KAYSERI, TURKEY — By Yigal Schleifer | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
As a devout Muslim, Celal Hasnalcaci believes women should cover their hair and dress modestly, as the Koran teaches. As the general director of Keep Out, a growing company that exports denim clothing from this city in the Turkish heartland to Europe, he makes jeans that hug the hips and expose more than a bit of midriff, as today's fashion dictates.
Mr. Hasnalcaci, a soft-spoken man with a graying mustache, sees no contradiction in that. He is both a Muslim and a businessman, he says. He also sees no contradiction in Muslim Turkey's bid to join the European Union.
"Our religion is Islam, but it doesn't say not to join with others. It says take your religion everywhere and show its goodness. If you don't show yourself, they won't understand you," he says.
"If we want to be modern and be technical and improve, we have to be together with the Europeans," he adds.
Hasnalcaci is part of a fast-rising entrepreneurial class known as the Anatolian Tigers.
Over the past decade, these Islamic-minded business owners from Turkey's conservative Anatolia region have emerged as a counterweight to the country's established secular elite.
As Turkey moves ever closer to its long-held goal of joining the EU, people like Hasnalcaci have become an important - and perhaps surprising - force behind the country's westward push.
They're embracing the old elite's European dream for Turkey, yet steadfastly holding on to their Muslim identity and conservative lifestyle.
It is a synthesis, observers here say, that could influence which Turkey will eventually greet Europe - and which aspects of Europe Turkey will eventually accept.
"This is the new face of Turkey. Ten years ago, some of this Islamic bourgeoisie was hesitant about joining the EU, but the hearts and minds have changed," says Nilufer Narli, a sociologist at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.
"They are for progress and modernization but with a big difference - they want to conserve their traditional life in the family and with their acquaintances," she adds. "They really want to adopt European norms, but there are some areas, like gender relations, where it won't be easy for them to do that."
Hasnalcaci is also chairman of the Kayseri branch of the Independent Industrialist and Businessmen's Association, known as MUSIAD, a national group that is something like a pro-Islamic chamber of commerce.
When it was founded in 1990, MUSIAD cast its gaze to the east and Turkey's Islamic neighbors. Since then, it has become a strong supporter of Turkey's EU bid, while still promoting improved economic ties with the Muslim world.
"A lot of them are pragmatic, and they have a government that is telling them that EU membership will mean more religious freedom and reduce the power of the military and the arch secular establishment," says Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the Ankara Center for Turkish Policy Studies.
"They also see that EU membership may provide a lot of opportunities," he adds. "Turkey is integrated into the global system, but EU membership would deepen that integration."
But as MUSIAD has changed, so has Turkey. In 1997, following the Turkish military's dismissal of the Islamist Welfare Party government, the authorities tried to shut MUSIAD down and blacklist its members. Today, though, Turkey is run by the socially conservative, Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the guest of honor at a recent MUSIAD conference.
"Today we have slowly started getting to what we deserve, which is being given importance, being given influence," says MUSIAD's chairman, Omer Bolat. The organization now represents some 7,300 companies, which make up close to 10 percent of the Turkish gross national product, Bolat says.
"In the past, they had limited contacts, limited resources," says Narli. "Today they have more and will have even more if AKP stays in power. Today they present a real challenge to the old elite."
At the same time, she says, MUSIAD and its members have become more moderate, sticking to business and staying away from making statements on some of Turkey's hot-button social issues.
"What I see is the dilution of their cause as they become more bourgeois. Their rhetoric has changed," she says.
For the Anatolian Tigers and MUSIAD, the next big challenge may be convincing their conservative grass roots about the benefits of EU membership.
A recent survey sponsored by the German Marshall Fund found that while 73 percent of Turks support EU membership, only 52 percent have warm feelings for the EU, compared to a European average of 70 percent.
"Turks view many of the reforms that the EU asked us to do as interference in our sovereign rights, but this is what it's all about. It's about a certain level of interference in our sovereignty," says the Ankara Center's Kiniklioglu.
In Kayseri, an ancient walled city of 500,000, the economy is booming. Its outskirts are ringed by industrial parks and apartment blocks. But there is still concern about what joining Europe might mean for Turkey's traditional way of life.
"It's a benefit for Europe, but a loss for Turkey if we join," says Ahmed Kasoglu, who runs a business importing and exporting animal hides out of a small office in the city's covered bazaar.
"It's been a 300-year dream to reach the West, from Ottoman times until now. But in reality, only bad things will enter the country if we join - drugs and a very free way of life, for example."
Still, Kasoglu is not standing in the way of Turkey's march to Europe.
Three years ago he started operating his business in conformance with EU hygiene regulations, as well as using the same EU-issued forms and paperwork used in European countries
"It's more effective and standardized," he says.
By Andreas Tzortzis | Correspondent to The Christian Science Monitor
ANKARA, TURKEY - Some compare it to a frog kicking around in a pot of milk, trying to make butter. Others, drawing on the time-worn sports metaphor, talk about how they've played well enough to make the team.
Whatever the image, Turkey's political and business elite have turned their drive toward membership in the European Union, which gained support from the European Commission Wednesday, into a national obsession.
Some of them look at it as a historical privilege, the final step in the westward march first started by reform-minded President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. Others see membership as the best means to modernize and improve Turkey's society and economy.
"Five years ago, we thought we were a democracy," Ahmet Acet, the government's deputy undersecretary for European affairs, told a group of foreign journalists last week. "After going through this process, we realized we were less democratic than we thought we were."
A series of reforms in the past two years has eliminated the death penalty, sought to wipe out torture in Turkey's prisons, and given Kurdish minorities basic rights. The pace and enormous will behind the reforms, enacted to pacify the EU, have given Turkish leaders their most powerful argument.
"We did our homework; now the test is with the EU," said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also spoke with foreign journalists last week.
"I believe there are many states that do not fulfill the criteria as member states right now," says Mr. Erdogan, in a reference to some of the 10 new member states from the former Eastern Bloc who joined the EU last May.
The EU has treated Turkey, a member of the European Customs Union since 1995, as an official candidate for accession since 1999.
This December, EU leaders will decide whether to open official negotiations, a process that most say could last at least 12 years.
In the past few months, Erdogan has made multiple trips to Europe's capitals to allay any skittishness among EU leaders. He says European governments that are worried about Turkey's size, economy, and religion are not focusing on the right issues.
"While we are talking about what the EU will have to pay, they should also talk about what the EU will gain with Turkish membership," says Erdogan.
Among the stronger arguments is Turkey's potential role as a stabilizing force in a region that includes Syria and Iraq.
"We understand these guys a lot better than you do because we are a melting pot of all these different nationalities," says Acet, the government's EU specialist. "Turkey is close to the values of its volatile neighborhood and perhaps could serve as an inspiration to others."
The theory has something to it, say Western diplomats.
"From the conversations I've had with some of my colleagues, I think the bigger Arab countries, like Jordan and Egypt, are looking very closely at what happens with Turkey," says one European diplomat based here.