[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
This week, an interesting debate on an interesting topic took place in Turkey.
First, Selma Aliye Kavaf, the minister who is responsible for “women’s and family affairs,” said something pretty tough about gays. “Homosexuality,” she argued, “is a biological disorder and a disease that needs treatment.”
A few days later, another Justice and Development Party, or AKP, minister, Recep Akdağ, voiced quite a different approach. The issue, he said, “should be handled within the scope of individual freedoms.” He added that gays already face lots of “difficulties” in Turkey, and that “society should be more tolerant” toward them.
The right to be conservative
This episode, along with many others, is an indication of both the diversity and the change amongst Turkey’s religious conservatives. From the superficial secularist (a.k.a. Kemalist) point of view, these people are all the same: They are men with mustaches and women with headscarves who crave a flashback to the “middle ages.” But the reality is much more complex. That’s why you can see a very religious minister whose wife wears a headscarf (Mr. Akdağ) saying things that are much more tolerant toward gays than another minister who obviously doesn’t wear a headscarf (Ms. Kavaf).
I, of course, agree with Mr. Akdağ on this issue. A free society, which I believe in as an ideal, should allow its citizens to choose their ways of life, which includes sexual ways of life. Yet that is not the whole issue. Because accepting the right of homosexuals to be a part of the society is one thing; accepting homosexuality as a morally justified thing is another.
In most European countries, most people expect you to accept both. They ask you to be not only gay-tolerant, in other words, but also gay-friendly. But that is, well, quite illiberal. If gays have the right to practice their way of life, then others should have the right to disapprove of this way of life.
We should remember that a free society is one in which all different moral values can be expressed, and this should include the most conservative ones. Intolerant views on homosexuality, such as those of Minister Kavaf, also have the right to be voiced. The real problem in her case was that, as a representative of the state, which has to be a morally and philosophically neutral institution, she should have eschewed her subjective opinions on moral issues.
But are modern democratic states really that neutral on these issues?
Consider, for example, the issue of gay marriage. Its acceptance has become a sort of a litmus test for “liberalism” in many European societies. Some critics from these societies even sometimes note how we, the not-so-civilized Turks, are so far from accepting this wonderful fruit of individual freedom.
I had an interesting conversation about this with a European diplomat a few years ago. “Do you think that Turkey would ever accept gay marriage?” he asked over lunch.
“Probably not,” I said. And asked in return:
“Do you think your country would ever accept polygamy?”
“Probably not,” he replied. “Because that is so bizarre to our culture.”
“You see,” I said, “for people in this part of the world, gay marriage is similarly bizarre.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not a fan of polygamy – not at all. Personally speaking, especially, I have zero interest in either polygamy or gay marriage. (My principle has always been, “one woman, one vote, one time.”)
I am trying to say something else: If the justification for gay marriage is simply the principle of individual liberty, then the same principle should allow for polygamy as well. Because if one sort of unconventional combination between consenting adults – between two men or two women – is just fine, then another combination – between a man and two women – should be just fine, too. (I know most women are forced into polygamy, and that is too bad, but that is not a justification to ban the institution in toto, for there are cases of consenting multiple wives as well. And were there a living tradition of polyandry – one woman with more than one husband – that should enjoy the same freedom too.)
Liberalism versus modernism
But if the institution of marriage is not just any sort of combination among consenting adults, and if culture instead plays a role in its definition, as my diplomat friend acknowledged, then things are different. Then it is fair for conservative people to bring their moral judgments to the public square in order to oppose gay marriage.
What we really see in this debate is a clash between liberalism and modernism. The latter is the idea that pre-modern (i.e., traditional) ways of life are somehow less justified, or not justified at all, when compared to modern ways of life. So gay marriage, a modern thing, is not just legalized but praised, whereas polygamy, a pre-modern thing, is criminalized and condemned.
I beg to differ, for I uphold liberty above modernity. Embracing the latter is a matter of free choice. But liberty is non-negotiable.