Thursday, January 28, 2010

Postmodernity and the Arc of Turkish Identity

Ferhat Kentel, Professor at Istanbul Sehir University / PHOTO from the Balkans Project

The Balkans Project recently featured a fascinating interview with Ferhat Kentel, a sociologist at Istanbul Sehir University. Working on the construction of Turkish national identity, Kentel is examining one of the most controversial and heuristic themes in Turkish politics -- in many ways, a theme that defines, and most certainly pervades, every aspect of political discourse, be it Turkey's efforts to come to terms with its minorities (Muslim and non-Muslim), its attempts to reconcile Islam and the Turkish naton-state, its ongoing EU accession process, its confrontration with ultra-nationalist elements like Ergenekon, its international relations, etc. I have provided excerpts in this post, though I most definitely recommend reading though the whole interview.
This new situation is not just about the disappearance of the old Turkish national identity. Someone can feel that he or she is Kurdish, another Turkish, another Moslem, and these all together. All are negotiating identities. Turkishness is a negotiation as well. It becomes a crisis situation for the integration and unity of this society. I am working on this polarization between the early national construction and the new emerging complex identities and trying to find if there is a possibility of a new language, another way of speaking about this society.

I’m not just focusing on identity, but also people’s relationship with everyday life. Everyday life is the humus that lies beneath these identities. These different identities emerge from everyday life.

What does it mean to be a Turk today? The most prominent aspect of this established modern identity is a defensive one. When it emerged at the end of the Ottoman Empire, Turkishness was new. It was promoted in the name of a modernizing subject, in the name of enlightenment. It was connected to the creation of a new modern nation-state, to Ataturk, to Kemalism, to secularism, to the flag. To be Turkish was to be something modern. But today, it is more and more defensive. It refers to an older time. For that reason, it is more and more aggressive against the new voices.
Kentel goes onto discuss the origins of Turkish national identity, and the haven Muslims in the Balkans found here in the face of Christian racism and European nationalism following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. As Kentel notes, these Turks are the most keen to identify themselves as Kemalists, and eager to embrace Turkey as a newfound home, largely left their old identities behind for something new and modern. In the epigram of his epilogue to Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Tony Judt quotes Ernest Renan:
Forgetting, I would even go so far to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation; thus the progress of historical studies is often a danger for national identity . . . The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.
Turks, like other European nations, have forgotten many things. At the same time, what awaited those immigrants was a refuge from the discrimination, suffering, and war they had known in the past; in Turkey, they found a new home. Kentel's analysis of ultranationalists is different: not having immigrated from the Balkans, they were often left outside of the Kemalist project. According to Kentel, ultranationalists generally look to the Caucasus and Asia for their roots, often pointing to Central Anatolia as the origin of Turkish identity. Yet, I have met plenty of people who share both perspectives, often the products of mixed marriages between Balkan and Anatolian Turks, merely all the more proving Kentel's argument of the negotiation, multiplicity, and inherent complexity underlying Turkish national identity.

Kentel also explores the lack of understanding between Turks and Turkish minority groups, who are all too routinely bifurcated from one another in the literature into the oversimplified categories of "majority" and "minority." One need only to look at Hrant Dink to see how reality is far more complicated. Dink, proud of his Armenian heritage, never rejected his "Turkishness," but rather understood it differenty; sadly, it was this "different" understanding that led to his murder by people who adopted a defensive understanding of what it meant to be Turkish, and in turn, conspired to kill Dink. Similar kinds of negotiation and multiplicity also hold true for Kurds, Alevis, Greeks, Circassians, Laz, Roma, all of these groups and the diverse individuals in them approaching what it means to be Turkish differently. Many of the identities overlap, and few break down into the nice, neat categories in which they are often placed. Yet, for those Turks who did leave so much of their history behind, the issue of settling these multiple identities and the insistence that they be recognized is difficult. Kentel explains:
These Balkan-origin Turks are also the most reticent on the Kurdish issue. It seems to be a psychological dimension: These Turks left behind their traditional sense of belonging, so they cannot accept another people claiming their original identity. “We gave up ours,” they say, “why can’t you give up yours?” I hear this even from the Uyghur-origin people who came to Turkey during the last decades. “We were oppressed by the Chinese state,” they say. “We came to Turkey and this state protected us. We cannot betray this state. How can you Kurds do what you are doing?” Of course, the Kurds were not migrants to this country. Nor were the Armenians. They are autochthonous peoples of the Anatolian territories.
Holding the traditional/pre-modern construction of Turkish national identity in opposition to the modern, Atatürkist understanding, Kentel highlights the conflicts and convergences between the two. Though Kentel does dwell too much on Ottomanism in his analysis, I think it too is probably worth examining in the mix, conflicting and converging with the other two in all sorts of ways relevant to political identity. And when religion is added into the mix, identity becomes all the more complicated, pushing and pulling with all of these other elements in what I have described elsewhere in this blog as a kaleidoscopic fashion, shifting and turning to suit the situation at hand or whatever the mood of the moment may be. Identity not being something intractable and constant, but rather adaptable and changing, Turks may well be all the richer for the multi-dimensional complexity of their specific identity(ies) despite the difficulties in its negotiation.

And, yet, though Turks have long negotiated these identities, and too often with a good bit of phobic defensiveness, the increased travel and business between countries (which Kentel assesses as weakening the defensive posture of Turkish nationalism -- see my post, "Article 301: An Imperialist Discourse," on the Sevres syndrome), the rise of political Islam, and European discourses about a postnational, multicultural Europe have all drastically pushed that negotiation into a new realm. I perhaps too optimistically evaluate the role of Europe, but the former two have certainly had a tremendous impact on just what observers of Turkish politics are seeing. Yet, as Kentel describes, this "opening" is not unqualified.
There are two contradictory tendencies, each one feeding and reinforcing the other. As we open up, the fear inside becomes more intense. Imagine all the people living under this ideology that says that we are alone, that we are superior, but that everyone fears us. What do you with the burden of this ideology? The opening of frontiers – in the world at large and in our minds – radicalizes the Turkish defensive identity. We are now living in the middle of this clash.

What I mean by a new Turkish identity is not just a global, liberal, or cosmopolitan identity. It is more complex. Part of this new identity is the overcoming of the ruptures of Kemalism. Kemalism required a rupture with the Ottoman era that defined it as an ancien regime. It involved a rupture around borders. It created a Turkishness on this territory with Arabs, Kurds, and others, but this required a rupture with the Arabs of Arabia, the Kurds of other countries and so on. Today it is not necessary for a nation-state to isolate itself this way. Our task is to reconstruct the bridges with all those populations and histories with which we have ruptured.

This new identity is looking for new words, new definitions.
As Barrington Moore described the transition to democracy as wrought with discord and violence, so perhaps is the journey to new, more open, more complex cultural identities. Much has been made of the rise of ultranatonalism in Turkey in recent years, the street protests and ethnic clashes that have erupted on the streets of Turkey's cities with an unwielding, defensive sort of hatred (see Ece Temelkuran n the Guardian, 2007); yet, is this perhaps a sign that things are getting better, that Turkey is moving forward in some sort of cultural transition of which we have yet to see the arc?

Provocatively, Kentel lays out a possible journey, eschewing cosmpolitianism, liberalism, and racist traditionalism for something far more intriguing -- and perhaps, liberating.
So we can make a three-fold distinction. The first is cosmopolitanism or the loss of specific Turkishness. The second is the concentration, redefinition, and reshaping of Turkishness in a more racist way. And the third is an open-ended alternative: we don’t know where we are going but there is another way. This third situation, the creation of new meanings, is the revolutionary tendency.

This new identity, if we summarize, is made also by linking to the past. It doesn’t involve returning to the past but, rather, struggling against the ruptures of history, against the categorizations of old/new, rational/irrational and so on, and against all the modernist constructions created by these categories.
Examining the construction of Turkish identity as affected by a series of historical ruptures, Kentel goes onto explore how Islam is bringing to light the ruptures of Kemalism.
Right now society is caught midway between Islam and modernity. Or, rather, there is no distinction between Islam and modernity as it was defined by modernist approaches. When you listen to some Islamic actors who focus on the authenticity of the Islamic message, they say that the majority of Muslims are lost now, that they have become almost like Protestants, that they only think about symbols of wealth, that they have lost the original message of the religion. But other, modernist voices inside the Islamic universe say that, no, the religion is not frozen in the 7th century, that Moslems as individuals must adapt to the new situation. This is a more liberal, maybe “Protestant” Islam, more individualized. They don’t forget that they are Moslem. They are still good believers. “I am essentially a businessman,” this kind of believer will say. “But five times a day I pray and then it is finished. My practice of Moslemhood doesn’t take more than one hour a day.” There is no difference with people who do gymnastics for one hour a day or do Indian meditation. This person’s identity is that of a businessman first.

So, they are not just Moslems, but they have a class position too. The Moslem businessmen’s union and the labor union of Moslem workers do not necessarily share the same communitarian Moslemhood. They are in conflict. The bourgeois Moslems say, “We are all Moslems, so accept your salary.” But the workers say, “No, we are not all Moslem brothers. You are rich and we are poor!”

There was a declaration recently launched by three Moslem women. “We are not free yet,” they said, referring to the liberalization of headscarves for a couple months before the constitutional court forbad them again. During this period, they said, “We will not be free until the Armenians, the Kurds, the Alevis are free too. We will not be free until the rights of shipyard workers are recognized.” They are very Moslem. They wear headscarves. They dream of living in an Islamic society in which Islam is recognized totally. But in their minds there are other possibilities for how to live with others. If someone doesn’t want to wear a headscarf, she is free to do so. This is something new. This is not the traditional Islam or the Islam of Kemalism. This third version has links with the new Turkish identity, which in turn has links to the past. They are important actors for this new Turkishness. Their Turkishness is not defensive. It is not racial. They are Turkish because they live in Turkey.

Turkey can be perceived as a model or a laboratory for the whole world.
Just what that model will be or laboratory yield remains to be seen, but it truly is incredible, not to mention intellectually humbling, to be the midst of it.


Nick said...

Long post. Lots of issues, but I'll try to hit a few main points that I don't really agree with.

I have, of course, never believed identity for individuals or groups to be as complicated as many trendy scholars like to make out these days. People are generally quite simple and I think it's this mythical narrative springing from Western individualism that likes to focus on exceptions and complexity.

Much discourse emanating from the West says that everyone is unique, that we can't categorize people, that they will always surprise us. Whether I look at a statistic that says over 80% of abusers and abused in domestic violence relationships witnessed abuse as children, I read some scholarly material that claims Americans are more individualistic compared to other countries or a plethora of similar examples, it turns out that a few simple factors determine much of people's actions and beliefs.

This becomes especially true for groups. While each member of a group as an individual can be very different, once put in a group setting they tend to conform and personal complexities become irrelevant. This is easiest to see in analyzing broad historical trends where minority cultures and groups often have little to no impact.

If we talk about Islamic politics and identity in Turkey, would it be worth including the almost insignificant number of Christians in the country? No, they have very little affect on the Turkish worldview or the way things are run. Sure, it makes things more complex, but does it really have much affect overall? I'm not seeing it.

Just coming from a perspective on the ground, I would not say Turkish identity is very complex for many Turks either. Sure, there are the intellectuals and the elites with more pluralistic views, but this is hardly representative of Turkish society. Here again I feel that there is a focus on a minority to elevate this false narrative of complexity.

I've rarely heard the distinction made between Balkan and Anatolian Turks and when it does come up, no one pays it any mind. Most Turks I know make the very simple claim that anyone born in Turkey is Turkish and that this must override any other identity.

What about potentially threatening identities like Kurdish or Armenian? In 3 years I can only site one Turk that has stated that these identities are separate from Turks. For the rest, they follow the indoctrination they receive in school that everyone inside the nation is Turkish and other identities are not acceptable.

Now, I have met plenty of Laz, Kurds and Armenians that view themselves as Turkish, and they hold several identities, but I've met very few Turks who accept the multiple identity approach. I've also met just as many minority groups that firmly reject Turkish identity.

I can't say I've seen any moves to a more complex or at least more inclusive Turkish identity among most Turks I know, although I have seen a number of minority groups embrace multiple identities.

Ultimately, things are not as complicated as many people like to make out and a more grassroots, nationalistic, and Islamic identity will probably take stronger root than a more pluralistic identity originating from the top. Time will tell I guess.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmpf. So I take it you liked Kentel's take? I have read through it, and I am not sure what he told us. I am not even sure he gave us a good summary. He seems to complete omit the effects of the large (and mostly non-Turkic) population movement from the Caucasus (and their subsequent almost-complete assimilation) and the effects of the (nominal) Islamization of present day Turkey in the 20th century (no, not just 1915). Then there's the change in Istanbul.

It is fine to recognize that Armenians and Kurds are not migrants here, but it is also a mistake to ignore the explosive situation that the Kurdish migrants both face and cause in parts of Western Turkey. That kind of friction and strife will continue to exist even in a borderless world and is quite different than what's taken as the Kurdish problem. Yet they are related, since the presence of "those people" helps an Istanbul housewife -- who's never been in uniform and sent to the East -- to form an opinion. You cannot just tell her that those folks were here first, as far as she's concerned she was here first and it is her city. I don't imagine that situation is any different than what must have taken place in larger cities in the US with racially similar but linguistically distinct immigrants in certain regards (I think given the fighting that takes place in the East, it might be similar to what German speakers faced in the US but I am not sure).

I agree with Nick, I don't quite understand where this Balkan-Anatolian distinction is coming from. It certainly isn't perceptible when talking to people. Kentel probably has a far older generation in mind in which case I'd agree. Not only the people who were forced out of the Balkans but also those who've seen/fought with invading armies (and various non-Muslim chetes) within today's borders at the beginning of the last century have that attitude. Again if that's so, migrants/refugees from the Caucasus also deserve mention (look up Cerkes Ethem for example).

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Oh, and why do you take Dink's murder at the apparent face value and not, say, that Danistay judge's murder (or Dursun's or Mumcu's or Kislali's or Ucok's etc.). I don't mean to pick on you in particular since lots of people do this, but why? For example atheists and anti-Islam people get killed or attacked in much the same way by crowds or trigger men who do seem to be convinced that are going good or serving a higher purpose, but we don't take such explanations seriously as the real cause of such violence. How is Dink different?

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Here you go. An exasperated Umit Sayin asks the same question in a different tone. I quote from here:

Peki, Hrant Ermeni’ydi, Musa Anter Kürt’tü. Gaffar Okan neydi? Adam Diyarbakır gibi yerde sevilmeyi başarmış bir emniyet müdürüydü. Uğur Mumcu kimdi? PKK Şırnak sorumlusu mu? Ya Ahmet Taner Kışlalı? Asala Roma temsilcisi miydi? Hepiniz biliyorsunuz ki, bu listeyi şuradan gazetenin son sayfasına kadar uzatabilirim; uzatmayacağım. Kim öldürdü bu insanları?

I don't know if I would go as far as Sayin does in the rest of the article, and I suspect he's using exaggeration as a rhetorical device but I do think stressing the Armenian angle obscures a lot. What I find amazing (again not to pick on you Ragan) is the willingness with which people say he was murdered because he was an Armenian. Yes, it may have been easier to find a trigger-man to shoot an Armenian in much the same way it was easy to incite mosque-going crowds on that Friday in Sivas against the Alevis and Aziz Nesin but acknowledging that doesn't help us understand why and how exactly such things happen.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Grr. I mean Umit Kivanc, not Umit Sayin. Sorry about that.