On the “Neighborhood Pressure”: The Review of “Being Different in Turkey: Alienation on the Axis of Religion and Conservatism” by Binnaz Toprak et al. (2008).
On November 22, 2009, I was the discussant of a panel at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Conference, in which the panelists—Binnaz Toprak, Berna Turam, Metin Heper, and Ayşe Saktanberk—analyzed the recent debates on the “neighborhood pressure” in Turkey, a term coined by Şerif Mardin referring to the negative impact of neighborhood interactions over individual freedoms. The main survey data about this issue were collected by Prof. Toprak and her colleagues and published in Turkish with the title “Being Different in Turkey” (hereafter “the report”). My conversations with Prof. Toprak during and following the MESA panel were very helpful in the course of writing this review.
The report includes 401 interviews largely conducted with members or sympathizers of Kemalist associations, such as Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Atatürkçü Düşünce Dernekleri, which generally promote Turkish nationalism and assertive secularism. Turkish nationalism is a self explanatory term. Assertive secularism may need a brief explanation. I categorize secularism into two types—assertive and passive. Assertive secularism requires the state to play an assertive role in excluding religion from the public sphere, whereas passive secularism demands the state to play a passive role to accommodate public visibility of religion. The former is the dominant ideology in countries such as Turkey, France, and Mexico, while the latter is prevalent in the United States, India, and the Netherlands.
The Kemalists have been concerned about the rise of pro-Islamic political, social, and economic actors in Turkey, especially since the Justice and Development (AK) Party won the elections in 2002. The report provides important insights about their concerns. Conservative political and social actors should read the report carefully, if they seek to understand how Kemalists feel about the changing dynamics of Turkey. The report may provide an opportunity for the conservatives to get a better understanding of the Kemalists and to empathize with them.
I have two main criticisms of the report. First, while analyzing the pressure over various segments of society, such as the assertive secularists, Alevis, Kurds, Christians, Gypsies, women, and youth, the report excludes only one group—conservative Sunni Muslims. This presents a negative image of conservative Muslims as if they are the only oppressive actor in Turkish society. By doing so the report ignores a) the existence of in-group repression in any segment of society, b) state and societal oppression against conservative Muslims, and c) oppression between various other groups. For example, the “ulusalcıs,” who combine assertive secularism with ultra-nationalism, is in fact the most oppressive group in today’s Turkey with their negative attitudes towards the Kurds, Armenians, Jews, and conservative Muslims.
Second, the report portrays the neighborhood pressure as a recent phenomenon and implicitly depicts the AK Party government as responsible for this new trend. Yet, it does not provide any data to show that the Turkish state and society were more tolerant in the past. At least at the state level, we know that the state brutally oppressed Alevi Kurds of Dersim in the 1930s, imposed discriminatory poll tax for Christians and Jews in the 1940s, and banned the public use of Kurdish in the 1980s. Moreover, one may argue that the recent trend in Turkey is toward more, rather than less, tolerance at governmental level as reflected in the recent “Kurdish initiative” that includes reforms such as foundation of a new public TV channel broadcasting exclusively in Kurdish.
I also have a general reservation on the recent use of the “neighborhood pressure” discourse in Turkey. If Foucault had heard of this debate, he would have asked about the relationship between power and the discourse of neighborhood pressure. Majority of women in Turkey wear some kind of headscarf. These women are not allowed to attend schools or universities, and they cannot pursue careers as civil servants or politicians. In 2008, the Turkish Parliament tried to lift the headscarf ban for university students by a constitutional amendment. The Constitutional Court struck down the amendment by arguing that the freedom to wear headscarves would create “pressure” over those who do not wear headscarves. The report was published after the Court’s decision. Yet, it does not reflect any self-criticism or regret of the assertive secularist interviewees, in terms of the headscarf ban or other oppressions against conservative Muslims.
Turkish socio-political life has experienced a rapid change in the last decade. It would be misleading to oversimplify such a complex transformation. For example, the report repeatedly emphasizes the consumption of alcohol as an important characteristic of a secular way of life. If that was the litmus test, Turkey would become less conservative, because the total consumption of alcohol increased 5 percent from 2006 to 2007 and it increased 20 percent from 2007 to 2008 (Akşam, April 20, 2009). During this transformation process, Turkish people need mutual understanding and self-criticism, rather than cross-accusations.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author/s who retain the copyright.