Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Mama, the Turks! European integration and the burden of history.

On the day that the European Parliament debated the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey, parliamentary party members of the Lega Nord unfurled a banner in the Italian parliament which read “no to Turkey in Europe”.

Berlusconi has been one of Turkey’s biggest allies in its attempts to receive the green light for accession talks. Strange, some might think, considering his famous remarks suggesting that Islamic culture, the predominant culture in Turkey, was inferior to the west, but never underestimate the politics of personality as championed by Silvio – he counts himself as a personal friend of Turkish PM Recep T. Erdogan. There are various other strategic/financial concerns that might explain Berlusconi’s championing of Turkey, but it’s not the scope of this entry to dwell upon that. Rather, we note that one of his main coalition partners is beligerently opposed to this support – going so far as to disturb parliamentary proceedings and have a number of members temporarily banned from the chamber.

Notwithstanding the fact that, normally, the Lega‘s support of an issue is enough to make this Monkey knee jerkingly take the opposing view, the issue of Turkey’s accession is far from simple, particularly from an Italian viewpoint. The Lega are not necessarily disrepresentative on this issue, as any casual glance at common day expressions used in Italian demonstrates.

A toilet that is little more than a hole in the ground, as feared by Northern European tourists en masse, is referred to as ‘un bagno alla turca’, or toilet turkish style. Someone who smokes excessively is known to ‘smoke like a turk’ (Fuma come un turco). When strange things happen one can say ‘succedono cose turche’, which literally translates as ‘Turkish things are happening’. Then there’s the delightful ‘bestemmiare come un turco‘ (to blaspheme like a Turk)), or ‘parlare turco‘(to talk turkish – when you can’t be understood, akin to ‘it’s all greek to me’).

Perhaps the most infamous phrase though, and one much used by headline writers (the Monkeys included), is ‘Mamma li Turchi!’, or ‘Mamma the Turks are coming’, to suggest imminent danger. The phrases reflect the historical conflict between Italy, and Western Christendom, with the Ottoman empire in the Mediterranean.

This isn’t to suggest that Turkey should not be allowed to join the EU, nor is it to suggest that the majority of Italians are opposed to the entry – after all, similar expressions in English date back to conflict between Holland and Britain (Dutch courage, speaking double-dutch). It does however highlight that historically, in Italy, Turkey has been seen as ‘the other’, and it’s not easy to change these attitudes easily, particularly when newspapers such as La Padania, the paper associated with Lega print headlines such as ‘The Re-play of Lepanto'[decisive naval battle in 1571 where the Christian League defeated the Ottomans], or where one of the best selling authors currently is Orianna Fallaci who has struck a particular chord warning against the growth of ‘Eurabia’ in a trilogy of books written post 9/11.

It should be noted that various organisations, including Human Rights Watch have suggested that fulfilling entry requirements to the EU by Turkey will have a beneficial effect on human rights in the country.

One of the interesting aspects about the coverage of the whole issue is the relative absence of attitudes from the Turkish side. Whether Turkey has the right to enter the EU is debated, but it seems, according to the general media coverage, that the value of entry into the EU is a given. It’s obvious that the majority of Turkish people want to enter the EU – or is it? Orhan Pamuk, who’s destined to be one of the most quoted writers of next year, has crafted a complex political novel in Snow that suggests there are a myriad of opinions as to the value of moving towards Europe.

It’s a rare occasion when this Monkey admits that he doesn’t have a firm opinion on an issue. Is it the case that Turkey should be encouraged to join the EU, as a gesture to moderate Islam, as suggested by William Dalrymple, or to bolster reforms by the Turkish government, as suggested by Dr. John O’Brennan? Or should it be argued that Turkey’s joining of the EU changes the scope of the European project, as it is neither geographically or culturally a full part of Europe? And what of Cyprus?

The debate is a wide and important one, but let’s not fall into the trap of believing that it is somehow the replaying of old battles, as some would have us believe.