How Western Is Turkey?

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When Pope Benedict XVI travels to Turkey this week, most of the world's attention will be focused on the Christian-Muslim religious divide. But the pontiff is also crossing a political fault line: The gulf between Europe and the Near East has been much in the news lately because of Turkey's troubled attempts to join the European Union. Ankara is keen to become a full member, but Europeans are having second thoughts. Skeptics, including the Pope himself, are openly questioning whether a mostly Muslim nation of 70 million can ever really be part of Europe.

And yet, in some ways, Turkey already is part of Europe, even in its most conservative Islamic heartland of Central Anatolia. A string of ancient cities known as the "Anatolian Tigers" are enjoying annual economic growth rates of over 10%, doubling their exports — mostly to Europe and the U.S. — over the past five years. "We are already in the E.U.," a local businessman, who sells jeans to Zara and Lee, told TIME.

Not quite. In order to qualify for full membership, Turkey has a long way to go in reforming its political and legal systems and its infrastructure. Still, analysts are impressed by the scale of its economic transformation. Says Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative, an independent think tank, "We are seeing the transformation of an agrarian society into an industrial economy. If this continues, in 10 years' time Turkey will be much less of a drain on Europe than the E.U. currently thinks. "

One of the region's fastest-growing cities is Kayseri, formerly Caesaria, founded more than 3,000 years ago. Today, it still has the appearance of an old Asian trading town. But a tariff agreement signed ten years ago between Turkey and the E.U. gave a massive boost to the city's textile, furniture and electronic supply industries, with 400 new factories having been built in the past five years alone. And the expansion of exports to Europe and the U.S. has improved local quality control and raised labor and industrial standards in the region. Signs of prosperity are everywhere as the city's transport infrastructure is overhauled, and locals begin to invest in new homes and cars.

Despite the economic surge, Kayseri and its region remain deeply conservative. There is only one bar in the city, and it is usually closed. Business leaders plough a portion of their profits back into schools, universities, hospitals and mosques — a form of tithing. Many women wear headscarves. Still, the recent prosperity is lending new texture to Turkey's traditional image as the meeting place of East and West. Celal Hasnalcaci, a local manufacturer of denim jeans for export, prays five times a day but adorns his office walls with photographs of young women striking provocative poses in low-cut jeans. Giant billboards on the main street downtown flog everything from bras to i-Pods. The region is at once a heartland of Muslim conservatism and Europe's biggest supplier of lingerie. "Business is business," says Hasnalcac with a shrug.

"It's very true. Business is in our blood," says Ikbal Cavdaroglu, head of the women's branch of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party. "But I get a bit nostalgic for the old days. I liked that time when we all knew each other on the street. But now we have opened up to the world!" Nonetheless, Cavdaroglu is proud of her city's achievements, of which she is living proof: As the first local woman to qualify as an accountant, she now trains other young women from rural Anatolia. "A lot of men said we could not do it but I am still standing!" she says with a smile, adjusting her brown silk headscarf. "There has never been such a peaceful productive period for Turkey. And we have no intention of giving that up."

Kayseri's growth is part of a broader growth of the Turkish economy. Between 2002 and 2006, exports fueled an 8% annual expansion of GDP, while inflation remains at a 25-year low. Still, average incomes are only around one-third of those enjoyed in the main economies of Western Europe, and corruption remains widespread. Those realities may be part of the reason that, despite Turkey's impressive economic performance, Europe appears to be cooling toward welcoming it into the club. Although formal negotiations over its membership were recently started after Turkey had spent four decades knocking on the door, those negotiations are plagued by difficulties, and next month, a portion of those talks aimed at bringing Turkey up to Europe's legal, economic and political standards are likely to be suspended. E.U. officials say Turkey has not made sufficient progress on key reforms, and that it has refused to open its ports to ships from the new member states in the European Union — a result of its long-standing dispute with E.U. member Cyprus.

A growing number of Turks and Europeans are now voicing second thoughts about the whole idea. The Pope is hardly alone in publicly questioning whether Turkey can ever be part of Europe. French Presidential aspirant Nikolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both oppose full membership. In Turkey, meanwhile, a growing number of nationalists are arguing that Turkey should not be making sacrifices to join the E.U. because it will infringe on Turkey's sovereignty. For the first time, a majority of Turks say they do not believe Turkey will ever be accepted into the Union. And a majority of Europeans, for their part, are telling opinion pollsters that they would be happy if that proves to be the case.

If the economic changes already under way in central Anatolia and other parts of Turkey continue , it may not matter, because in the process of pursuing E.U. membership, Turkey has begun to fundamentally transform its economy and way of life. Turkey's entrepreneurs are not waiting for E.U. membership to maximize their participation in the world economy. They're already there.