The Pope takes his chances in Turkey

Article published on Nov. 27, 2006
Article published on Nov. 27, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Elise Massicard, sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, explains why the Turkish people may not be receiving the Pope with open arms this week

A special security corps of 25 bodyguards will be protecting the leader of Roman Catholicism during his first visit as pontiff to a Muslim country. Is there motive enough for his life to be in actual danger?

Events that have taken place in recent Turkish history suggest that there could indeed be a certain risk. The Turkish assassin Mehmet Ali Aca attempted to assassinate John Paul II in 1981. Then an Italian missionary priest was murdered in a Turkish church, shortly after the controversial cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed were published. If you analyse Turkey’s history from the past three decades, you can trace the fact that it has been plagued by such attacks. So security measures have definitely been stepped up. On the other hand, several peaceful manifestations have been planned, which are more related to a feeling of general indignation, than to violent acts.

We’ve already seen the first spate of protests. The police detained 29 Turkish nationalists and Islamists who had occupied the Hagia Sofia building on November 22. Is the Pope’s proposed visit to this emblem of Istanbul perceived as a direct provocation?

The Hagia Sofía was a former eastern Orthodox church during the Constantinople era. It later became a mosque during the Ottoman empire. Atatürk, the father of the Republic of Turkey, converted it into a museum in 1935. But today, Islamists are calling for it to be transformed into a mosque again. The presence of the Pope in this context would thus be loaded with symbolism. Initially, Benedict XVI was supposed to visit the mosque two days later on November 24, but this date fell on a Friday. Friday is, of course, the official day of prayer. Huge multitudes of followers gather in Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), which is opposite the Hagia Sofia. The date of the visit was thus changed to avoid a clash between faithful Muslims and the Pope at the end of prayer.

Is this a risk that the Pope nevertheless runs?

The visit is doubly important because of all these added implications. Benedict XVI added fuel to the fire when he declared that he was going to Turkey to ‘talk to the orthodox minority’ and to ‘deliver a message’ to the Muslims. Turkish Muslims represent the majority of the country’s population. They are offended that the Pope wants to have a 'conversation' with the orthodox but underestimate the Muslims by merely 'addressing' them with a seemingly one-way message.

What level of Ratzinger’s September 12 speech in Ratisbona, where he quoted that Islam was composed of ‘things evil and inhuman’, ignited this hostile reaction for the Turks?

Turkey is a secular country where the Muslim majority present themselves as a model of a moderate and tolerant Islam. This basis provides the platform. Turks are profoundly offended and insulted by Benedict XVI’s words. Meanwhile, Turkish prime minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan has changed his plans to attend the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia to welcome the Pope personally upon arrival at Ankara’s airport on November 28.

What implications does this meeting have?

Along with Zapatero, Erdogan has been one of the leading figures of the Alliance of Civilisations. This initiative was intended as an alliance between the West and the Muslim world, to establish a dialogue and as a coalition against terrorist forces through non military means. The project is also a global response to the 'clash of civilisations' theory introduced by Samuel Huntington. Erdogan, leader of the moderate Islamic Justice and Progress Party (AKP), has always take on the role of legitimate speaker between the West and the Muslim world. In view of this, if the Prime Minister is coherent with his existing principles, he will definitely benefit from the moment he meets Benedict XVI.

Do you think that Erdogan could pay the political price in the forthcoming Turkish elections next year, if this meeting takes place?

After the humiliation of the Pope’s words about Islam, Erdogan cannot show himself as reconciliatory, nor show a weak face to his electorate. This electoral dimenson can be perceived in Turkey’s ongoing negotiations to join the EU too. It’s true that Erdogan set himself on the road to political victory when he initiated accession talks in 2005. But Turkey cannot yield to the conditions that the EU has imposed without obtaining compensation. For example, when the EU demanded that they open their ports and aeroports to Cypriot ships and planes, Turkey in reponse asked that their embargo to north Cyprus be cancelled. The opposition has reproached Erdogan for his predisposition to make concessions. He needs to be smart and get himself taken seriously.

Was this the exact image of seriousness that he presented when Turkey froze military relations with France on November 16? The measure was understood as a response to the new French law, which stamped down on denial of Armenian genocide. This was punishable with fines of up to 45,000 euros, and a year in prison for those who denied the massacre had happened.

Yes, you can interpret it as an act of force. But in Turkey, in the last few years the state has openly tolerated public debate about minorities. French law can only block off and radicalise this debate. On one side, the EU demands that Turkey delete Article 301 of its penal code, which foresaw the persecution of those persons who insulted the Turkish nation. On the other hand, France has just approved an equal measure of coercion for those who denied the Armenian genocide. So, the Turkish people complain of double morals and a distinctive partiality displayed by the EU.

After the European Commission criticised Turkish progress in a report on November 8, euroscepticism appears to be flourishing again between the Turks.

The Prime Minister is stuck in a delicate position. When Erdogan was elected, the majority of the Turks wanted to enter the EU, but today less than half of the population is in favour of this. It now remains to be seen if for him, it is more important to win votes. Or, of course, if the debate will one day come to an end, and Turkey wins its long-campaigned for accession to the European Union.