Somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, an old man in tattered clothes smokes his nargile (hookah) while watching a young woman in a mini-skirt yap into her cell phone. He exudes peace and humility, and rarely travels farther than three or four blocks. She exudes activity and social status, and knows the best restaurants in town. Through lifestyle alone, each knows and lives in a completely different Turkey.
This sort of incongruous situation comprises a microcosm of a country in which intimations of old "Islamic" culture coexist with its strong secular culture and laws. Despite Turkey's "European" face, not until yesterday, 40 years since Turkey began trying to join the European Union (E.U.), did the European Commission approve its bid to start membership talks. If the Turkish government plays a good card game over the next few years, and wins admittance, the E.U. will have made one of its smartest moves ever for the international community.
At worst, Turkey would be a valuable practical asset to the E.U. At best, it would also serve as an agent for diversifying and enriching the perspective of what many deem an exclusively "Christian E.U." Turkey provides the definitive geographical and cultural crossroads for the Western and Islamic worlds.
Because of this, the benefits of letting Turkey into the union are twofold. First, there's the logistical gain: Europe would have the ideal permanent proxy to help alleviate tensions and make economic negotiations in countries like Syria, Iran, and Iraq (which border Turkey). Second, there's an ideological advantage: Europe would evolve as a group of "different" nations held together by philosophical, rather than religious, commonalities. Nations harboring bitter attitudes or resentments towards the E.U. may see the organization differently once it adds a non-Christian member to its ranks.
Turkey has done a lot to deserve Europe's consideration, despite the fact that its current administration hails from the conservative, religious-leaning Justice and Labor party. In making union membership one of its primary goals, according to recent articles from Reuters and the BBC, the Turkish government made several sweeping reforms, including reducing the military's long-prominent political sway, broadening free speech, giving greater rights to minority Kurds, and dropping this summer's proposal to criminalize adultery (the mere suggestion of an anti-adultery law was outrageous, but oddly got more attention in Turkey than in the various U.S. states and European countries with similar laws).
Let's keep in mind that the E.U.'s "yes" to the talks has been labeled a "qualified yes." This means the process could be suspended or terminated if Turkey does not work to make further reforms and improvements.
The conditional "yes" is likely the most prudent course of action, as Turkey still needs to battle old demons: reconcile its record on Kurdish human rights, go further in shaving the military's political power, and work to mobilize its notoriously unstable economy.
The E.U. will monitor Turkey as it tries to meet the specific conditions it sets during these talks. In a fashion similar to a unilateral contract, in which money may be awarded only upon completion of the desired performance, Turkey must perform if it wants this membership. And given the fantastic boon the E.U. would receive upon the inclusion of such a unique nation, let us hope the "contract's conditions" are met.
Not withstanding the above, this decision and the process leading up to it will prove a litmus test for the direction the E.U. wants to take in sharpening its identity and better defining what exactly it means to accomplish. These talks may offer glimpses of the E.U.'s true colors. Will it choose to establish a conviction for a philosophicallyor religiouslyunited Europe? Turkey seems to think it's ready for the E.U., but the real question is whether Europe is ready for Turkey, and what its addition would signify.