The Struggle for Cultural Power in Turkey
Nilgün Tutal 3 November 2017

In the first of two speeches that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivered after the announcement of the results of the referendum on changing the constitution on 16 April 2017,1 he said that there was ‘metal fatigue’ within the AKP’s local and provincial representatives. In the second, he said that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had not yet secured ‘social and cultural power’. What was Erdoğan referring to in both cases and how are they connected? What is ‘social and cultural power’ and how does the AKP shape its policies according to different social groups? In answering these questions, Pierre Bourdieu’s four types of capital will be central: economic capital, educational capital, social capital, and symbolic capital.2

AKP women in shantytown districts

Erdoğan was using the term ‘metal fatigue’ – literally a weakening in the bonds between the atoms that make up a metal – to describe a break down in coordination among actors tasked with the formulation of AKP policy. Such a breakdown is to a certain extent visible in the activities carried out by AKP women’s branches in two different districts of Ankara and Istanbul to make lifestyles more conservative, partly because of situations that block the achievement of their goals.

The Keçiören district in Ankara is famous in Turkey for having become predominantly Islamist after the AKP took power in Ankara, despite previously having been a stronghold of the Nationalist Action Party in the 1980s. Some characteristics of Keçiören emerge from a conversation with three of its residents: specifically, a grandmother in her seventies and her two grandchildren who are preparing for university. The grandchildren – a girl (17) and her brother (20) – talk about their daily lives, their education and the new behaviours and codes established by the religious meetings attended by their mother.

The grandson has been working for two years on university entrance exams but has not yet won a place on a law course. While his sister also studies to go to university, he says that his mother, who regularly attends meetings organised by women sharing the political views of the AKP, holds back from encouraging his sister in preparations and urges her to cover her head. His mother has adopted the lifestyle advice offered at the Koran-study meetings and demands that everyone, including his father (and sister in particular) should fulfil their religious duties.

The tendency to live life through religious duties is not a new thing in this district. However, Muslim obligations such as prayer, attending the mosque, giving alms, and fasting had been practiced in a flexible and unforced manner. Women did not previously wear the conservative overcoat or wear their headscarf so as to completely cover their hair. The change, which took place alongside the concreting (i.e. turning into apartments) of the shanty-houses, took place when housewives who attended Koran courses run by local women working in AKP women’s branches who had themselves graduated from Koran courses or clerical training schools, began applying religious obligations in their own households. The young man relates that one day when his father was shouting loudly at his sister, their mother intervened to say, ‘Don’t shout your daughter’s name loudly, the men outside will hear and you will have sinned.’ ‘I really don’t understand how it is to be so blindly ignorant,’ he says. ‘I cannot figure my mother out at all, but she is my mother and I have to respect her.’

While his sister, who persists in wearing jeans in spite of her mother’s wishes, has little to say, this young man has his own opinions and appears convinced that the education system is seriously flawed. The fundamental problems of the country, he says, can be corrected only once this system is improved, and that after graduation – assuming he can get a place at a law faculty – he will specialise in education policy and seek solutions to those problems. He believes that this goal will be reached by organizing on social media, without joining a political party. He is determined not to be a member of any political party. His family presses him to attend university preparation classes, but he has been going to such courses since primary school and thinks they have nothing more to offer him. The young man went to preparation classes that he thinks were run by the Gülen Community. But he never really got on with the ‘big brothers’ there.3

The grandmother says that ‘back in the day there were no courses and no preparation classes’. It was only toward the end of the 1990s that all local children began to go to preparation classes. In the 1990s, young people started earning higher incomes; when they became parents, they were proud to provide their children with opportunities they had not enjoyed in their own childhood. They were reassured that lessons at the preparation classes were given by ‘devout’ teachers. While it is hard to say whether they consciously decided that their children’s cultural capital should be increased, it seems that they encouraged their children to pursue professional careers so that they would not become tradesmen, workers, or state clerks like themselves, on the basis that doing so would correspond to material welfare.

Hence, families who are aware of the poor quality of state schools and whose financial position allows them to do so, as far as possible send their children to private schools. However, in this suburb and others like it, the education offered by private schools, preparatory classes and state schools alike is so poor as to be indistinguishable. Students at these institutions rarely succeed in passing university examinations. However, those with low scores in the entrance examinations are generally able to study at the universities newly opened in towns across Turkey that are not major cities.4

According to most sociologists, it is rare even in the West for young people whose families have ‘low’ cultural capital to get a good education and go to prestigious universities. It is well-known that just as the diplomas from Turkey’s increasing number of universities do not allow the young people studying at these institutions to rise on the social ladder, they also provide little contribution to the accumulation of cultural capital. The young people in our example are aware that a university education will open a new door. They are uncomfortable with the increasing efforts in the social environment in which they were born to keep them under religious surveillance. This oppression mainly comes from mothers, who impose an ossified form of faith in order to ensure their daughters practice the same lifestyles as their own.

When I asked the young man about his father’s political views, I was told: ‘He doesn’t go to the religious groups like my mother. But he is increasingly becoming a strict Muslim, because of the TV series set in the Ottoman Empire; concerning religious themes he has become an Erdoğan fan. He won’t hear a word against him now.’ According to the grandmother, her daughter-in-law never visits and doesn’t like her husband paying visits. The grandmother laments: ‘What kind of belief is that! What good does it do to pray or read the Koran?’

Her other daughter-in-law, who attends the meetings regularly with her four-year-old daughter, never stays apart from her husband for more than two or three days when she visits her family, because of what she heard at the meetings about relations between husbands and wives. At the meetings she was told that by extending such periods she would be disrespecting her husband and failing in her marital duties. Asked ‘Why do you attend these meetings?’ she says, ‘I take to heart the things the cleric says that suit me and ignore the ones that don’t.’ Asked if the imams at the mosques issue such commands, she answers ‘no’.

Exclusion from social and cultural power

These meetings, which aim to complete a full reading of the Koran, take place every weekday. The social life of women in these neighbourhoods – whose cultural capital is ‘low’ due to the absorption of traditional family codes, whose education does not go beyond primary or high school level, and who do not generally have salaried work, is limited to these Koran-study meetings, since weekends are reserved for family relationships. Relations with neighbours, though they persist, are being replaced by watching television or going to Koran courses. It is not difficult for female AKP activists to revitalize religious principles in districts like this, where educational levels are low and one’s imaginative world is shaped by the impact of popular Islam. Religion serves an important function in keeping local women under the rule of a strict male authority.

In such environments, culture is generally understood as knowing how to read the Koran, meeting with Koran reading groups, and contributing to religious discussion. No matter how much importance is placed on children’s education, religion continues to define the education of girls, as has always been advised by the traditional cultural structure. As a result, the female AKP activists who go door-to-door to propagate the beliefs constructed by the owners of symbolic capital concerning the ‘new Turkey’, serve only to further exclude societal groups that are ‘deprived’ of economic and cultural capital. As a result, the children of families under the influence of new Islamic ideology are deeply confused about what to believe and about the foundations on which they should build their lives. If they do not reject outright the growing religious pressure from their families and popular media, the children of the 2000s (though perhaps not all) approach it with caution. The reason may be that social media has caused alternative forms of socialization to become widespread. The AKP’s decision to lower the age of voting and representation may be seen as a bid to attract this group of young people.

A different story

Another ‘old’ woman, the wife of a former imam, opens the door in Besiktaş, a lower middle-class district of Istanbul favoured by students. She immediately smothers me with offerings: watermelon, Turkish delight, plums gathered from the gardens of summer homes outside Istanbul. She knows I am educated and begins by talking about her son. The sons of her son, whom she praises for having memorised the Koran, studied law like their father; one of them graduated from Galatasaray University and has won a $100,000 scholarship to do post-graduate law at Harvard University. She is full of pride that her grandchildren studied at Istanbul’s Robert College5and that their father earns enough to provide for their education. ‘Both chose to study law,’ she says and adds: ‘they knew they could work in the father’s law firm and their futures would be secure.’

The grandmother repeats that the grandson due to go to America has been brought up well, and that this will prevent him from taking the wrong path in a foreign country. Islam, she says, ‘is the only and best religion, it requires women to cover their heads to protect their honour and modesty. The greatest good deed is to work for mankind to accept Islam; those who do so will find a path to heaven.’ During the chat, her daughter (who lives in the same district) arrives. A graduate of a clerical training school whose dress corresponds to Islamic clothing standards, she teaches a Koran course at one of the local mosques.

It is notable that in conversation, the elderly lady speaks in particular of the education of her son and grandsons, but not of her daughter. It seems there is a difference between a girl’s education and a boy’s. Getting a good education is something to be included in conversation, but there remains an anxiety. The fact that the son and grandchildren have adopted the Islamic lifestyle sufficiently to memorise and teach the Koran is seen as a guarantee that no conflict arises between the ‘different’ habitus created by education, family and school. For a girl’s education, religious education alone is enough to prevent such a conflict.

Beliefs unconducive to thought

Belief opposes truth and is the sum of a society’s common opinions, obsessions and phobias, rational and non-objective beliefs and ideas – in short, the ideological topology of a society. In the examples described, traditional and religious beliefs govern relations between men and women, and between parents and children. They also impact strongly on attitudes towards education, particularly where girls are concerned. While beliefs have captured the full structure of this society, and also have a restrictive dimension for societal groups with high cultural capital, they play a more defining role for societal groups whose cultural sphere is limited to religious knowledge and pop cultural products with religious themes. It is this section of society that is the easiest to rule through belief.

The political struggle is a cognitive struggle over the power to impose a legitimate vision on the communal world. What legitimates this vision is the structure of law, because law makes natural a dominant vision that is legitimate and guaranteed by the state. It conceals relationships of dominance. As a form of meta-capital, the state is the supreme wielder of the symbolic capital and symbolic violence. It directs and oversees all the other types of capital.

Representations constructed by the bureaucratic actors trained and authorised by the state create the fiction of the state’s permanence.The state, which has almost the sole word over the distribution of economic, cultural and societal capital among different classes, has power above all powers. This is why different political movements battle to gain control of the state. The state becomes the source of legitimacy through utterances by its bureaucratic and legal actors, who are the implementers of symbolic violence, concerning what is good in the communal sphere.7

Symbolic violence is violence that denies itself. It works in language or through language, often in representation or through representatives. But this does not mean that symbolic violence is not violence in the strict definition of the word. In fact, symbolic violence is and continues to be physical violence.8 More than anything else, the state seeks to secure a monopoly over symbolic production.

The distinction between, on the one hand, ‘white Turks’ or ‘Kemalist bourgeoisie’, who are closer to the western/secular/modernist mode of symbolic production, and the ‘Turks of New Turkey’ on the other, may be useful in distinguishing between the two groups. One important field in the struggle between societal groups is that of ethical and aesthetic judgments. Any group that obtains political power and control of the state, and thus that wields all the instruments of symbolic violence, sets about reconstructing the cultural arena according to its own worldview. Turkey’s new government feeds on Islamist ideology in opposition to social groups with modern or Kemalist ethics and aesthetics.

The state agents of the ‘New Turkey’ strive to assert the sovereignty of their own cultural understanding over the cultural judgments and preferences of the state agents of the Republican period created by the ‘Western White Turks’. Each group differentiates itself from the other in terms of dress, home decoration, architectural aesthetics, entertainment preferences, sport, and tourism. The most important public action by political Islam was probably to obtain the freedom for young girls and women to wear the headscarf at universities and state institutions. In recent years, Turkish theatres and places of entertainment have been closed, alcohol has been banned from visible locations, young girls and women in ‘conservative’ circles have begun wearing the headscarf and the overcoat, and the educational curriculum has been changed continually. Moreover, after the 2016 coup attempt, an enormous societal ‘clean-up’ has taken place.9

When the AKP says that it has not taken full control of the social and cultural sphere, this should be  understood to mean that ‘doctrinal and dogmatic’ Islamism has not yet made perfect use of the monopoly over symbolic violence.10 This is because the legal, bureaucratic and military spheres have not been completely purged of Gülenist groups, which despite acceptance of the purge by political groupings outside the AKP, still pose a problem for the state. Sovereignty in all these areas is established through symbolic violence. After the disagreement between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, which first emerged in 2007, the AKP decided to cleanse all institutions of the state of the Gülen Movement. The physical and moral existence of Gülen Community, which previously Erdoğan had personally supported, began to be removed from all state bodies, the private sector and the media. The purge has allowed the AKP to detain and imprison, without a fair trial, anyone whose views oppose its own.

Radical Islamism and violence

Erdoğan’s comment about the ‘lack of social and cultural power’ can be read as the first indication that Islamism in Turkey has taken on the trappings of radicalism, and that its violence will increase. The AKP has discovered Islamic radicalisation as a response to western societal, symbolic and cultural power, in much the same way as international Islamist movements have sought alternatives to western modernity.

The AKP has used Islam to invent an anti-political and anti-western utopia. However, it has not hesitated to make use of western political inventions in pursuit of those goals. This utopia aims either to destroy politics, or by following a religious path to remove itself from politics. According to Fethi Benslama, the term ‘political Islam’ does not sufficiently explain the facts; the discovery of Islamism, he argues, is a return to the thought of the medieval Sunni theologian and jurist Ibn Taymiyyah, who argued that there is no politics other than religion.11 In the light of recent developments, it has become evident that Turkey has taken a radical turn toward this kind of Islamism. and that savage violence will be applied against those who stand in its way.

  1. The referendum approved a set of constitutional changes that will introduce a presidential system to replace Turkey’s parliamentary government – ed.
  2. Pierre Bourdieu, Les Règles de l’art: Genèse et structure du champ littéraire, Paris: Seuil 1992, 220; idem, ‘Esprits D’Etat [Genese et structure du champ bureauratique]’, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 96, issue 1/1993, 49–62.
  3. The Islamic movement led by preacher Fethullah Gülen – widely held to have been behind the failed coup attempt in Turkey on 15 July 2016 – stresses the importance of education. It operated schools and dormitories at which senior figures known as ‘big brothers’ served as mentors and recruiters to younger people. The movement worked closely for many years with the AKP until their alliance fractured, culminating in the coup attempt.
  4. The first step by the AKP to seize societal and cultural power was to Islamise educational bodies. Under directives from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the curriculum was changed for 2017-2018 in primary, middle and high schools. The changes brought about the further integration of religious teaching at these levels. The number of imam hatip schools to train clerics rose, and existing schools were converted to such clerical training schools. Secular and scientific education was completely removed; the time allocated to art in particular along with biology and Turkish was reduced. The number of religion lessons was visibly increased to allow students to attend Friday prayers. At present there is a widespread anxiety over the education of children in Turkey.
  5. A prestigious private school in Istanbul, founded in 1863 by American philanthropist Christopher Robert and Congregational missionary Cyrus Hamlin – ed.
  6. Pierre Bourdieu, Olivier Christin, Pierre-Etienne Will, ‘Sur la science de l’Etat’, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 133 (2000), 3–11.
  7. Nadege Vézinat, ‘Sur l’Etat’, 2014,
  8. Emmanuel Terray, ‘Reflexions sur la violence symbolique’,Les sociologies critiques du capitalisme, ed. Jean Lojleire, Paris: PUF (2002).
  9. According to legal statistics, in the immediate wake of the coup attempt 51,000 people were detained for links to the coup attempt (among them 13 MPs, 83 local mayors elected across the south-east to represent the Kurdish party, and 159 journalists). While they were waiting to appear before a court, 48,000 had legal proceedings launched against them. There were 104,000 civil servants fired, and among them were 450 university staff who had joined a signature campaign calling for an end to ‘the war in Eastern Anatolia’. A further 39,000 civil servants were suspended. The arrests and detentions continue.
  10. The following speech by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to support this interpretation: ‘I ask you, who the hell are you? Is theatre in this country your monopoly? Is art in this country your monopoly? Are you the only people who are licensed to comment on art? Those days are over. The days are over when you could wave your despotic enlightened finger to belittle and scold the nation.’
  11. Fethi Benslama, Un furieux désir de sacrifice, le surmusulman, Paris: Seuil 2016, 74.

Published on Eurozine on 25th of October 2017 with the title Pro patria mori et obsequium

Original in Turkish
Translation by Steve Bryant
First published in Varlik 9/2017 (longer Turkish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Varlik
© Nilgün Tutal / Varlik / Eurozine

Credit: Marco Longari / AFP



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