Friday, 08 May 2009

Turkey's Liberals, Religious Conservatism, and Kemalism

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 9 of the Turkey Analyst)

The social and cultural divisions of Turkish society often seem impossible to reconcile. The divisions will certainly not disappear any time soon, but ultimately a societal understanding will have to be reached about respecting differences within a liberal, democratic framework. Unfortunately, neither secularists nor Islamic conservatives are prone to privileging a liberal order. However, Turkey’s liberal intellectuals are influential, and could play a pivotal role if they assume the challenge of confronting Islamic conservatism as well as Kemalism.



BACKGROUND: Turkish political tradition has been deficient on liberalism ever since Ottoman times. The modernization efforts that began in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 18th century did not reverse the centuries-old traditions of statism. On the contrary, what preoccupied the Ottoman modernizers more than anything else was the survival and strength of the state, not the liberation of the individual. Nor have the traditional elites of republican Turkey, although bent on modernizing the country, sought inspiration in the liberalism of the Western kind, with its emphasis on economic as well as political and cultural freedoms.

Professor Atilla Yayla, a political scientist who is one of Turkey’s leading liberal intellectuals, notes that the ideological pre-eminence of Kemalism has had the consequence of influencing and corrupting even some of its opponents, which have acquired the Kemalist habit of venerating the state. “That is the reason why the struggle is mainly about which segment of society is going to acquire the control the state, what is going to be the ideology of the republic”, Yayla writes in his recent essay Kemalizm – Liberal bir bakis [Kemalism – a Liberal perspective]. Yayla cautions that there can be no victor in the power struggle. “Instead any victory risks becoming a Pyrrhus victory”, he warns. Societal peace requires a common appreciation that the state is not to promote a certain lifestyle at the expense of others, Yayla concludes.  And Turkish liberal intellectuals in general believe that the importance of liberal philosophy for safeguarding peaceful, societal coexistence is to a large extent internalized by the religiously conservatives.

Professor Binnaz Toprak, who is the main author of the recent, groundbreaking, but also controversial survey Türkiyede farkli omlak (To be different in Turkey) of the Bosporus University and the Open Society foundation of Istanbul (See Turkey Analyst, January 30, 2009), shares the view that liberal values would provide the basis of a new societal understanding and democratization. “Atatürk and Kemalism will not do, as they have become synonymous with authoritarianism, and repel liberals and the religiously conservatives. Neither can Islam function as a common, societal denominator as that would be unacceptable for the seculars”, Toprak recently told the Turkey Analyst.

Professor Atilla Yayla, however, asserts that Islam as well as Kemalism, being the two most powerful indigenous ideological forces, are indispensable for Turkey’s successful adoption of the universal values of liberalism and democracy. If the compatibility of Islam and the heritage of Atatürk on the one hand, with liberal democracy and with market economy on the other, fails to be ultimately proven, the latter two will never stand a chance of taking root on Turkish soil, reasons Yayla.

The novelty of Yayla’s approach resides in his appraisal of Kemalism as being at least potentially open for a liberal reinterpretation, and in his ascription of a positive function to an Atatürkist thinking that has been duly reformed. Liberals in general, and obviously Islamic conservatives, tend to reject the Atatürk heritage out of hand, and few of those who position themselves as Kemalists in the current Turkish public discourse, mostly die-hard nationalists, would subscribe to any notion of liberal Kemalism. It would thus seem that Binnaz Toprak is indeed right in asserting that the figure of Atatürk would not serve as an inspiration for a Turkey that gropes for a liberal future. However, as Yayla observes, Atatürk, like Islam, nevertheless defines the identity of a large portion of Turkish society, and although the Kemalists represent a minority, their continued marginalization – or their perception of being marginalized – risks breeding reactions harmful to democracy.

IMPLICATIONS: The findings in a 2008 opinion survey, Biz Kimiz? Hayat Tarzlari Arastirmasi (“Who are we? A survey of lifestyles”) by KONDA, are striking in this regard. According to the survey, those who display more liberal values in their private lives tend to be less in favor of democracy, while the privately conservative, by contrast, are more democratically inclined. These results suggest that the culturally Westernized minority is tempted by authoritarianism, while the religiously conservative appreciate a democracy that has worked to their benefit, confirming the widespread perception that the roles have been reversed in Turkish politics. However, the persistence of intolerance in private attitudes is not politically inconsequential; indeed, it has societal, non-liberal implications as well. The KONDA survey notes that the rapid, economic modernization that Turkey has undergone in recent decades is yet to translate into any reciprocal change in the dominant, conservative cultural values and attitudes. Thus, in sociological and cultural terms Islamic conservatism remains a conservative, not a liberalizing, force.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s liberal intellectuals have been encouraged in particular by the recent rise of a Turkish pious entrepreneurial class. It has been suggested that the “Islamic Calvinists”, the term used to denote the entrepreneurs of the ascendant religious bourgeoisie, would eventually usher in a kind of Muslim reformation, as it interacts globally in economic terms. However, there is no indication so far of any ensuing cultural interaction and impregnation and no signs of a social liberalism evolving.

The persistence of social reclusiveness, with particular impact on the role of women in society, is revealed in a recent survey of attitudes among the Muslim entrepreneurs, the first of its kind,Türkiye’de sanayici dindarligi (Religious piousness among Turkish industrialists) by Muhammed Çakmak of the department of theology of Firat University. The survey was conducted among five hundred industrialists and businessmen in Ankara, Konya, Kayseri and Gaziantep. Women are largely and significantly absent in the investigation, since, in the words of Cakmak, they are very feebly represented in the business and industrial sectors.

The pious industrialists and businessmen are vastly in favor of developing business relations with Europe. 80 percent support a Turkish membership in the EU, and 95 percent prefer to trade with Europe rather than with the Muslim Middle East, citing the preponderance of bribery and of encumbering business laws in the latter region as the reason. Indeed, according to economist Timur Kuran, the success of the pious bourgeoisie in Turkey, compared to other Muslim countries where the religious law remains in effect and hampers business, owes a great deal to the reforms of the republic which banished religion from the law.

Çakmak’s survey confirms Binnaz Toprak’s description of how the pressures to conform to a religious way of life in Anatolia continue to assert themselves. However, Çakmak makes the observation that “some of the males have found a way out (of conservatism) by “living other lives on business trips to Istanbul, Ankara and Antalya, while upholding conservative values for their families at home”. A system is established in which women are exhorted by their husbands to be content with their newly affluent lives, and in exchange told not  “interfere with my private life”, says Çakmak.  While 95 percent of the respondents are in favor of their daughters pursuing university studies, they do not want them to have a professional life. It would thus seem that the classical modernization theory, according to which economic development breeds a general secularization of cultural values and social mores, is of limited value as a guide to the evolution of Islamic conservatism in Turkey.

CONCLUSIONS: The attitudes of the Westernized, traditional elite of republican Turkey toward the religiously conservative have certainly not been informed by tolerance. Explicitly or implicitly, liberal intellectuals like Atilla Yayla, who themselves are products of the Westernizing effort of the republic, express a desire to make amends with the intolerance of the past. However, in so doing, they tend to overlook the conservative intolerance that still persists, and which in turn renders the necessary liberalization of Kemalist thinking difficult. The religiously conservative attitudes about gender is hardly reassuring for emancipated, secularized women; they cannot be blamed for worrying whether their own freedom is going to be respected.

There is little evidence to suggest that the religiously conservative have actually come to embrace the idea of a liberal, value-neutral state that refrains from furthering any particular lifestyle. The bureaucratic appointments during the rule of the AKP, on the contrary, show that the adherence to a religious way of life has become a requirement for employment and advancement.

Kemalists as well as Islamic conservatives remain state-centered. Liberalism, the restriction of the public role of the state, is privileged neither by the secularists nor by the Islamic conservatives. The secularists have traditionally looked upon the state as a shelter protecting their lifestyle, and cling to the hope that they will be redeemed by a state that has been “rescued” from the AKP.  The Islamic conservatives are in turn preoccupied with extending their religiosity to the public sphere, beyond the shrine and the conscience to which it was confined by the secularizing republic, inevitably privileging the state as an agent.

Turkey’s liberal intellectuals have during the last decade waged an effective war of ideas against Kemalism, which has all but ceased to enjoy any intellectual standing to speak of in the public discourse. To further the cause of liberalism, they now need to take a critical view of religious conservatism as well.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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