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Bassam Tibi
Bassam Tibi

"If Turkey, governed by the AKP, became a full EU-member, it would not only be a burden, but also a handicap for the integration of Turks in Europe as European citizens."

(Bassam Tibi, "Mit dem Kopftuch nach Europa?", p. 83)

Bassam Tibi is a political scientist of Syrian origin born in 1944. He taught at universities worldwide, including the University of Gottingen and Cornell, and published a number of books on Islam, Turkey and integration.

One of his most recent contributions to the German debate on Turkey is a book published in 2005: "Mit dem Kopftuch nach Europa?" ("With the headscarf to Europe?") There he argues that the Muslim headscarf is the symbol of an Islamic political orientation, which is gaining ground both in Turkey and among Turkish migrants in Germany.

The headscarf is central to his argument:

"The fact that the AKP is a ‘headscarf party' means that it is a party in favour of Sharia and not, as it claims itself, a party of Islamic conservatism."

(Bassam Tibi, "Mit dem Kopftuch nach Europa?", p. 11)

Tibi writes that he has no problem with the "silk headscarf" of his mother living in Damascus, nor with the traditional headscarf of his mother's housekeeper from the countryside. What Tibi resents is the scarf as a symbol:

"I recognize in the headscarf of political Islam a third, and completely new type of headscarf, which symbolizes a kind of political uniform, which is related to a certain attitude." (109)

For Tibi the headscarf thus becomes the symbol of Sharia law. He argues that Europeans would end up sliding down a slippery slope were they to allow this "political headscarf":

"They'd end up having to allow corporal punishments of Sharia (lashing, hand cutting etc.) in the name of religious freedom." (p. 111).

Tibi also argues that the integration of Turks in Germany has failed, and that this suggests that the integration of Turkey into the EU would also fail. He quotes a number of German Social Democrats who make the same argument. The former consultant to Chancellor Willy Brandt, Klaus Harprecht, wrote in December 2002 that

"If we were unable until now to integrate two to three million Turks into German society … how can Europe maintain its cohesive power in the face of 65 million people of a civilization which is neither worse nor better than ours – but simply different?" (p. 39)

At the same time, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote in the weekly Die Zeit:

"There are pressing reasons to avoid full EU membership for Turkey. The urgently needed integration of Turks and Kurds living with us would become futile … " (p. 56)

Tibi explains that Turkey would risk being an alien enclave inside the EU just as the Berlin district of Neukoelln (inhabited by a lot of German Turks) is an enclave inside Berlin. In case of Turkey's EU accession its "gecekondu slums would be moved to German cities."

A major reason for the failure of the integration of Turkish immigrants is rising Islamic fundamentalism, says Tibi. Turkey's governing AKP, he argues, is essentially a vehicle for advancing a radical Islamist agenda. Between 1993 and 2003 Turkey became even "less Western", he says (p. 66) and is becoming "de-kemalised" (p. 31).

For Turkey to protect itself from Islamisation, it must maintain the influence of the Turkish National Security Council and the Armed Forces. Tibi blames the EU for inadvertendly strengthening Islamists:

"The EU strengthens the Islamists by weakening the secular-oriented Security Council, which protects the laicism of Turkey. […] What can the European Union do if an EU member Turkey replaces the Swiss [Civil] Code from 1926 with Sharia through a democratic procedure after removing the National Security Council?"

(Bassam Tibi, "Mit dem Kopftuch nach Europa?", pp. 71, 72 )

In fact, a new Civil Code reform, adopted in 2001 with the votes of the AKP, did not deliver Sharia but a more democratic and gender-friendly legislative framework.

According to Tibi, Turkey certainly cannot join the EU under an AKP government:

"Turkey may belong to Europeand become a member of the European Union, but not as a country ruled by Islamists and symbolised by the headscarf – and a corresponding mindset."

(Bassam Tibi, "Mit dem Kopftuch nach Europa?", p. 19)

A striking passage in his book sheds light on Tibi's understanding of religious tolerance. He compares the situation of Christians in Damascus to the position of Turks in Berlin. If Christians were to openly wear their crosses in Damascus, "there would be bloodshed." (p.117). But, says Tibi, Syrian Christians are wise enough to recognise one thing: the Leitculture (dominant culture) of Syria is Islamic. At the same time, Turks in Germany should recognise that the Leitkultur of Germany is, well, not Islam.

Suggested readings

Books in English:

Books in German

On political developments in Turkey::

on Islam and fundamentalism:

On integration and multiculturalism:

Other links:

Bassam Tibi's role in the "mainstream debate" is analysed (in German) here:

One book about Bassam Tibi's theories:

November 2010

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1 November 2010, 00:00