and argued that it is simply too poor, too big, and too Muslim for the EU.

Furthermore, the proliferation of conservative, anti-immigrant governments in many European countries in recent years paints a dim picture for Turkey’s hopes. Big EU players like France and Germany have frequently gone out of their way to encumber Turkey’s accession process.

Yet while the real potential for Turkey’s acceptance in the EU seems slim by most accounts, all is not lost. During a trip to Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara, a Deputy Minister voiced some insightful and surprisingly clear-eyed views on the accession process. He explained that while Turkey’s EU prospects look bleak, the accession process in and of itself is invaluable. Through accession talks the current AKP government has been able to, or rather, given little choice but to embrace wide sweeping reforms that have transformed Turkey into a more prosperous, liberal, and democratic country.

Without the pretext of accession, reforms diminishing the political clout of the Turkish military and increasing freedom of religious expression would have been inconceivable. The Deputy Minister likened the process to a “blueprint” for bettering Turkey. According to him, Turkey is no longer in the desperate state it was when it became a candidate country. He claimed Turkey is gradually approaching a point in which it no longer needs membership, and if the EU was to make an offer, it could say no.

Turkey is a long way from acceptance into the exclusive club that borders it to the West. In fact, there are many reasons to believe Turkey will never actually become a EU member state. After this year’s Euro crisis, exclusion from the common market might even be in Turkey’s best interest.

But regardless of any end point, the mileage Turkey has gotten out of the process itself has shaped its economy, political system, and rule of law for the better. When all is said and done, if Turkey finds itself without a seat in Brussels, it can confidently step off the treadmill it’s been on and stand on the world stage in better condition than most.


This is a very interesting piece and you draw a thought provoking conclusion. I am particularly intrigued by the following statement:

In fact, opposition to Turkey’s accession to the EU is quite daunting. Over half of EU citizens polled by the EU barometer survey said they were against Turkey’s acceptance. European scholars, talking heads, and politicians alike have frequently claimed Turkey’s accession impossible and argued that it is simply too poor, too big, and too Muslim for the EU.

Since I do not follow Turkish politics closely, I’m wondering what Turkish citizens would have to say about Turkey’s push to join the EU. It seems that EU citizens believe that Turkey is too culturally different to be a member of the EU. Based on what you observed during your time in Turkey, would Turkish citizens agree? Furthermore, do you think cultural identity should be counted as a factor in the decision to admit Turkey to the EU, or should admission be based solely on Turkey’s ability to meet the Copenhagen Criteria and embrace “EU-inspired reforms?”

I understand that the EU is constructed to be a strictly political and economic mechanism; however, based on many of the letters our JYAN peers have submitted, it is obvious that disputes over cultural identity have the potential to make or break a stable economic or political system. For example, Mike Madoff’s account of the situation in Egypt, “The Soul of the Egyptian Revolution,” is a very timely example of that phenomenon. Therefore, I think arguments based on cultural identity opposing Turkey’s admission to the EU are definitely worth considering.


October 11, 2011
Sam Schneider on Starting JYAN in Turkey