Turkey's Political Tug of War

Enlightenment in the Defensive

Tensions are growing between Turkey's governing AKP party and its Kemalist opponents - and a perplexed Europe looks on. The Turkish-German author Zafer Senocak sketches the opposing forces, which Europe often finds difficult to pigeonhole

photo: AP
Champions of a bygone order - proponents of Atatürk demonstrating in Ankara for a ban of the governing AKP party

​​My mother was born in 1923, which makes her exactly the same age as the Turkish republic. She comes from the generation of women who took off their veils – not so much in protest, but because the young Turkish republic under the sole rule of the educational dictator Mustafa Kemal gave them rights that were unique in the Islamic world at that time.

The right to vote, the right to education and equality with men before the law. Women became visible in Turkish society, occupying important positions within a relatively short time. A number of these women who were allowed to attend universities for the first time became teachers, among them my mother. Education and enlightenment were the order of the day. There was no doubting the civilisation process, and certainly no contradicting it.

Women's emancipation was the heart of the Turkish Enlightenment; however, the movement came to a standstill after Mustafa Kemal's premature death in 1938. The reformers were far from reaching the provinces, especially the remote areas in the East of the country where the Kurds lived. Nevertheless, they had created a state apparatus that tolerated no opposition and rigorously oppressed both the Kurdish and the traditional Muslim identity.

Crisis of the middle class

Turkish and EU flag in front of an Istanbul mosque (photo: AP)
Why, one wonders, does the Turkish Enlightenment have so little support from abroad?, Zafer Senocak asks

​​This ideological state apparatus is now on its last legs, struggling against its own dissolution. The classes that support it, the educated middle class, large parts of the middle and upper classes, look like champions of a bygone order, seemingly condemned to failure in times of globalisation and post-modern patchwork identities. Yet appearances can be deceptive.

For the force that is challenging them has yet to prove that it is only concerned with liberalising and democratising Turkish society. A society does not become more liberal through an increase in veiled women. It is today's enlightened women, not leading an Islamic lifestyle, who are currently putting pressure on the Muslim-leaning Turkish government. Last year, hundreds of thousands of them took part in the demonstrations against a re-Islamisation of Turkish society.

Why, one wonders, does the Turkish Enlightenment have so little support from abroad? France, the model and mother country of the Enlightenment, seems to be permanently stabbing modern Turkey in the back by blocking its ambitions to join the EU. Fear of an Islamisation of Europe has become a long-established constant in the European psyche.

Melancholy attitude towards the Enlightenment

Turkey's constitutional court in Ankara (photo: AP)
Test for the AKP: Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's governing party is currently facing a ban application before the constitutional court in Ankara

​​But there is something else. It is the melancholy attitude towards the Enlightenment in Europe that makes Turkey's middle classes look like emissaries of a lost age. The ubiquitous laments of a bourgeois crisis allow little understanding for a dynamic, vigilant, self-possessed middle class. In fact, the Turkish bourgeoisie is just as ailing, yet it refuses to lick its wounds. It is kicking and struggling against opening up for criticism, is incapable of self-criticism and unwilling to question its ideas of Turkish society and its own worldview.

Instead, it is clinging to the nationalist tone of the 1920s and 30s, which led Europe into the greatest catastrophe in human history. This stance leads to a defensive mentality, which can only react rather than taking positive action. Over the past decades, the modernisation and opening-up of Turkey's society has therefore no longer borne the signature of Kemalist reform. Instead, recent state-defined Kemalism has brought only stagnation. Turkey's founding myth has grown pale and wan.

Test for the AKP

This is one reason why the Europeans now find it easier to enter into dialogue with Turkey's moderate Muslims than with the supporters of the enlightened secular republic. They are more willing to believe the wolves in sheep's clothing than their own reflections, reluctant to be reminded of their own contradictions, inner conflict and fragility. Has the Enlightenment exhausted its potential? What remains of the civilisation process in a globalised world if cultural values are ironed out?

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: AP)
Back to the wall: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under increasing political pressure as a result of the proposed AKP ban

​​But are Turkey's Muslims really wolves in sheep's clothing? Was it not they who took the long overdue reform steps to release the country from its paralysis and bring it closer to Europe? At least one section of Turkish society has no faith in them, and Erdogan has failed in the past six years of his government to convince this group, about a third of the country's population, of the integrity of his intentions.

As long as this remains the case, there will still be pressure on the Muslims. And that is a good thing. It is up to the Muslims to prove that their belief is compatible with an open and democratic society. Many questions are still unanswered, particularly in everyday life. Why do the AKP's mayors insist on concentrating on educational issues that are clearly Muslim-influenced, such as bans on alcohol and gender segregation? How much influence do the religious orders operating in the background have on the government's bureaucrats? Why has it not been possible to win more support for the attempts to reform the Islamic religion going on for generations at the Theological Faculty in Ankara?

The dialogue with the liberal Alevi community has also come to a virtual standstill. All these questions show that there is more at stake in Turkey than allowing headscarves at universities or not. It is a question of the basic orientation of the entire society. And of whether the ideas of the Enlightenment possess a universal character. However, one does not get the impression that Europe always understands the issues in that way.

Zafer Senocak

© Qantara.de 2008

The writer and essayist Zafer Senocak, born in Ankara in 1961, moved to Munich in 1970 and has been living in Berlin since 1990. His book on Germany and Islam, Das Land hinter den Buchstaben. Deutschland und der Islam im Umbruch, was published by Babel-Verlag in 2006.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Print article
Send via mail
Add Comment
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.