[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), the country’s leading think-tank, has announced its recent survey titled “Religion, Society and Politics In The Changing Turkey.” Carried out by two political scientists from the Bosphorus University, Drs. Binnaz Toprak and Ali Çarkoglu, and based on interviews with 1492 individuals from all around Turkey, the study presents factual insights on one of Turkey’s hotly debated issues.
Today many secularists in Turkey fear that religion is becoming a more and more dominant sociopolitical force, especially under the incumbent Justice and Progress (AK) Party. TESEV study suggests that this fear is not very realistic. Results show that religion is indeed flourishing in the Turkish society, but it is also undergoing a process of modernization and liberalization.
Muslim Comes First
Drs. Toprak and Çarkoglu had done a similar research in 1999, again with the sponsorship of TESEV, and the comparative results of the old and the new studies indicate a vindication of religious identity in Turkey. In 1999, 36 percent of the interviewed declared themselves “Muslim first” as opposed to 21 percent “Turkish first.” Now “Muslim first”ers have increased to 45 percent and latter remains around 19 percent. (“Kurdish first”ers are surprisingly marginal: around 1 percent both in 1999 and 2006. An overwhelming majority of the Kurds define themselves Muslims before anything else.)
However, the assertiveness of the Muslim identity does not translate into political Islam. Indeed, to the question “should there be political parties based on religion,” the answer “yes” has dropped from 41 to 25 percent in the past 7 years. Moreover, demand for “a shariah (Islamic law) based religious state” has dropped dramatically from 21 percent to 9 percent. Drs. Toprak and Çarkoglu think that this might be related to the rejection of political Islam by the AK Party — a policy which might have lead its followers to embrace conservative yet secular politics. Among AK supporters, those who wish to see an Islamic state figure out no more then 14 percent.
Islamist Terrorism Rejected
Another striking result is the outright rejection of Islamist terrorism by the Turkish society. Only 8 percent of the interviewed tell that they see suicide bombings against civilians in order to counter military occupation — such as the attacks against Israeli civilians by Palestinian militants — justified. 85 percent finds these bombings flatly wrong.
In that 8 percent minority who supports suicide bombings, party affiliations are noteworthy. The voters of the ultra-nationalist MHP and BBP turn out be the most pro-suicide bombing ones with a 14 percent rate. AKP voters are around 9 percent. The voters of CHP, the main opposition party known for its staunchly secular nationalism (a.k.a. “Kemalism”), interestingly rank slightly higher than the AKP folks, with a 11 percent support for suicide bombings.
Headscarf and Its Fearers
TESEV study confirms that most secular Turks fear from the rise of political Islam. 33 percent of the interviewed agreed upon the existence of such a threat. TESEV study also shows that the unorthodox Alevis — which turn out to be roughly 12 percent of the Turkish society — rank as the highest group in this oh-my-god-the-islamists-are-coming category, along with the majority of the Westernized and secular urban elite.
The headscarf, the pivot of Turkey’s culture war, stands as the symbol of this perceived threat. More then 70 percent of those who define themselves as “left-wing” or “secular” think that the number of women in headscarves is on the rise and that this creates a menace for Turkish secularism. However the TESEV study reveals that the number of women wearing the headscarf has actually been decreasing. From 1999 to 2006, the percentage of wearing the “türban” has dropped from 16 to 11. The all-covering, head-to-toe black chador is on the brink of extinction; it has dropped from 3 to 1 percent.
Whence, then, comes the perception that headscarf is taking over the society? Drs. Toprak and Çarkoglu think that not the numbers but the visibility of the veiled women has increased. Such women traditionally were placed at home, but now more and more of them are getting jobs, going to cafes and driving cars. And this implies modernization, not “irtica” (i.e. “going back,” the euphemism for Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey), according to Can Paker, TESEV’s president. “Turkey and its political secular system is doing fine,” says Mr. Paker, “it just needs more openness and freedom.”