[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
Proverbs are sometimes a good way of getting a sense of a nation’s culture. You can especially learn many things about Turkey by looking at it popular maxims. One of them is particularly important vis-à-vis the political mindset. It is short and beautifully simple: “If you give your hand,” it warns, “then you will lose your arm.”
What is implied here is also one of the core principles of Turkey’s official ideology: Concessions are dangerous. You should not give people what they want, because if they get it, they will ask for more. Every bit of tolerance is the beginning of a slippery slope toward disaster.
A Reason for All Bans
With an inspiration from U.S. President George W. Bush’s famous doctrine of pre-emptive war, I prefer to call this mindset “the doctrine of pre-emptive intolerance.” It is probably one of the first things you should know and keep in mind about Turkey. If pervades most minds and influences almost all political attitudes.
Turkey’s official policy toward our Kurdish citizens, for example, was very much shaped by this doctrine. For decades, the Turkish state did not allow the Kurds to speak, publish or even sing in their language, because it belived that this would be the beginning of the division of the country by the creation of an independent “Kurdistan” in the southeast. Today, the same logic still lives on, but on a more modest level. Now it is not the freedom to speak Kurdish that our pre-emptive intolerants fear from, but the freedom to educate in Kurdish.
Turkey’s infamous and age-old bans on freedom of thought and speech also derive from the same doctrine. Until the late 80s, the state thought that Marxist ideas should be suppressed, because we would end up being a Soviet colony if we did not do so. Today “insulting Turkishness” or insulting Atatürk, the military, and all that is still a crime, because the pre-emptive intolerants think that if we allow people speak freely on these “sacred” concepts, we might lose them.
Yet perhaps nothing is more indicative of this autocratic doctrine than the restrictions of public presence of religion. The hottest topic of these days, the ban on the Islamic headscarf, is probably the bluntest pre-emptive intolerance the Turkish state, and its “modern elite,” implement.
Just look at the arguments about the headscarf. They all point to imagined dangers that might take place if university students are allowed to cover their heads: Other students might feel a psychological pressure. Or this might lead to further demands for religious rights, and religion might become a “dominant force.” And, in the long run, the fear goes, we might “become yet another Iran.”
What Leads to Shariah?’
Well, with the same logic, mosques should have been banned, too… If people go to mosques, they might become more religious. By time, they might become a dominant force in society. In the long run, we might become Iran. So the all-wise Turkish state should foresee this danger and sweep religion all together, right? (This idea had some resonance in the 30s; all religious groups were cracked down, and some mosques were closed. Some Kemalists considered turning Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque into an art museum, too, but they feared public reaction.)
Now, let me admit that the doctrine of pre-emptive intolerance might sometimes be acceptable. If you are facing a radical, fierce and determined group which opposes the democratic system, you might really need to be unbending toward it. For example, it is true that ethnic rights, apart from the individual rights that all democracies should grant to their citizens, can sometimes be an incentive that encourages violent ethnic nationalists. They might see every concession you give as a battle that they win.
Similarly, demands by radical Islamists for the implication of their strict version of “sharia” (Islamic law) in democratic systems might be not a way of nurturing a harmonious multi-cultural society, but a road toward creating isolated sub-cultures. Moreover, it might enthuse the radical Islamists who want to overthrow open society all together. (Therefore although I am respectful and sympathetic to the ecumenical approach of the Archbishop of Canterbury, I am skeptical about his recent ideas of allowing “shariah” in Britain.)
But the doctrine of pre-emptive intolerance might also prevent you from giving people their most natural rights. If pre-emption is the only idea you have in mind, then become a hammer that sees every social demand as a nail to hit. And, by doing so, you actually fuel the very danger you want to eradicate. By banning the Kurdish language, for example, Turkey did not pre-empt Kurdish separatism. Quite the contrary, she provoked it, because most Kurds felt suppressed and humiliated.
No hand, no handshake
The same thing is true about Turkey’s fierce secularism. It does not pre-empt radical Islam as its proponents claim, it only deprives practicing Muslims from their right to education. And the resulting sense of suppression and humiliation is the very thing that has made Turkey’s conservative Muslims distant to the country’s self-styled laïcité. (In the past, this feeling used to feed Islamism in Turkey, but with the AKP experience, it now feeds Westernization, because many Turkish Muslims realize that the Western, especially American, concept of secularity is much better than the home-grown and utterly illiberal one.)
Therefore, the Turkish state, and its supposedly modern elite, should stop thinking along the lines of the doctrine of pre-emptive intolerance on headscarf issue. They might be too much influenced by the “if you give your hand, then you will lose your arm” maxim. But if they don’t give their hand, they can’t have a handshake, and thus make peace, too.