Europe has a history of close encounters with Islam: the Crusades, the Moors in Spain, the decisive naval battle at Lepanto in 1571, Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, etc. The Sept. 11 attacks fit into the pattern of clashes between Muslims and Judeo-Christian societies.
But in a Dec. 12-13 summit, the European Union, which started out as a trade pact after World War II, may draw closer to letting Muslim societies into its expanding political "club."
The EU is expected to formally invite the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to become a member, along with nine other countries, almost all of them from the former Soviet bloc. The island has been divided between ethnic Turks and Greeks for nearly three decades. But this decision will be merely a foretaste of a more Rubicon-crossing moment for the EU: whether to admit eventually the giant Muslim nation of Turkey, once the center of the mighty Ottoman Empire.
Turkey's decades-long effort to be more like Europe in its democracy, economy, and even social customs would be largely fulfilled if it were able to join the EU. But the EU has refused to put Turkey on a fast track to membership, despite the strong backing of the United States and despite having been faithful NATO ally during the cold war. Turkey has also met many of the EU's requirements, such as abolishing the death penalty.
Its resentment flared up again after Turkey's long-time rival, Greece, persuaded fellow EU members to consider Cyprus as a member. Turkey threatened to formally annex the northern half of the island now controlled by Turkish Cypriots unless there was first settlement over control of the disputed island.
So in stepped UN Secretary General Kofi Annan last month with a proposed settlement that could serve as a framework for negotiations. Remarkably, both the Greek and Turkish leaders in Cyprus agreed to move forward on the basis of the UN proposal.
Experience, however, teaches it is highly unlikely - though not impossible - that the parties will suddenly kiss and make up in nine days. But one thing could certainly encourage at least a grudging hug, and that one thing lies within the power of the EU: membership for Muslim Turkey.
Recently, however, former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing said such a step would be "the end of the European Union." He now heads up the official body studying the EU's future, so his words can't be taken lightly. In one sense, he's correct that membership for an Islamic country would be the end of Europe - the old Europe, the one that presumes that its Judeo-Christian values are essential to "Western" democracy and human rights.
It would be the beginning of a new Europe, one that recognizes that several million Muslims already live within the EU and that it is highly dependent on oil from Muslim nations.
And, oh yes, a new Europe that accepts the fact that many non-Christians are quite able to express universal values such as individual liberty and representative government.
As the EU legitimately states, Turkey still needs to show it can honor human rights and ensure civilian control of the Army. But a newly elected government in Ankara, one run by a reformist, Islam-based party, is showing that Turkey is on the right road. Remarkably, the new government recently lifted a 15-year state of emergency over an area populated by the minority Kurds, who have suffered human rights abuses because of their separatist movement. Also, the mere willingness to resume negotiations on Cyprus is a progressive step.
As the US correctly points out, nothing could help cement Turkey's democratic values more firmly than EU membership. American envoys are carrying this message on an Iraq-related swing to Turkey, Cyprus, and several European capitals this week.
At its summit next week, the EU is also expected to hand a prelude to membership to two other countries: Bulgaria and Romania. Both countries are expecting to receive a start date to begin talks for their eventual entrance into this ever-broadening group - probably for 2007.
The EU doesn't have to do anything as hasty as elope with Turkey on the 12th. But Turkey should at least get the same sign of interest that the EU is sending to Bulgaria and Romania.
Yes, the EU should begin its courtship, and in the process, possibly solve the Cyprus problem, too.