Friday, 03 July 2009

Growing Intolerance Threatens Turkey's National Cohesion

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 13 of the Turkey Analyst) 

Turkish society is marred by cultural, religious, ethnic and political polarization. Indeed, the polarization runs so deep as to conjure up the vision of a country divided into metaphorically gated communities having nothing in common with each other except their mutual contempt. According to several recent surveys, reciprocal, societal intolerance toward the “other” is widespread, mirroring the undeclared civil war that rages among the institutions of the state. Turkey will have to be renegotiated and reinvented if the country is to escape from the present impasse. Yet, Turkey’s historical experience of nation-building suggests that the prospects of managing and eventually overcoming differences are not promising.

BACKGROUND: The attempt to forge a nation constitutes the basic story-line of the last two hundred years of Turkish history. During the nineteenth century, the ruling, modernizing elite of the Ottoman Empire sought to preserve the unity of the state through the promotion of an Ottoman nation, proclaiming the equality of Muslim and Christian subjects. However, Muslim-Christian equality remained a dead letter; no Ottoman nation ever emerged, and the empire was doomed. The republican Turkish successor state has sought to forge a Turkish nation, suppressing ethnic and religious diversity. Although officially secular, the proclaimed new nation nevertheless never represented any conceptual break with the Islamic identity. A Turk was always assumed to be a Sunni Muslim. The implicit synthesis of Turkish nationalism and Islam was eventually given official sanction during the military rule in the 1980s.

However, neither has the Turkish-Islamic synthesis succeeded in lastingly gluing a nation together. Ethnic and cultural differences have increasingly come to the fore, with the Kurds asserting their ethnic identity, and with the polarization between secularist Turkish nationalists and religious conservatives attaining dramatic levels since 2006-2007. Indeed, Turkey has to all intents and purposes ceased to be imagined as a shared community. The disintegration into a communitarian condition – with widespread contempt for and intolerance toward “the other” – is displayed in the recent survey of radicalism and fundamentalism in Turkey conducted by Professor Yılmaz Esmer of Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University.

(Which of these comes in first place for you? 
62% - religion, 16% - secularism, 13% - democracy; 
5% ethnic identity, 4% - sufficient income)

75 percent of respondents did not want to share neighborhood with atheists, 72 percent did not want to have any neighbors who use alcohol, 64 percent did not want any Jews in their neighborhood, 52 percent said no to Christian neighbors, and 35 percent did not want neighbors whose daughters wear shorts. Overall, the Bahçeşehir survey leaves no doubts about the endurance of deeply conservative, Muslim cultural instincts. It should be noted that the findings were the same in a similar survey conducted by Yılmaz Esmer in 1990. According to Esmer, the outwardly expressions of religiosity have become more visible, but there is nevertheless no rise of religious conservatism at the level of attitudes. Religion is the uncontested, supreme value: 62 percent named religion as what matters most for them in life, with sixteen percent naming secularism, thirteen percent democracy and five percent their ethnicity.

The study “To be different in Turkey” published by Istanbul’s Bosphorus University and the Istanbul branch of the Open Society foundation has similarly confirmed the persistence across Anatolia of religious bigotry, revealing that the repression of deviations from the Islamic mainstream is severe and widespread, and to that clearly on the rise. However, the secularists are no less intolerant: 14 percent did not want neighbors who wear the headscarf, the symbol of Muslim, fundamentalist religiosity, a percentage that coincidentally is more or less the same as of those who state that secularism is what matters most for them in life.

The secularists are afraid of being engulfed by the religiously conservatives. One representative of the secularist elite, interviewed in a recent report entitled “The elite and social distance” (Seçkinler ve sosyal mesafe) published by Bilgi University in Istanbul and the Open Society foundation, stated that  “today, they have become too numerous, and they have started to disturb us. It was not like that before.”

The report, consisting of interviews with members of what is usually described as the Kemalist elite, seeks to convey how those who have been educated at prestigious schools, who hold high-income jobs and who identify themselves with traditional republican, secularist values regard what is for them “the others” of Turkish society: the Islamic conservatives, Kurds and non-Muslim minorities. The seculars come across as fearful and angered. One interviewee summed up this feeling by exclaiming that “I feel an inexplicable anger because he [Abdullah Gül] is president, having such a wife [Gül’s spouse wears the headscarf]”. Another said that “I don’t want to see that man [Prime Minister Erdoğan] at the banquet of the republic; then, my ‘white Turkishness’ would assert itself, and I would have trouble controlling myself.” It has become customary to designate secular, westernized Turks as “white Turks”, while certain representatives of the AKP conversely identify themselves as “black Turks”. The typical contempt of an upper class for “those who used to be the downtrodden of society” and who have now acquired “a dangerous power” is on evident display in the interviews. 

However, the seculars are above all frightened: “We were never like this against them, but they have a commanding attitude that in itself inspires fear”.  And it is in particular the have-it-all attitude of the Islamic conservatives that provokes such fears. The seculars are haunted by the prospect of being marginalized: “The fact that they consistently staff every single level of government with their own kind poses a great danger for me; that will inevitably have effects”, as one interviewee put it.

IMPLICATIONS: According to political scientist Fuat Keyman of Koç University, Turkey is severely hampered by what he describes as the lack of a “common language”.  “Without a common language, we cannot negotiate our differences and establish the norms that are necessary for securing our concord as a society.” Indeed, many seculars have only recently become fully aware of the existence of those differences and painfully conscious of their minority status. One of the interviewed seculars notes, “we are indeed very much the minority”; since she has only recently understood how widespread the use of the headscarf is, she feels compelled to conclude that she previously must have been isolated from the rest of society. Another of the interviewed seculars states that he and his wife find it repugnant that the wives of those who represent the state wear the Islamic headscarf, but nevertheless recognizes that “we who hold such views think differently than everyone else in this geography.”

To a certain extent, the psychology of Turkey’s seculars, of the “white Turks”, bear a striking resemblance to that of other minorities who have been forced to relinquish power and prestigious positions to rising majorities. Indeed, Samuel Huntington, the theorist of the clash of civilizations, urged Turkey to “do a South Africa, abandoning secularism as alien to its being as South Africa abandoned apartheid.” Whatever the merits of the comparison – a questionable proposition, Nelson Mandela’s leadership in the South African case was instrumental in assuring a smooth transition, with the white minority being granted partnership in the formation of a new, democratic nation. The “white Turks,” on the contrary, are excluded both from the “neighborhood” as well as from the walks of the state. The attitudes of the religious “neighborhood”, where those who do not comply with conservative religiosity are un-welcomed, are reflected in the bureaucratic and political routines that have been established during the tenure of the AKP. The seculars’ concern that they are being marginalized is not unsubstantiated.

CONCLUSIONS: The experience of Turkish nation-building may have come full circle. Over one hundred and fifty years after the Ottoman modernizers’ failure to forge a nation based on the principle of equal citizenship transcending religious differences, it now seems to be the turn of the secular-modernist minority to share a fate not altogether dissimilar to that of the non-Muslim minorities.

Indeed, as has been observed by Turkish Jewish historian Rıfat Bali, the cultural heritage of the non-Muslim minorities has been “adopted” by the secular elites of Istanbul who, as a besieged minority in a city “invaded” by “peasants” – a result of the social transformations that have taken place in Turkey since the 1980s – have come to feel a “romantic kinship” with the non-Muslim minorities of the past.

Ultimately, the crucial question that begs for an answer is whether or not a community of equal citizens that does not owe any explicit or implicit allegiance to Islam can realistically be envisaged in Turkey. The conclusion imposed by the history of the last two hundred years is that the Muslim religious affiliation remains a precondition for fitting into the “neighborhood”, and by consequence into any imagined community.

Yet, there is a major difference between the non-Muslim minorities of the past and the secular minority of today: The latter has nowhere else to go, and will not surrender easily. The chief prosecutor is reported to be preparing a new closure case against the AKP, and a corruption trial is pending against President Abdullah Gül. Meanwhile, the Islamic conservative movement continues to counter-attack with the Ergenekon coup conspiracy investigation. Mirroring the condition of a disintegrating nation, the state is being torn apart.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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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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