Muslims and Muslim Countries (and Turkey and the EU as an Example)

I’ve spoken before about the importance of not treating Islam as a monolith; and more broadly I’ve spoken in favor of treating Muslims in America much the same as other religious people — giving them the same religious freedom and religious accommodation rights, and not assuming their guilt from the guilt of other Muslims.

At the same time, it seems to me that in some situations, such individualized decisionmaking generally can’t happen, if we are to adequately protect ourselves. That’s one reason, for instance, why extra scrutiny of would-be visitors who are citizens of particular countries may be sensible. (I say “may” because it’s possible that it might be counterproductive or ineffective in ways that are beyond my expertise.) When we’re dealing with millions of would-be visitors each year, we need rough proxies in order to do initial screening. The fact that some country is home to a large movement with sympathy for anti-American violence — even if the movement is only a minority of the population, and its actually violent members are only a tiny minority of the whole movement — is such a proxy. And the fact that these are foreigners who are trying to visit the U.S. rather than U.S. citizens or residents makes such burdens more permissible (unfortunate as they may be for the many burdened people who are perfectly good folks).

My sense is that this is also one thing that the EU has to seriously consider in deciding on Turkey’s application to join the EU. Historically Turkey has been explicitly secularist, and to my knowledge some Turkish legal rules still discriminate against public religion in a way that would actually be seen as unconstitutional in the U.S. Also, my sense is that Turkey has not been a major source of jihadist violence.

At the same time, Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim; and even if the great bulk of those Muslims are quite moderate, there’s always a substantial chance that the moderate strain of a religion will provide a breeding ground for more fundamentalist strains (at least among a substantial minority). We’ve seen such movements, though fortunately largely without violence, in Jewish and Christian communities in the West, as some people who were raised moderate become more fundamentalist. We’ve seen the same in other Muslim countries. The move from moderate strains of a religion to more fundamentalist ones and then back, over the generations, is a common theme in recent history.

Adding nearly 75 million Turks to the EU population of 500 million, and giving them freedom of movement and employment throughout the EU, might lead to much more Islamic fundamentalism, including support for jihad, within the EU. Of course, it might also lead to more Europeanization of Turkey, and might undermine the growth of conservative or fundamentalism Islam there. It might even help spread moderate Islam throughout the Middle East. There are potential benefits as well as risks here, as elsewhere.

My point is simply that we sometimes have to make judgments about Islam generally, whether as currently practiced in a particular country or as we might worry that it might be practiced by many in a generation or so. I can’t see how it would be reasonable for Europeans to decide on Turkish membership in the EU without worrying in some measure about the risk that I describe.

Again, in most situations that involve our own citizens or residents, we should treat individual Muslims as individuals, and focus on each person’s actions rather than his theology. That’s the best American tradition, which has served us very well as to other religions, and is generally likely to serve us well as to Muslims, too — especially given that many Muslims are American citizens, and that American needs their help in many contexts (e.g., to serve the government as translators, to report jihadist and other criminal activity by other Muslims in their communities, and so on). But in foreign policy, broader judgments may often be necessary.