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Give Turkey some European values -- oh, never mind

FEW ISSUES have roiled the waters of Turkey's march to membership in the European Union as did Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attempt to criminalize adultery last autumn. Perhaps he felt that, after having changed so many laws to suit Europe, he might be free to give a nod to his conservative religious right without censure from the busybodies of Brussels. But no. The reaction from Europe was immediate and indignant. Criminalizing adultery wasn't consistent with European values, and so Erdogan backed down.

Silly old Erdogan. Didn't he know how important adultery is to European values? If European civilization began with the glory that was Greece, then Homer's "Iliad" enthroned the adultery that launched 1,000 ships onto the mainland of what is now Turkey.

Geoffrey Chaucer set the tone in "The Canterbury Tales." William Shakespeare followed suit with "Othello," in which just the suspicion of adultery drove the Moor to murder his wife.

In Richard Wagner's "Die Walkure," Sieglinde forsakes her husband for Siegmund. And to make matters worse, both are sired by Wotan, who deserted his wife Fricka to achieve it. Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier" opens with Octavian in the Marschallin's bed while her husband is away on a hunting trip.

Italy's Giovanni Casanova de Seingalt wrote a memoir that contained much history and literature -- it became the rage of Europe -- but today his name is mentioned only the context of his seductions and adultery.

And where would French literature be without Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," Stendhal's "Le Rouge et le Noir," and "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," by Choderlos de Laclos?

One thinks, too, of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago." But then Turkey does not have to please Russia because Russia is not in the EU.

In more recent times, D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover," broke new ground. It is hard to imagine what Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene would have done without adultery. Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and Turkey's own Orhan Pamuk, in his new novel "Snow," both play on adulterous themes. It would take 1,000 columns to list a fraction of the adulterers in European literature.

And Europe doesn't just read about it. Adultery plays a major role in politics, too. At times it has seemed that the Tory Party here in Britain has been fueled by adultery down the years. More than 40 years ago, as a young reporter, I was assigned to help a more senior colleague get the goods on a Tory minister named John Profumo, whose adultery was complicated in that his mistress had slept with a Soviet military attache.

Today's London tabloids had no sooner finished dissecting the amorous affairs of Tory member of Parliament Boris Johnson than the headlines announced: "Blunkett's Affair With a Married Woman, "referring to the Labor government's home secretary, David Blunkett -- a scandal complete with DNA tests to determine the parentage of his mistress's child.

It is indicative of modern times, however, that his job is not threatened by his adulterous behavior so much as the charges that he improperly used his office to obtain a visa for his mistress's nanny. Turks, take note.

In any case, Blunkett was only following in the illustrious footsteps of David Lloyd George, whose adulteries did not keep him from high office, and of Charles Stuart Parnell, whose adultery and illegitimate children did.

And across the channel, did not President Francois Mitterrand father a child out of wedlock? And did she not attend, with her mother, the president's funeral, alongside his widow? How is Turkey going to manage in the European Union if it is going to get strict about adultery?

But I leave the last word on the subject to Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, who declared he did not want to be the first prince of Wales not to have a mistress -- at least that's what Princess Diana claimed he said.

"Honi soit qui mal y pense," as the royal motto goes.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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