Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 2.1

Identity Shift and Europe's Changing Perception of Others:

Europe, Turkey, and the Issue of Self-Identification

By Penelope D. Safioleas

Identity and perception are difficult concepts with which to analyze foreign policy initiatives, but in the case of Europe and Turkey they offer an insightful and interesting route to explore. In Europe, the post-Cold War period has been one of great hope and great discouragement. Steps toward unification have appeared successful thus far, but problems have arisen that could hinder Europe's international dexterity and internal stability. With respect to its relations with Turkey, these problems have been and will continue to be stunting. Europe's changing form, with resultant hardships, has contributed to an identity shift which has affected its perception of itself and relations with Turkey.

This essay looks at the identity shift and its spin-offs: nationalism, racially- and culturally-oriented policies, a European identity crisis, and the changing perception of Turkey as a consequence of these factors. The relationship between the EU's identity and Turkish accession deserves analysis in the conclusion.


The legacy of the French Revolution, in particular the dictate of "common citizenship divorced of ethnicity," has lost ground in France and other European countries in recent decades. Where the Revolution's tenets were incorporated into psychological systems, identity based on ethnicity and culture has still managed to undermine 'equitable politics.'(1) Culture and ethnicity's increased importance in contemporary policy considerations is evidence of a shifting identity in Europe.

Identity "is a conception of self in relation to others."(2)This conception includes aspects of language, tradition, history, culture, territoriality, and ethnicity.(3) States have different identities since they differ in one or more of these aspects.

Perceptions of other states constantly fluctuate on a superfluous level. States may be politically recognized or not; treaties may be adhered to or not; diplomatic ties may be retained or not. On an identification level, however, perception of other states and the ethnicities and cultures within them are less likely to fluctuate. It is for this reason that perception change is such an important factor in looking at the sociopolitical orientation of any given state or group of states.

The reasons behind the staying power of perception in international identification are varied. The "mental distance" which is created through historically-based enmity has a tendency "to last in the social memory."(4) Other reasons may include the condemning manipulation of education, historical documentation, and the media by politicians, ruling political parties, or leading interest or intellectual groups for alternative or normative interests.

Some analysts and historians believe the end of the Cold War is ushering in a new era marked by the rejuvenation of aspects of old identities, such as that of Christianity in the European identity.(5) This goes on the assumption that Christianity is a unified force (much like the arguments set forth concerning Islam), which clashes with the religiously and ethnically heterogeneous reality of contemporary European society. The fact that this point is even raised in intellectual circles means that the self-identification process, in certain respects, is not bound by evidence.

The identity of Europe directly relates to its perception of other states. The process of unification, underlined by a concerted effort to define or create a European culture and identity, has recreated or rediscovered perceptions of others. The identity's constructs are still malleable and perceptions of other states and regions are dynamic at best, chaotic or confused at worst. Whether negative or positive, wrong or right, these perceptions will become foundational as time passes.

Affecting identity to a large extent has been the hardship of unification - mainly economic challenges and the social problems accompanying them. Important to note is the loss aversion theory - where "expectations remain stable, but capabilities decline [and] people who are experiencing a decline in their assets are especially likely to become angry or to provide fertile ground for imagery that is hostile to another group."(6) This results in altering identity and perception on a larger scale due to external exacerbation. Economic considerations are as large a factor in identification. This is evident in the rise of discriminatory behavior in various European states, which will be discussed in further detail later.(7)

When an identity is stable, perception of others are relatively stable, despite the identity dynamics of the other state. In the case of Europe and Turkey, during the Cold War, when the European identity was dictated and stabilized by bipolar strategy, Europe had a consistent perception of Turkey within its Cold War paradigm. Turkey was an ally in NATO. This was despite the fact that Turkey questioned its own identity during this period.

When major societal upheaval occurs, such as the collapse of the Soviet empire, the post-Cold War change of the global balance of power, and unification, identity in any state is forced to react and adjust. Europe no longer perceived Turkey as a team member, but as an outsider or an acquaintance in trade relations.

A relatively new, unified Europe perceives others in relation to its unification, since unification is at the heart of its identity shift. There are areas considered strategically important within this new unification paradigm. Primary importance lies in Eastern Europe, where countries are being considered for or in the process of joining the European Union. In the process of defining what is Europe and who is European, the former Soviet bloc states have been perceived to have met the requirements.

These requirements are vast and varied, involving both practical and impractical, fabricated reasoning. The reasoning behind the requirements for European-ness is less important than the requirements themselves and the fact that they can be arbitrarily changed depending upon the situation and the development of an altered perception.

Turkey, in contrast to Eastern Europe, is perceived not to have met the requirement of European-ness. This was made particularly evident in the 1997 Luxembourg decision. Despite strong and diversified arguments to contradict Turkey's rejection from the first waves of upcoming accession, the fact remains that Europe does not perceive Turkey as being European.

Many claim that a variety of domestic problems in Turkey, such as human rights violations, economic instability, population growth, and the political presence of religious-based groups have frustrated Turkey's goals. That these problems are all indicative of Turkey's own identity questioning is also a possible consideration in their rejection. Though these factors are generally accepted, they are not the sole reasons for blocking Turkey from full European integration. European perception has been integral in their being turned down. Particularly crucial in this group of anti-Turkish European states is Germany, whose Turkish Muslim population is the largest in Europe.

Europe has unwittingly defined with the Luxembourg declaration a kind of distinction plan. In essence, they have tried to set the cultural perimeters of homogeneity and heterogeneity within what is or will be the new Europe. A homogeneous state structure, as a unicultural entity, deals with only one set of cultural factors in its decision-making, resulting in risk-minimization and gain-maximization in regard to policy efficiency. Conversely, in a heterogeneous state structure, as a multicultural entity, there are multiple cultural factors to take into consideration during decision-making processes, which eventually leads to the dominance of one culture and the exclusion of others, resulting in risk-maximization and gain-minimization.(8)

Uniquely enough, policies being put forth appear to be attempting a kind of heterogeneity within a homogeneous state system. Europe seems to be attempting a kind of cultural federalism (heterogeneity) within a political union (homogeneity). The cultural federalism, however, would not be totally heterogeneous as a particular ethnic and religious (undoubtedly Christian) group will be at the core. Differentiation would be on the basis of what European language is spoken or to which set of European traditions a group adhered.

This attempt at balancing between heterogeneity and homogeneity may result in great contradiction for efficient functioning of the superstate and society. It would also pose considerable hurdles for Europeans on a level of identification. As they are already experiencing the difficulties of friction between various European cultures, creating a homogeneous state structure without de-emphasizing the proposed federalistic framework of the cultural identity may be more difficult (with less reward) than relinquishing cultural control to a kind of conservative-based multicultural system.


In 1938, Elizabeth Monroe wrote that Turkey would be influential in Mediterranean politics "because her people are at one and her home politics stable, and because her state is directed by a man of wisdom and vision, and courage who is possibly the ablest statesman alive to-day [referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey]." She went on to compare the ease of the separation of church and state in Turkey to that of revolutionary France, and differentiated Turkey from Middle Eastern countries "in every way except that both peoples are nationalist."(9)

Monroe's writings are indicative of the positive nature of a past perception of Turkey, despite certain problematics in her observations. Rather than being exclusionary, Monroe indicates a purposeful inclusion of Turkey in Mediterranean and Western relations in the identity paradigm of her day. She emphasizes the seeming success of Turkey's western-styled modernization and development and goes so far as to compare its fundamental religio-philosophical movements to those in Europe. Turkey, at least in popular European academia of 1938, was perceived as Europeanized.

In the 1950s, when guest worker programs became common in Germany and other European states, the European-ness of Turkey became less apparent. As economic rejuvenation slowed down through the 1960s and the 1970s and Europe's cold War identity matured from the wreckage of what had once been a generally imperialist identity, Europe's perceptions of other states also changed. These sentiments spilled over into domestic circumstances, and domestic sentiments spilled over into international policy.

While present in many European states, Turkish immigrant workers were no longer in the position of equality that Monroe had ascribed to them when they had been contained in their own country. The perception of inequality (racial and cultural exclusion) has steadily increased since the end of the 1970s. Immigration, economic disequilibrium (loss aversion theory), population density and urbanization increases, and a whole host of other widespread social ills have exacerbated nationalist sentiments arising in the wake of the current identity shift and changing international perceptions.

The claim by Monroe of nationalism being the last remnant of Middle Eastern political culture that Turkey retained which separated it from being totally integrated into Europe, in hindsight, cannot be a point of separation since European individual and super nationalisms were present and have become increasingly virulent in recent years. A brief look at nationalism is in order.

Nationalism is an complicated concept that is either too narrowly or too broadly defined. As it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine it in detail, nationalism shall serve as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. In other words, nationalism will be considered to be a byproduct of identity shifts and state perception which proclivitates toward virulent social destabilizers, such as racial and cultural discrimination, in times of intense pressure. "Nationalism is...a response to the impact of major social and economic change [and] is an ideological invention that seems to provide some degree of cultural stability [to the dominant ethnic group] in the midst of disorienting social change."(10)

As identities shift for various reasons, there is a tendency for people of like culture groups to congeal and close off from outsiders and their influences. In a sense, this is a safety precaution, a way to maintain or stabilize perceived or real changes in the world around them. Ethnonationalists perceive their ethnic group and culture as superior and the outside ethnic group and its culture as inferior. It is accepted as a tool of the group toward its understood goal of safety. As ethnonationalism increases and gains legitimacy in the host state during times of particular duress, racism and, more contemporarily, cultural discrimination increases and can lead to violent exchange.

In Europe, this has become overtly manifested. There are a plethora of studies looking at the rise of racially and ethnically induced actions.(11) With a massive influx of Muslims into Western Europe from the Mediterranean and Middle East littoral, there has been a visible shifting of the "locus of exclusionary ideologies from 'race' to culture."(12)

Unification has had its frustrations, with the Yugoslavian debacle at the fore, causing "many take another look at their own distinctive identities"(13) and to reconsider the merits of being in a unified state. Caution is now a key in the program for many countries that have become fearful of what worsening conditions could lead to in regard to immigration and domestic financial and social hardship. Reprocutions are now being felt and examined. Germany, in particular, has had duel difficulties with both unification on a state and regional level to juggle. Although this is but a part of the process of restructuring identity in Europe, whether Europeans are willing to weather the difficulties remains to be seen.


Despite Turkey's definition of themselves as Europeans and their adoption and incorporation of its culture and traditions, are they Europeans? This question is the topic of many studies, but the fact remains that until Europeans see them as such, they will not be admitted into the group identity and accession into the European Union will consistently be postponed and possibly eventually denied outright.

The difficult transitional stage which the region is currently facing has been marked by severe social and economic hardships which have led to a rise in nationalistic tendencies, ranging from cultural exclusion to xenophobia on both domestic and international levels. As these negative and nonproductive sentiments rise, they could "threaten to undermine the prospects for greater integration."(14) The "negative image of Islam in Europe" is being perpetuated, some believe through education and popular culture, others through economic instigations and immigration pressures, and still others through contemporary international crises, such as the Gulf War.(15)

As far as the international perception of Turkey is concerned, many agree that "from a European perspective, it doesn't really look like a kindred spirit," especially when religious differences are taken into consideration.(16) This perception is based on very basic statistical evidence, such as the number of Turkish Muslims in Germany, coupled with economic and social upheaval in light of the multidimensional and multifaceted European transition.

If Turkey were to eventually accede, whether by international (US) pressure on the European Union or for strategic reasons, would domestic attitudes allow them to be treated equitably? This would depend on a multitude of factors, such as educational and media adjustments and the enforcement of equal rights. These and the more tenuous goals of economic amelioration and individual attitudinal shifts, would take a long time to accomplish.

The perception is also based on the current European identity shift which is at the heart of nationalism's rise. The new European identity in the process of being formulated is exclusionary. "It is now commonplace to talk about a post modern crisis of identity - a sense of alienation and disorientation that accompanies the decomposition of cultural communities."(17) As old identities decompose, so do their related perceptions of others. A new identity and accompanying negative perception has arisen in Europe with regard to Turkey. As time passes, the results of identity and perception shifts in Europe and Turkey will be better known, defining the future of their regional and global relations.

Works Cited

Aral, Berdal. "Turkey's Insecure Identity from the Perspective of Nationalism," Mediterranean Quarterly. Duke UP: Winter 1997. pp. 77-91.

Caplan, Richard and John Feffer. "Introduction," Europe's New Nationalism: States and Minorities in Conflict. Eds. Richard Caplan and John Feffer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. pp. 3-14.

Hargreaves, Alec G. and Jeremy Leaman. "Racism in contemporary Western Europe: An Overview," Racism, Ethnicity and Politics in Contemporary Europe. Eds. Alec G. Hargreaves and Jeremy Leaman. Hants, England: Edward Elgar, 1995. pp. 3-31.

Hockstader, Lee. "EU Rejection a Blow to Turkey's Pride," The Washington Post. (21 Dec 97) A25.

Kaldor, Mary. "Cosmopolitanism Versus Nationalism: The New Divide?" Europe's New Nationalism: States and Minorities in Conflict. Eds. Richard Caplan and John Feffer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. pp. 42-58.

Monroe, Elizabeth. The Mediterranean in Politics. London: Oxford UP, 1938.

Shadid, W.A. and P.S. van Koningsveld. "Blaming the system or blaming the victim? Structural barriers facing Muslims in Western Europe," The Integration of Islam and Hinduism in Western Europe. Eds. W.A.R. Shadid and P.S. van Koningsveld. Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1991. pp. 2-21.

Smith, Anthony. National Identity. London: U of Nevada P, 1991.

Smith, Dan. "Reconciling Identities in Conflict," Europe's New Nationalism: States and Minorities in Conflict. Eds. Richard Caplan and John Feffer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. pp. 195-212.

Stein, Janice Gross. "Image, Identity, and Conflict Resolution," Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict. Ed. Chester A. Crocker, et. al. United States Institute of Peace: Washington, D.C., 1996. pp. 93-111.

Zetterholm, Staffan. "Why is Cultural Diversity a Political Problem? A Discussion of Cultural Barriers to Political Integration," Europe's New Nationalism: States and Minorities in Conflict. Eds. Richard Caplan and John Feffer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. pp. 65-82.

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1. 0 Richard Caplan and John Feffer, "Introduction," Europe's New Nationalism: States and Minorities in Conflict. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996), 6.

2. 0 Janice Gross Stein, "Image, Identity, and Conflict Resolution," Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict. Ed. Chester A. Crocker, et. al. (United States Institute of Peace: Washington, D.C. 1996), 94.

3. 0 Anthony Smith, National Identity. (London: U of Nevada, 1991), 21.

4. 0 Staffan Zetterholm, "Why is Cultural Diversity a Political Problem? A Discussion of Cultural Barriers to Political Integration," National Cultures and European Integration. Ed. Staffan Zetterholm. (Oxford: Berg, 1994), 70.

5. 0 Berdal Aral, "Turkey's Insecure Identity from the Perspective of Nationalism," Mediterranean Quarterly. (Duke UP, Winter 1997), 87.

6. 0 Stein, 96.

7. 0 See Alec G. Hargreaves and Jeremy Leaman, "Racism in Contemporary Western Europe: An Overview," Racism, Ethnicity and Politics in Contemporary Europe. (Hants, England: Edward Elgar, 1995), 19; W.A. Shadid and P.S. van Koningsveld, "Blaming the system or blaming the victim? Structural barriers facing Muslims in Western Europe," The Integration of Islam and Hinduism in Western Europe. Eds. W.A.R. Shadid and P.S. van Koningsveld. (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1991), 11.

8. 0 Zetterholm, 71-72.

9. 0 Elizabeth Monroe, The Mediterranean in Politics. (London: Oxford UP, 1938), 207-208.

10. 0 Dan Smith, "Reconciling Identities in Conflict," Europe's New Nationalism: States and Minorities in Conflict. Eds. Richard Caplan and John Feffer. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996), 204.

11. 0 See Shadid and van Koningsveld, 3-4, for a discussion of discrimination cases in legal courts throughout Europe and their impact on ethnic and religious minority rights in EU member states; also see Hargreaves and Leaman, 2-12, for a discussion on the effects of migration on the legal status of Muslims in Europe and the success of right-wing parties in recent elections. All of these indices concerning the present status of Islam in an increasingly nationalistic European Union supports claims of the current increase of ethnonationalist trends, varying in degree and form from state to state.

12. 0 Hargreaves and Leaman, 14-15; Shadid and van Koningsveld, 3, list the number of Muslims in various European countries being distributed as follows: the Netherlands/360,000; France/2,800,000; Belgium/200,000; Sweden/45,000; England/between 750,000 and 1.5 million; Germany/1.8 million, 80% of whom are Turkish.

13. 0 Caplan and Feffer, 5.

14. 0 Ibid., 3.

15. 0 Shadid and van Koningsveld, 11-12.

16. 0 Lee Hockstader, "EU Rejection a Blow to Turkey's Pride," The Washington Post. (21 Dec 97), A25.

17. 0 Mary Kaldor, "Cosmopolitanism Versus Nationalism: The New Divide?" Europe's New Nationalism: States and Minorities in Conflict. Eds. Richard Caplan and John Feffer. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996), 47.