Saturday, January 3, 2009

More Musing About Illiberal Turkey & "Neighborhood Pressure"

Professor Binnaz Toprak of Boğaziçi University recently released the results of a survey of "neighborhood pressure" in Anatolian cities. The survey was conducted in conjunction with the Open Society Institute, and its subjects are self-identified secular university students who the research finds to experience social pressure when moving into conservative neighborhoods. The report is entitled "Being Different in Anatolia." BIA-Net quotes from Professor Toprak's conclusion of the survey's findings:
“Our finds show that overcoming the oppressive conservatism of the ruling power does not play a transforming role in making people more respectful to the rights and freedoms of the people who live in these places. On the contrary, when the process by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to put its own people in the bureaucratic positions combines with the religious-community structuring and the activities in the Anatolian cities, we think the environment that exists now causes more worries when looked from these perspectives.”
BIA-Net documents reaction to the research, which hardly eschews the political in its design, execution, or findings. "Neighborhood pressure" is a commonly cited concern of some secularists, many of whom cited the phenomenon last year as reason for their opposition to the AKP-MHP passed legislation enabling women to wear headscarves at university.

Criticism of Toprak's research includes claims that the research question is not new, and conceptually muddles "social pressure" and "intolerance" (see Emre Uslu and Önder Aytaç), forgoes meaningful explanation of the intolerance it identifies (see Şahin Alpay), and ignores intolerance, bigotry, and social pressure as dilemmas not only related to Islam, but also the values of fanatical secularism and hardcore nationalism (Alpay). The last of these criticisms are also present in this Hürriyet op/ed, which is authored by one of Toprak's former students. Appropriately, the op/ed concludes with qualified optimism:
Unfortunately, some conservative commentators, which have praised previous works by Professor Toprak, now criticize her severely and argue that the "neighborhood pressure" is imaginary. They should have done better. Because pressure is a very personal thing: only you decide whether you face it or not. By this dismissive attitude, those conservatives only mirror the lack of empathy that the secularists show when it comes to the official pressure on veiled women. That’s why we should take Dr. Toprak’s findings seriously. But we should also not exaggerate them. First of all, this is a targeted research, not a random survey. In other words, the interviewees went out to find out those specific groups that could be under neighborhood pressure. So, it does not give a full picture of the country.

In fact, there are many signs showing that Anatolia is actually less conservative today than it used to be. It is more business-oriented, its women are more integrated into society, and it is more open to the world. But perhaps it is this very dynamic which creates a tension. Maybe the clash between the secular establishment and the AKP boils down in society to the tension between the mosque community and beer hall crowd. Maybe, because of their political ascendancy, the conservatives are now more self-confident and triumphant. These are all speculations, since Dr. Toprak’s research does not tells us much about the conservative side of the picture. We would be misleading ourselves by ignoring the complexities there.

We would also be misleading ourselves by thinking that the conservatism in question comes all from religion. The survey tells us that among the "inappropriate" behaviors in Anatolia, there is not just consuming alcohol or "eating during Ramadan", but also speaking Kurdish. "Kurdish youth who are called on their cell phones in a bus by their relatives who don’t speak Turkish," the research says, "decide not to take the call". And allergy to Kurdish is not an Islamic reaction -- it is a nationalist one.The problem, then, is actually a lack of tolerance to anything that is different. And, alas, that is the problem of the whole of Turkey! Not just the religious conservatives but also the secularists are very, very, intolerant. That’s why neighborhood pressure exists everywhere, from conservative and parochial towns to secular and chic plazas. In the former, the headscarf is the demanded norm. In the latter, it is the expelled heresy.

So, you may ask, if it is such a nation of illiberals, is Turkey simply hopeless?

Not really. I think we are still making progress. In the past, one illiberal camp -- the secular Kemalists -- had dominated the whole society. Now we have two illiberal camps clashing with other. That is better, because it paves the road to pluralism. The optimistic scenario is that these two warring camps will wear themselves out, and, over time, come to a live-and-let-live consensus. And the pessimistic scenario? Well, it is that we will be trapped in this cultural civil war, for ever and ever.
The question as to whether the clash between two rather illiberal camps is capable of making Turkey a more pluralistic society is certainly one worth poring over, but politics and institutions have a long way to go until both Turkish state and society are comfortable with accommodating differences.

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