Friday, 30 January 2009

Turkish Society Increasingly Marked by Intolerance Toward "the Other"

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 2 of the Turkey Analyst)

Underlying the continued drama of Turkish politics is a societal polarization that has sharpened during the past decade – and which has been the subject of a growing number of reports by academics and investigative journalists. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that tolerance for “the other”, even basic civility, is in worryingly short supply in the Turkish society.  Without a reaffirmation of civic values, these trends of a regression of liberal values pose a growing danger to the consolidation of democracy in Turkey.

BACKGROUND: “We have become a society in which human relations are characterized by non-civility and violence. It is as if we had gone collectively mad. News about heinous murders and other horrifying crimes occupy a growing place in the media. The sanctification of violence that had always been part of our cultural heritage has now taken on a more explicit nature. Values such as tolerance, politeness and mutual respect have been deserted.” The verdict belongs to Ayse Atalay, an associate professor at Marmara University in Istanbul, writing in the op-ed page of the daily Cumhuriyet.

Although it may appear excessive, it is in fact a verdict that is echoed in a recent landmark study published by the prestigious Bosphorus University in Istanbul and the Istanbul branch of the Open Society foundation led by Professor Binnaz Toprak, entitled “To be different in Turkey”, (“Türkiye’de farkli olmak”), in which Turkey’s growing intolerance problem is detailed.

As most observers, Turkish and foreign, have their attention fixed on what  goes on in the political world of the country, the societal transformations that supply politics with its deeper context go relatively unnoticed. Toprak’s study goes a long way in bringing observers of Turkey up-to-date with the state of tolerance to non-conservative lifestyles and identities in the cities of Anatolia. It is a landmark study because, as its authors note, although there has been numerous accounts of the oppression encountered by those who have chosen an Islamic lifestyle, no attention had so far been paid to the question whether or not those who have a secular identity – or rather one that deviates from the Sunni Muslim mainstream – were subjected to oppression. Moreover, the study – based on over 400 interviews – details not opinions of the interviewees, but factual instances of oppression that have affected them or people in their immediate vicinity.

The conclusion of Toprak’s study is that the repression of individuals deviating from the Islamic conservative and ethnic Turkish mainstream is severe and widespread, and to that clearly on the rise. These “others” include people choosing a secular lifestyle, women, Alevis (adherents of a heterodox, liberal version of Islam that could be a fifth of Turkey’s population), religious minorities and Kurds. The non-religious “other” is under an increasing – and for many an unbearable- social pressure to conform to religious values and norms of behavior.

The findings of the study run contrary to two, common assumptions about rural Turkey. One is that Islam in Anatolia is characterized by a kind of tolerance not on display in other parts of the Muslim Middle East. The study concludes that that tolerance – which may or may not have been historically present – has more or less evaporated. The second, likewise conventional assumption holds that Anatolia is home to a certainly pious, but in political terms intrinsically liberal bourgeoisie, alternatively denominated “Anatolian tigers” or “Anatolian Protestants”, whose recent rise portends a non-authoritarian Turkey. That the existence of such a correlation – between the political rise of a pious class and democratization – is postulated by many analysts is in part attributable to the perception that Islam and popular religiosity in Turkey has been subjected to the repression of a supposedly authoritarian secularism. It could however certainly be argued that no constraints have ever been put on the exercise of Islam in Turkey.

Following its publication last December, the study “To be different in Turkey” set off an avalanche of criticism from Islamic conservative and certain liberal quarters, the main accusation being that its authors have neglected the other side of the story, the repression of the religious “other”.  “An investigation of the oppression of the conservative masses by the official as well as the societal elites would have revealed the extent of it”, wrote the conservative columnist Taha Akyol in Milliyet. However, the authors of the study note that there is a perception of diminished repression: While 42 percent of the Turkish population in 1999 thought that religious individuals encountered oppression, that percentage had dipped to 17 percent in 2006.

IMPLICATIONS: Even at its height, Kemalist Turkey was never an atheist state. As conservative politicians like Süleyman Demirel have said, it would be difficult to prove that praying, fasting, going on the pilgrimage to Mecca or giving alms - that is fulfilling the obligations of Islam - has ever been held in anything but high esteem in society. By contrast, it would not be difficult to prove that the contrary, in fact any deviation from a Muslim identity, has always been problematic. Indeed, the Turkish experiment of secularism abounds with paradoxes: Although the Kemalist revolution dismantled the power of religion over law and education, it nevertheless implicitly postulated that Islam was going to be an integral part of the national identity that was formed. As time wore on, as expressions of Sunni Islam once again became visible in the public realm from the 1950s on, that postulation became explicit. It is no coincidence that Turkey’s governors, ambassadors and generals as a rule have always been Sunni Muslims. Although Turkey has had Chiefs of the General staff and presidents who have been ethnic Kurds, an Alevi becoming general or governor has to this day remained an unbreakable taboo.

It is typical of this paradox that secularists invariably seek to legitimize the Kemalist heritage in intra-Islamic terms; defenders of Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the republic, are thus always at great pains to prove his supposed deep religiosity, although his own written work about religion – which has tellingly been censored – demonstrates beyond any doubt that Atatürk held no religious beliefs. The fact that the secularists themselves have been unable to tolerate the truth about Atatürk’s endeavor is revealing; Atatürk is indeed “the other” in relation to almost every section of Turkish society.

This reality of a nominally secular Turkish state – which over the decades has expanded the scope of religious education and built more mosques than any other state in the Muslim world cannot easily be reconciled with the lasting perception of Islamic marginalization. Professor Toprak, the chief author of the study referred to here, reminds that she has herself in the past conducted several studies of how the Islamic stratums of Turkey have been “marginalized, how they have been consistently denied entrance to the centers of political power, how they have been excluded from circles of high social status and caricaturized.”  Yet, although the educated classes have been prone to view the peasant masses with contempt, Turkey has been ruled by sons of peasants, such as the former president and Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel. But obviously, the laws banning the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in universities and in public offices do fit into the picture of exclusion of Islam.

Notwithstanding the duplicity of Turkish state secularism – pretending secularism in the rhetoric while encouraging Sunni Islam in its practice – the pious part of the population has experienced, if not outright oppression then at least cultural stigmatization, as its religious values have been viewed as obstacles to development by the “enlightened”, upper stratums of society.  That is why secularists are repulsed by the sight of a presidential first lady wearing the Islamic headscarf. Still, secularists and religious conservatives are united in religiously motivated intolerance, since neither category could imagine a non-Sunni president.

CONCLUSIONS: Conservative columnist Taha Akyol notes that the single most important conclusion of Binnaz Toprak’s study must be that Turkey is in the process of becoming a country which consists of mutually intolerant, one could add culturally gated, communities. Akyol exhorts “all communities to open their doors and windows to “the other”. The authors of the study themselves call for a “mobilization” in favor of a civic education that would foster more tolerant citizens, eradicating prejudices about differing identities and eliminating discrimination.

Kemal Atatürk was himself keenly aware of the importance of civic instruction. Yet he seems to have harbored few illusions about the prospects of freedom and tolerance. “To tell the truth”, Atatürk wrote eighty years ago in his book “Medenî bilgiler” (Civic instruction), “Those who love freedom for the sake of freedom, who really understand the meaning of tolerance, are but a minority everywhere in the world.”  “Wherever peace can be observed, it is based on the mutual hatred of intolerance and freedom of the thought; what secures the foundation (of peace and freedom) is the sheer force that keeps the balance in place.  What we see is not the disappearance of intolerance, but rather intolerance rendered weak.”

Yet Atatürk was also aware that “freedom may be instituted by force, but its survival depends on tolerance.” And he was prescient enough to be aware that tolerance, meaning “at least turning a blind eye on those beliefs of others which we don’t share”, was not only a matter of protecting the gains of secularism, the freedom to cut loose from religious dogmas. Understandably, Atatürk worried that freedom from the rule of religion was not secured. He suspected that old mentalities survived, and assumed that “our free citizens must view this specter with sorrow and pity”. But interestingly, he went on to note that intolerance had wider implications: “If people of different beliefs harbor feelings of hate towards each other, if they despise each other or if they just pity one and the other, then they are being intolerant.” It is a sentence that sums up Turkey’s Islamic-secular experiment; while the religious conservatives have hated “God-less” seculars, the latter have pitied and despised the former as “non-enlightened”. The intolerance has been reciprocal.

Atatürk concluded his little essay about tolerance with the expectation that “Presumably, the desired generalization of tolerance will depend on a high level of intellectual training.”  Toprak and her co-authors call for a new political culture, one of consensus, and exhort ruling religious conservatives and the secularists in opposition to steer clear from authoritarian alternatives.

The quality of civic instruction, as well as the examples that are set in the arena of politics, will be of crucial importance for securing the foundations of democracy in Turkey, foundations which have become dangerously weakened.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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