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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Life and Society
IT Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Shifting Identities and the Stakes of Turkish Democracy

Nilüfer Göle, interviewed by Juliana DeVries

Turkey faces tough decisions at home and abroad, from how to handle heterogeneous identities as they become visible in the public sphere to the role it will play as a model for emerging Middle Eastern democracies. Prominent Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Göle points to three “concentric transformations” that have affected Turkey since the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP): the fusing of the AKP’s Islamic past with the Turkish conservative democratic tradition, the EU accession process, and the Arab Spring. These developments underlie such pivotal issues as the weakening of the Turkish military, the Islamist/secular debate and the Kurdish question. To heed Göle would be wise, as we attempt to unpack these subjects and understand a way forward for Turkish democracy.


How has the AKP transformed Turkish self-presentation since it came to power in 2003?

I think that the coming to power of the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan represents a paradigmatic shift in terms of Turkish self-presentation. We can situate the changes brought by the AKP at three levels, which I consider the three “concentric transformations.”

Although there are many suspicions otherwise, I see the AKP as a conservative democratic movement, which has its roots in the conservative democrat movement in 1950s Turkey. It is now, for example, the 50th anniversary of the first military coup in Turkey and the execution of Adnan Menderes, and these events are being commemorated in Turkey, as they have never been before. Erdoğan has related himself not with the previous Islamic movements and the head of these movements, Necmettin Erbakan, but mostly with Menderes and Turgut Özal, the leaders of the conservative democratic movements. Erdoğan therefore tries to bring the Islamic movement into this conservative democrat movement—to relate the two, and therefore to transform both movements. This is the first concentric transformation—a fusing of the conservative democratic tradition with an Islamic past—which has consequences beyond Turkey, because it makes Turkey a model of reference for understanding contemporary Islamist movements and the possibility of transforming them into more legally-based, parliamentary democracies.

The second concentric transformation in which the AKP found itself is a product of history. When the AKP came to power, Turkey had recently become a candidate for joining the European Union, so the AKP had to transform Turkey to harmonize the Turkish legal system with that of the Copenhagen criteria. That meant significant reforms, and for that the AKP had to mobilize not only themselves, but also Turkish society, including the NGOs, Turkish Parliament, the intellectuals…the whole society was mobilized around this series of reforms required by the EU. People also found these changes relevant to their own everyday lives, from Kurds to Alevis, from feminists to homosexuals, as well as for those who were stigmatized by several military coups or by leftist intellectuals. The EU reforms brought a deepening of democracy for the society at large, not just for the AKP.


And also the weakening of the military…

Yes, these reforms required that Turkey also reform its military and put aside the military as the guarantor of the secular state. There were some paradoxes and tensions involved in this process, because this Europeanization of Turkey went hand-in-hand with the “Islamization” of Turkey as well, because it was under the AKP governance that these reforms were undertaken. The demilitarization of the state or demilitarization of politics could mean undermining of secularism, which is at the very foundations of the Turkish state. This is why some were strongly opposed to the weakening of the military. But then, for some non-Muslim democratic intellectuals—“secular democrats,” as I call them—this represents a deepening of democracy. They think that we need to finish off the deep state, known as Ergenekon. But for others still, this has nothing to do with democratization, but rather a kind of taking over of the last strands of the secular Kemalist state. So it’s important to understand this difference of perception within Turkey. And then the reality is even more complex. Turkey has been undergoing a very complex process of democratization.


Right, realities such as ethnic and religious divisions—the Kurdish issue, Alevi minority rights, the Armenian questions, and so on.

Yes, it is complex in the sense that Turkey has to deal with the heterogeneity of its society. Democracy is not only rights and freedoms; there is also the issue of difference-. This difference is represented in terms of belief, Muslims but also the non-Muslim minority, believers and those who are not believers, such as secularists or atheists. It is also between different ideologies and different ethnicities. I think the real thing of Turkish democracy is to discover the thickness of the heterogeneity of the society where we are living.

In that sense, Turkey has never before been as heterogeneous as it is now in the sense that all of these differences are now, more and more, being expressed publicly. The Kurdish issue is, of course, much more on the forefront, as is the religious-secular debate. There are also all kinds of different identities within these divides, so that even these binary positions do not hold any longer.

A sort of “porous-ness” has developed between different kinds of sections in Turkish society: there are many intellectuals who are not Islamic but can write in Islamic newspapers, and there are many Muslim thinkers who now write in mainstream newspapers, both of which were unthinkable before. In terms of the Armenian issue, we have many Turks discovering their Armenian roots, or opening themselves to – Turkey’s Armenian heritage-. It is no longer identity but identities in Turkey, heterogeneous entities, which are at stake for democracy.

Then what makes this process very complicated is the role of Islamic power or AKP power. When you think of Portugal or Spain or Greece, their post-military transitions were a kind of linear process: exiting from military regimes and entering into a European Union form of democracy. In the Turkish case, this is much more complex, the democratic reforms and the demilitarization process are implemented by the AKP government which is feared by the traditional secular sections of society.  And secondly, the EU does not provide the frame any longer. There is the weakening of the EU project for Turkey, but it was also the EU, which closed its door on Turkey.


For many, the biggest game-changers for Islam and democracy are unequivocally the revolutions this year in the Middle East. How do you see this “Arab Spring” influencing Turkey and the AKP?

Actually, the third concentric transformation of the Turkish self-presentation is this “Arab Spring.” These Arab countries have had an unprecedented impact on Turkey. Not only do we see the impact of Turkey on the Arabic countries, but also we should reverse our gaze.

Turkey has gained a lot from the EU process in terms of pluralism, although EU membership came to an end and we no longer refer to the EU as we used to. But what has happened now, is that the dynamic toward democracy comes from the Arab countries. Turkey has to be up to the model she wants to present to the rest of the Middle East. If Turkey does not fill this role, the model may be Iran, which is an Islamic republic in the region and is quite different of course. Turkey is both a candidate to the European Union and is led by a conservative democrat party, which has its roots in Islam, but Turkey is also deepening democracy, opening itself to heterogeneity of identity. It is this combination that makes Turkey come forward as a model of reference for emerging Arab democracies.


Many of these influences seem to take place around the question of secularism. With his recent comments in Egypt, some think Erdoğan is encouraging the emerging Middle Eastern democracies to be secular. Do you find these comments genuine?

I think the talk Erdoğan gave lately in Cairo in relation to secularism is a very important marker. I will not answer in terms of whether this is genuine or whether he is having a kind of hidden agenda, because this is part of a politics of suspicion, but I think it was a very important moment to avoid going toward some kind of populist discourse.

Once Erdoğan says we need to reinterpret secularism and that we should understand a post-Kemalist secularism, this secularism becomes more open and can embrace all different belief systems. Such a definition of secularism calls for an equidistant attitude of the State with all belief systems, ensuring religious freedom also for non-Muslims minorities. We see in the Cairo speech of Erdoğan here trying to provide a frame by means of secularism the rights of non-Muslims in the Oriental world.  So in that sense, that interpretation of secularism, and not just the reproduction of Kemalist secularism, has the potential to surmount the authoritarian feature of secularism and open-up a post-secular understanding of the religious-secular divide.


What do you mean by a post-secular understanding?

Well, now I am getting more theoretical… One understanding of secularism, especially in the Turkish case, meant the exclusion of religion from the public sphere. In that sense, it was similar to the French understanding. That is why the headscarf debate has been and still is central to the debates in both countries, although they are very different in terms of their historical and cultural backgrounds.

Secularism in the French case is now trying to be even more hegemonic and more didactic and therefore keeping this view of secularism with new legislation to ban all sorts of public signs, like headscarves and burkas from the public life, including not only in schools but in the streets as well.

In Turkey the situation is almost the contrary, because religion is making its way into public life even more, and the religious-secular divide is not maintained as it used to be. There are new compositions, new articulations. In that sense, Erdogan and AKP power can be read as a post-secular experience, which does not mean the alternating choices between either Islam or secularism, but going beyond the divide and searching for new articulations that will not lead to exclusionary practices. Of course, each move is a test of whether the AKP can maintain this “in-between-ness.” If they lose the in-between-ness, this articulation between the two, then I would not consider the AKP experience as successful. Each time it is a new articulation between religious and secular, intermingling one with the other. The question is not becoming Islamic or secular, it is how to articulate both.

Until now, the AKP has been maintaining this in-between, because of the three concentric transformations that I have mentioned above. But this doesn’t mean that there are no problems, because it is very complex, because this process of demilitarization means we need to figure out how secularism is now related with democracy, not with military guarantor-ism, how democracy can be a guarantor of pluralism, and not the other way around. In that way, what happens with the AKP concerns all of us. Pluralism must be a choreography among many actors, not just one. Otherwise it is totalitarianism or the tyranny of the majority.


But how will this pluralistic secularism come about in Turkey and how will it help for the Kurdish issue? Is there hope in the Turkish constitutional reform project that has just begun?

There is no blueprint for very deeply anchored human suffering, killings, civil war and villages that have been burned and deserted.  There is a lot of human suffering behind these issues, both for the Kurdish issue and for the Armenian issue. I don’t think that the constitution-making will at once bring - the solution to everything as a ready-made formula. It is an ongoing work on the behalf of the society to open-up these difficult- to- hear, taboo subjects and interact with each other’s subjective experiences.

The problem with the Turkish democracy at the moment is that none of these opening processes are completed. They begin, we speak of “opening-up”, words and eyes,  but the solutions are not yet grounded institutionally. In this respect, constitution-making is very crucial.  For instance, with the Kurdish Opening, there is much that has changed, but not yet enough; the participation of the Kurdish deputies to the parliament and their reception by the majority will be a very important step in taking the Kurdish issue from the realm of “violence” to that of “politics”.  Likewise the Armenian issue is now much less a taboo, largely debated in the public arena, but unless the “dark” forces that led to the Armenian intellectual Hrant Dink’s assassination are not revealed and tried, we cannot reassure ourselves that we are coming peacefully to terms with our past. And then there are the property rights of the non-Muslim minority, that are said to be given - back, but still we need to see it on the ground.

There are a lot of reasons to have hope, in the sense that civil society  in spite of the difficulties and anxieties, is discovering and embracing a heterogeneity that was suppressed and forbidden, but we need a much stronger frame, a constitutional frame, that should come as a legal basis as a guarantee for a pluralistic society. It is unfortunate that Europe does not provide any longer the legal frame. But the history has its caprices.  I do think the Arab Spring provides a new impulse for the government and Turkish society to be up to the model that they are referring to. When they say pluralism to protect the rights of non-Muslims, all believers and non-believers, and when they say democracy means that you do not oppress your people in a multi-ethnic society, then you have to be up to the model that you defend! The Arab Spring gives Turkey inspiration as well, because other countries are becoming democratic and it is not only Turkey that is a Muslim-majority country trying to be a democratic, free market, pluralistic society. That even creates a sense of competition, which is good.


You have also written about the discrimination that Muslim immigrants in Europe are facing. Where are these issues headed and how can we further overcome these issues of discrimination?

Europe is defining itself more and more as a Judeo-Christian civilization and distinguishing, and distancing herself from Islam. Part of the story in Europe is the constellation of different civilizations, not only Christian, but also Russian, and Ottoman, and I think we need to also create the hyphen between Judeo-Islamic.

This tension with Israel for Turkey should not translate itself as against Judaism or against the Jewish identity, because that would mean pulling on the trap of this binary oppositional way of thinking, instead of being mediators in between. It’s a whole question of hyphens and what I call inter-penetration that reminds of confrontation, force and violence but also proximity.

In Europe, things can change on an everyday basis. For the time being, Europe has become very much obsessed with national identities and giving up the European project itself, which is the inspiration to go beyond national identities. So once you start to talk about European identity, it is a way of confessing weakness. In Turkey, paradoxically Muslim conservative people are not talking about identities; they speak of democracy. It is the nationalists who speak of identity. Similarly in Europe, the nationalists have these strong aspirations to assert identity, at the exclusion of Muslim migrants.

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