Should he or shouldn't he? This is the question at the heart of a heated debate in Turkey over Pope Benedict XVI's plans to come calling sometime in November.
The immediate event that triggered the debate was the pope's recent lecture in Germany in which he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor who described Islam as "evil and violent."
The controversy kicked over he papal pronouncements is unlikely to lead anywhere for as long as we are kept in the dark as to Benedict's own views on Islam. Why quote a medieval emperor? Why not come out and says: Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is what I think of Islam and let's have a debate!
If the pope is using diplomatic wiggle to avoid stating his own view of Islam, there is one topic on which he has been straightforward: Turkey cannot become a member of the European Union because it is not European enough. Those who still want to welcome the pope to Turkey believe that he should come and see for himself; maybe he would change his mind.
There are at lest three problems with the pope's position on Turkish membership of Europe. The first is that the pope regards the European Union not as a political and economic association but as a Christian club — this despite the fact that the proposed EU Constitution makes no reference to Christianity. In any case, considering Europe as an exclusively Christian space would exclude the continent's estimated 50 million Muslims, almost two million Jews and millions who follow other faiths. Even among those Europeans who are Christians by birth and family tradition, a majority is now secular enough not to regard religion as the key element of their identity.
Most Europeans would define Europe as a space in which life is organized on the basis of the rule of law, pluralist democracy, open markets, and freedom of conscience. In that sense, Turkey is European enough to become a member of the EU.
Despite occasional setbacks, democracy has a longer continued history in Turkey than in some members of the EU, including former Communist states that emerged from decades of dictatorship only in the 1970s. Over the past decade, successive governments in Turkey have implemented most of the reforms that the EU demands under its so-called mise-a-niveau (bringing up to the level) program required for membership. Even when it comes to religious matters, Turkey's record is as good if not better than that of the most liberal members of the EU. For example, Christians in Turkey have more freedom to practice their faith than do Muslims in Greece. And, if secularism is a key principle of the EU, Turkey is certainly the more secular than all other EU members, including France.
The second problem with the pope's position on Turkey is that it confuses the conjectural with the existential. The European continent has been politically organized, and reorganized, in a variety of forms over the past 2,500 years. Empires have risen and fallen, nations have appeared and faded, and alliances have been made and unmade. But none of those conjectures necessitates changes in the existential realities of those who participated. To the pope, however, the only way that Turkey can join the European Union is to convert to Christianity, which, in other words, means a fundamental existential change. (And that does not take into account the additional problem of which of the many bands of Christianity Turkey should adopt in order to fulfill the pope's condition for EU membership.)
Finally, the pope's position on Turkey has broader implications. One is that nations of different faiths should share the same political, economic and cultural space and cannot form secular alliances to deal with this-worldly matters. And, that, of course, is a violation of the basic principle of the separation of church and state. Another is that the entire history of Europe should be re-written in a way that would airbrush the role that the Turkish people in general and the Ottoman Empire in particular played in shaping the European culture.
Last but not least, the pope's position, if applied fully, would require a reorganization of the international space on the basis not of nation-states but of religions.
All that may not seem problematic to the pope who wears two caps: A religious one as the pontiff of the Catholic Church and a political one as head of the Vatican state.
So, let us return to the question debated in Turkey. The wisest course as put by Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is to welcome the pope as planned both as the leader of the Catholics and as head of the Vatican state.
By maintaining its invitation to the pope, Turkey would show its commitment to a fundamental European principle: Freedom of speech. The visit could provide an opportunity for the Turkish leaders and people to engage the pope in both his capacities. As a head of state, they should try to persuade him that the EU would be strengthened by admitting Turkey whose sizable population, vast natural resources, and closeness to new markets make it an asset in the medium and long-term. The Turks should also engage the pope as head of the Catholic Church. They should encourage him to express his own opinions about Islam.
The Catholic Church has a long record of inter-faith dialogue with various representatives of Islam, dating back to the late 1940s. So far, however, that dialogue has consisted mostly of polite conversation designed to avoid thorny issues of faith or joint lamentation over the advance of secular ideas throughout the world.
In its worst form the inter-faith dialogue has led to joint moves to block reforms to improve the status of women as was the case in the notorious Beijing conference a few years ago.
The great merit of the pope's recent lecture in Germany is that it has effectively ended the era of postmodernist waffle presented as inter-faith dialogue.
The opportunity should be seized to start an honest, though courteous, dialogue designed to help both sides know the truth about one another and, in turn, figure out ways of how they can coexist not only in Europe but throughout the world.