[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Is there a “neighborhood pressure” on people with secular lifestyles in Turkey’s conservative towns? Are they, for example, harassed for drinking alcohol or wearing shorts?
You bet. Most Anatolian cities have a pretty illiberal culture in which everybody is expected to subscribe to norms of “appropriate” dress code or behavior. That’s one reason why I rather live in Istanbul — which is not a beacon of liberty, too, but at least much more diverse.
A recent survey on Being Different in Anatolia, supported by the prestigious BoÃÂaziÃÂ§i University and the Open Society Institute, highlighted this problem. It was directed by political scientist Binnaz Toprak my university professor who led a team of three journalists which interviewed 401 people in 12 different cities of Anatolia such as Konya, Kayseri, Trabzon or Batman. All of the interviewed were specially chosen from groups with secular lifestyles: members of the Society for Kemalist Thought, CHP organizations, Alevis, student associations, feminist clubs, etc. And they told that they felt themselves under the pressure of the conservative and sometimes outright bigoted neighborhoods.
“We heard from retailers, businessmen and civil servants, notes Prof. Toprak, that most people have begun to attend Friday prayers or closed down their stores just to be seen as though they are going to mosque during the praying time Or, she adds, they hesitate to have drinks in public places and began to act as if they are fasting during Ramadan though they are not…”
Unfortunately, some conservative commentators, which have praised previous works by Prof. Toprak, now criticize her severely and argue that the neighborhood pressure is imaginary. They should have done better. Because pressure is a very personal thing: only you decide whether you face it or not. By this dismissive attitude, those conservatives only mirror the lack of empathy that the secularists show when it comes to the official pressure on veiled women.
That’s why we should take Dr. Toprak findings seriously. But we should also not exaggerate them. First of all, this is a targeted research, not a random survey. In other words, the interviewees went out to find out those specific groups that can be under neighborhood pressure. So, it does not give a full picture of the country.
It also doesnt tell us whether the neighborhood pressure is something new, or something newly discovered. I had joked about this to a friend of mine last year. She was telling me that thanks to a recent trip to Anatolia, she shockingly discovered that parts of it looked like Syria or Iraq. It is all because of the AKP, she nervously concluded. I responded, do you think that those places looked like Southern California before?
In fact, there are many signs showing that Anatolia is actually less conservative today than it used to be. It is more business-oriented, its women are more integrated into society, and it is more open to the world. But perhaps it is this very dynamic which creates a tension. Maybe the clash between the secular establishment and the AKP boils down in society to the tension between the mosque community and beer hall crowd. Maybe, because of their political ascendancy, the conservatives are now more self-confident and triumphant.
These are all speculations, since Dr. Toprak’s research does not tells us much about the conservative side of the picture. We would be misleading ourselves by ignoring the complexities there.
We would also be misleading ourselves by thinking that the conservatism in question comes all from religion. The survey tells us that among the inappropriate behaviors in Anatolia, there is not just consuming alcohol or eating during Ramadan, but also speaking Kurdish. Kurdish youth who are called on their cell phones in a bus by their relatives who don’t speak Turkish, the research says, decide not to take the call. And allergy to Kurdish is not an Islamic reaction — it is a nationalist one.
The problem, then, is actually a lack of tolerance to anything that is different.
And, alas, that is the problem of whole Turkey! Not just the religious conservatives but also the secularists are very, very, intolerant. That’s why neighborhood pressure exists everywhere, from conservative and parochial towns to secular and chic plazas. In the former, the headscarf is the demanded norm. In the latter, it is the expelled heresy.
Two Illiberal Camps
So, you may ask, if it is such a nation of illiberals, is Turkey simply hopeless?
Not really. I think we are still making progress. In the past, one illiberal camp — the secular Kemalists — had dominated the whole society. Now we have two illiberal camps clashing with other. That is better, because it paves the road to pluralism. The optimistic scenario is that these two warring camps will wear themselves out, and, over time, come to a live-and-let-live consensus.
And the pessimistic scenario? Well, it is that we will be trapped in this cultural civil war, for ever and ever.