Turkey’s marathon journey to membership in the European Union advanced another step Monday night with the opening of accession talks
in Luxembourg with the EU’s foreign ministers. The talks began with the
least contentious of 35 policy areas, science and technology, but even
so were almost derailed by disputes over Cyprus. Clearly there is still a long way to go.

A special report in Monday’s Guardian
gives some idea of the cultural gap to be bridged. In the west,
progressive opinion sees the involvement of religion in politics as a
retrograde step, often in conflict with liberal values such as freedom
of speech. But in the Middle East, things are not so simple; secular
rulers are often corrupt and authoritarian, while Islamic political
movements (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) are closer to the
democratic aspirations of the people.

Turkey has a milder case
of the same phenomenon: its government, the Justice and Development
Party (AKP) of prime minister Recep Erdogan, is Islamic in origins, and
in continual low-level conflict with the country’s secular
establishment. But it is the secularists, who control the presidency
and the military, who seem to be trying to turn the clock back to more
authoritarian times, while the “Islamists” are the ones pushing for
greater European integration and EU membership.

The Guardian‘s
Ian Traynor starts with the story of an AKP member facing a possible
three years’ jail for allegedly chewing gum while visiting a monument
to Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. He reports this as part of a
“power struggle between political Islam and the status quo” – which
could become violent. As he says, “Diplomats, politicians, and analysts
believe the upheaval is being staged by hardline nationalists aimed at
destabilising Turkey, discrediting the AKP government …, and
shattering its hopes of integration with Europe.”

Even some
distinctively Islamic concerns can be presented as issues of personal
freedom – for example, relaxing bans on the wearing of Islamic dress.

has sent his own daughter to be educated in the United States because
it is illegal for her to wear a headscarf in Turkey’s state schools.
Islamic politicians are taking on the ground-breaking role of defenders
of modernisation. Traynor reports that “even Mr Erdogan’s natural
opponents credit him with the strongest track record on liberalisation
for decades.” He quotes a Turkish academic, Kemal Kirisci: “I’m a
leftist atheist, he’s a rightwing Islamist. Yet I still say he’s the
best prime minister for the country.”