Istanbul — From the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, until its 20th century secular revolution under Mustafa Kemal aka Atatürk separated the Turkish mosque and state, Islamic authority in that country included civil, military and police powers as well as religious observance.

In the establishment of the republic in 1923, Turkey became more than a secular state. It also westernized itself by adopting the Latin alphabet in the place of Arab script, encouraging European dress, and banning the Fez.

Beginning on October 3 of this year, Turkey has embarked on a ten-year negotiation for membership in the European Union (EU). At any time these talks could be suspended, which puts Turkish actions under the EU microscope for the next decade.

Turkey will be watched for human rights violations. Attention will focus on its treatment of the Kurdish minority, its role in settling the differences over Cyprus, and its willingness to openly examine the question of Armenian genocide.

Putting its leading writer, Orhan Pamuk, on trial for expressing critical views of the Turkish state and its government is not going to advance the Turkish case for admission to the EU.

Also, Turkey will watching opposition to its EU membership. The secular states of Western Europe have not fully resolved to wide satisfaction how to deal with the existence of Muslim minorities within their own societies. For instance, EU citizens who dislike the idea of multi-cultural societies at home are opposed to having Turkey as a member of the EU, since it has been a source of the immigration that created what they oppose at home.

But secular is supposed to mean a separation of religion and state. A secular state should allow for religious differences, and by and large it does. What is at issue is mostly secular society, not religion, or its separation from the state.

If you do not have to be Christian to be French, Dutch or German, you can be an adherent to a church. You can also be Muslim, or Jewish, or practice any other religion — or you should be able to — to be a European.

So the debate over Turkey and the EU is very much a debate over what place a Western secular society accords its Islamic minority.

A secular society has its own moral imperatives. It must be open, tolerant and promote understanding. Of course these ideas have their origin in religious teaching associated with Judeo-Christian thought, as well as with Greco-Roman civilization. In short “secular” has Western and Judeo-Christian foundations.

The bet is that the principles of openness, tolerance, and the promotion of understanding can meet tests other than of their compatibility with one set of religious beliefs, or the heritage of one part of the world. The principles are universal, and can, and should be adopted everywhere, because they meet the ethical test: they are right, not wrong.

And how, pray tell, do we decide what is ethically acceptable and what is not? Officially through legislators taking action, electors voting, juries deciding, judgments being rendered; but mostly through discussion and debate within societies. A secular society needs democratic practices in order to flourish.

Turkey is a secular society that is also almost entirely Muslim. Western societies that have Muslim minorities and want to block Turkey have to understand what is being said if that happens. If a Muslim society cannot enter Europe, then Muslims must find their future with other Muslims. In other words the world must organize itself around religion. Surely this is what the secular revolution in Europe — and in Turkey — was meant to avoid.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...