Ahmet Kuru’s review of the report (which, by the way, was published as a book by Metis in 2009 under the title Türkiye’de Farklı Olmak: Din ve Muhafazakarlık Ekseninde Ötekileştirilenler), is unfortunately typical of criticisms that appeared in the Turkish media immediately after the results of the research were made public. And like many such criticisms, it seems that Dr. Kuru has only cursorily read the report. Although I am weary of answering the same criticisms over and over again, I decided to do so briefly because this Blog apparently is read mostly by Turkish students studying in the US who may not be familiar with the debate that the report stirred here in Turkey. For readers of the Blog who know Turkish and are interested in discussions about the report, I have included a piece that was originally published in Milliyet, and its longer version that was later added as a last chapter to the book. Together, they more thoroughly answers these and similar criticisms.
Dr. Kuru suggests that “conservative political and social actors should read the report carefully, if they seek to understand how Kemalists feel about the changing dynamics of Turkey.” As I will point out below, this research did not solely cover the Kemalists. Nor does it talk about feelings but rather reports concrete cases of discrimination, ostracism and even violence against people with different identitites. Hence, Dr. Kuru’s only positive comment about the research distorts both its aim and its content.
Dr. Kuru’s major criticism against the research is that it left out state and societal oppression that “conservative Sunni Muslims” face. This criticism comes as a surprise since the report itself points out that republican secularism has pushed these people to the margins of Turkish society by excluding them from centers of political power, social status, and intellectual prestige and that this group, too, has faced discrimination and represssion by both the secular state and secularist groups. It also points out the reasons why this group was not included in the research. In other words, the report contains the answer to this criticism.
The answer to his next criticism is also in the report. Contrary to what Dr. Kuru claims, the interviews were not “largely conducted with members or sympathizers of Kemalist associations, such as the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Atatürkçü Düşünce Dernekleri”. Yes, these people were included but by no means were the interviews “largely” conducted with them. The report has a page and a half of a list about the people interviewed. These included young men who had long hair or wore earrings, young women who wore short skirts and sleeves, people who did not fast during Ramadan or who did not go to Friday prayers, doctors, nurses, teachers, government employees, the esnaf, businessmen, professionals, uncovered women, Kurdish students, leftist students, the Alevi, the Roma, and the few Christians left in these towns. All of these people were insulted and/or subjected to violence in public simply because they were different from the majority in the towns in which they lived or faced discrimination by government authorities.
Third, Dr. Kuru claims that the report “portrays neighborhood pressure as a recent phenomenon and implicitly depicts AKP government as responsible for this new trend.” This claim, is again, wrong. On the contrary, the report makes a clear distinction about what is new and what has come with a historical baggage. For example, the social ostracism Alevis face has historical roots, but giving the official name of Yavuz Sultan Selim Mahallesi to an Alevi neighborhood in Sultanbeyli — a sultan who almost wiped out the Alevi from Anatolia– has nothing to do with history but was a policy of the AKP mayor there, as was the case in several towns where AKP mayors refused to give permission for the building of cemevi or obstructed their construction. Nor is the “new” solely attributed to the AKP. The report has long sections in this regard about the Fethullah Gülen community as well as the ultra-nationalist youth groups.
Fourth, Dr. Kuru argues that the report “emphasizes consumption of alcohol as an important characteristic of a secular way of life.” It does nothing of the kind. In fact, it explicitly states that the authors give neither a positive nor a negative connotation to the drinking of alcohol. What it questions is the liquor ban in restaurants and bars by AKP mayors in most of the towns visited, the criminalizatioon of which the authors find to be unacceptable for any conception of a free and liberal society.
Finally, about Dr. Kuru’s comments on Foucault, power, and the headscarf: I would be the last person to be accused of being insensitive to the plight of covered women. Over the years, I have repeatedly and publicly defended their right to education. However, I neither think that covered women are the only group who face discrimination nor do I think that the discourse of neighborhood pressure is employed as a display of power. On the contrary, I am of the opinion that the belittling of this discourse conceals the exercise of power by the majority against those who, either by birth or by choice, are different, and therefore, powerless. I have to yet hear “conservative Sunni Muslims”, as Dr. Kuru depicts them, to show sensitivity to the rights violations of other groups, as clearly shown in public opinion surveys. I would agree with Dr. Kuru that “Turkish people need mutual understanding,” but would suggest that mutual understanding does not come by denial.
Binnaz Toprak is a professor and currently Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Bahcesehir University, Istanbul. Her works include the book Islam and Political Development in Turkey, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981, and two recent articles, “Islam and Democracy in Turkey,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 6, No.2, June 2005, 167-186, and “Economic Development versus Cultural Transformation: Projects of Modernity in Japan and Turkey,” New Perspectives on Turkey, No. 35, Fall, 2006, 85-128. She has also co-authored books in Turkish with Ali Çarkoğlu, including Türkiye’de Din, Toplum ve Siyaset (Religion, Society and Politics in Turkey), İstanbul: TESEV Yayınları, 2000; and Değişen Türkiye’de Din, Toplum ve Siyaset (Religion, Society and Politics in a Changing Turkey), TESEV Yayınları, 2006, translated into and English and published by TESEV, 2007, under the title Religion, Society and Politics in a Changing Turkey.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author/s who retain the copyright.