The Houston Chronicle
May 01, 2005, Sunday 2 STAR EDITION

Turks' patriotism raises flags as EU talks near;
The country's sacred symbol is cropping up as nationalism rises

by GARETH JONES


ANKARA, TURKEY - Anyone visiting Turkey in recent weeks might be
forgiven for thinking the country had just gone to war or at the very
least won a major soccer tournament.

Public buildings, homes, buses, taxis and private cars have been
festooned with the national flag, which bears a white Islamic crescent
moon and star on a red background.

Rallies and protests featuring the flag have been held across Turkey.
In the eastern city of Erzurum, the German ambassador was prevented
from cutting a cake decorated with the Turkish flag on the grounds
it could signify disrespect.

This outpouring of patriotic fervor was sparked by an incident last
month in which youths tried unsuccessfully to set fire to a Turkish
flag during a pro-Kurdish demonstration in the port city of Mersin.

An overreaction? Turkey's military General Staff did not think so. It
issued a statement vowing to defend the nation to its "last drop of
blood." Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan announced sternly that the flag
was a sacred symbol for Turks.

Security officers detained the 13- and 14-year-old boys accused of
setting fire to the flag, along with nine others.

'Feeling cornered'

The flag-waving has raised some questions about Turks' state of mind
as they prepare for the start of talks in October to join the European
Union, a club founded on the rejection of nationalism that enjoins
its members to share sovereignty and focus on common values.

"Turks are feeling cornered, besieged from outside and betrayed from
within," said Dogu Ergil, head of the liberal think-tank TOSAM. "The
explosion was waiting to happen. In Mersin, somebody simply lit
the match."

The perceived threats from outside include EU pressure on a range of
sensitive issues including Cyprus, as well as the presence of U.S.
troops in neighboring Iraq. Inside Turkey, he said, people fear
"betrayal" by Kurds and other ethnic or religious minorities.

The reaction to the Mersin incident is just one of a number of signals
troubling advocates of Turkey's EU membership.

Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic tract Mein Kampf has shot onto the
best-seller lists. Turkey's best-known novelist Orhan Pamuk has
received death threats for backing Armenian claims of genocide at
Turkish hands in World War I. A government minister said Christian
missionaries threaten national unity, even though only a handful of
Turks have converted.

Perception gap widens

The Constitutional Court struck down a law allowing foreigners to buy
real estate, and the president threw out a bill ending restrictions
on foreign ownership of national broadcasters, saying it would harm
national interests.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, has vowed to press
ahead with those two laws. But the impression from these incidents
is of a country succumbing to paranoia and trying to retreat into
its shell, diplomats say.

"The perception gap between Turkey and the EU is wider than at any time
since the AKP came to power" in November 2002, said one Ankara-based
European diplomat.

The diplomat noted that nationalism is a founding principle of
the Turkish Republic and is viewed as a very positive force, while
Europeans are far more mindful of its destructive power, which led
to the decision to set up the EU.

"Turkey did not go through the catharsis of World War II. To
reject nationalism here is to reject the republic and (its founder
Kemal) Ataturk. This difference in experience can feed a sense of
incompatibility between Turkey and Europe," he said.

Emin Sirin, an independent member of the Turkish Parliament, said
the Turks' "pressure cooker" discontent stemmed mainly from a sense
of hurt pride over the EU's treatment of their country.

The Constitutional Court struck down a law allowing foreigners to buy
real estate, and the president threw out a bill ending restrictions
on foreign ownership of national broadcasters, saying it would harm
national interests.