Where East Meets West


Istanbul, the city where Asia meets Europe, is as good a place as any to discuss the now thunderous topic of ‘Islam and the West’.

I found myself in just such a discussion earlier this week at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, a think tank housed inside the Swedish consulate and overlooking the Bosporus, which has been operating for more than 40 years. (The Swedes are obviously very serious about their engagement with Asia Minor.)


The issue is seriously hot right now, with Turkey seeking membership of the European Union something it first sought in 1987 and Sweden backing it strongly.

The two great fears in the rest or, more precisely, the west of Europe are that the original big states, such as Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Germany, will become a honey pot for Turkish migrants seeking better paid work. Under the EU’s rules, there is supposed to be free movement of labour.

Of course, countries such as Germany and the Netherlands have long had a Turkish migrant labour force, but they especially the Germans have been severely criticised for denying Turks citizenship rights. It is hard to see how Turkish EU membership will make much of a difference to such countries.

What seems to be more troubling, at a deeper almost psychic level, is the perceived threat of the further ‘Islamisation’ of Europe that might come with Turkey’s entry into the EU. The opponents offer many arguments, usually starting with the one about geography: only part of Turkey indeed part of Istanbul is in historic Europe and, if Europe’s borders are now going to stretch across the Bosporus, why not keep going and include Iran, Syria, even Iraq in the EU?

The day of our discussion an article had appeared in the International Herald Tribune which featured Sweden’s recently appointed Minister for Integration and Gender Equality, a 37-year-old Congolese woman and former refugee named Nyamko Sabuni, calling on new Swedish immigrants to ‘adapt to the society where they live’. Following in the footsteps of her French and Dutch counterparts, she has proposed banning the veil for girls aged under 15, but also going further to outlaw arranged marriages and introduce genital checks to ensure that girls have not been subject to genital mutilation.

The question raised by my fellow interlocutors was: in Sweden, at least, was such a hard line really necessary?

While Sweden has experienced some cultural clashes from its Bosnian, Somali and Iranian immigrant communities, the vast majority of its 450,000 Muslims perhaps as many as two thirds are ‘non confessing’; that is, they don’t go to the Mosque or dress according to Islamic customs. Indeed, most of the Iranian immigrants are thought to be firmly secular, having left after the 1979 revolution that brought the Ayatollahs to power.

In this respect, Muslims in Sweden would appear to have adapted rather well to their adopted country by becoming almost as secular as indigenous Swedes, some 80 per cent of whom profess to being non religious. My interlocutors wondered if the ‘softly, softly’ approach might not be a better way of encouraging integration rather than the legislative stick.

All of which raises another, even deeper, question about Muslim integration into Europe: rather than Islam changing Europe and its traditions, might Europe not change Islam should the EU decide to admit Turkey?

Ever since the Ottoman Turks made it to the gates of Vienna, or since Muslims dotted much of southern Spain with mosques and palaces, Islam has been a presence in Europe. Across the border in Bulgaria, for example, Muslims are 12 per cent of the population, not to mention their dominance in Albania and Kosovar. Turkey itself is essentially a polygot nation, as anyone who walks around Istanbul and Ankara with open eyes could tell.

Some Turks could pass for blonde haired Scandinavians, others resemble Arabs while still others look almost central Asian. The secular nationalism of founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, rather than Sunni Islam, has been the unifying feature of Turkishness.

Perhaps it is indeed true that despite the obvious increase in Islamic custom in Turkey including a moderately Islamist government and the growth in the number of veiled women Europe might transform Turkey, not the other way around.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.