In a somewhat surprising move, Turkey’s Constitutional Court announced today in a very close vote its decision to not ban the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP)—which was facing charges of threatening the laicist order of the country—but only to cut its financial state support. Despite the relatively moderate decision, the verdict presented by the President of the Constitutional Court sent a clear warning to the AKP that the judiciary will not tolerate any subversion of the laicist order.
The soon to follow written explanation can be expected to be in line with the two perceptions that dominate the general view of current political developments in Turkey: first, that Turkish society is split between secularists/Kemalists on the one side, and Islamists/traditionalist Muslims on the other; secondly, that it was the AKP’s anti-laicist politics—most emblematically its take on the headscarf—that constituted the major reason for its political predicament. I believe that these two perceptions hide the much more complex economic and political transformations and realities of Turkish society, and would like to challenge the first and complicate the second.
Focusing on the religious/secularist divide—and thus assuming ideology is the major problem—serves to cover up material conflicts of interest. These conflicts result partially from structural changes in Turkish society (as a consequence of immense demographic transformations); partially from the emergence of a new Islamic middle class; and partially (as a consequence of the earlier two developments) from the increased self-confidence of more traditionalist parts of Turkish society, who wish to claim their share of political power. In light of these material and political conflicts, the question of Turkish laicism should be recast: who has an interest in securing the prominence of religious/laicist contestation in Turkish politics, despite the fact that one could very easily claim that other issues ought to be much more pressing? Why would observers elevate this ideological divide above, for example, the widely felt economic instability of the country, huge geographic imbalances of development, and the socio-political fault lines that have emerged as a result of the rapid social changes of the last decades?
It is undeniable that there is a close connection between the AKP’s affirmative position on the headscarf—emblematic of the question of laicism—and the current political crisis. But mainstream public debates on this crisis, as launched both by Kemalist and secular-right Turkish media outlets and echoed by the international media, often reduce the conflict to one between Islamists and secularists, a conflict over cultural heritages and civilizational missions as old as the Turkish Republic. True, in the fashioning of the republican public the female body became the surface on which this conflict was inscribed by a male public gaze. And opposing sides have continued to argue about where and how this body should be (un-)dressed. Yet the battlefield should not be mistaken for the source of the conflict. I would argue that too much focus on the headscarf, and by implication too much focus on laicism, does more to obscure the current political situation than to explain it.
I do not claim that the current crisis in Turkish politics has nothing to do with different conceptions of secularism. Certainly, what is at stake in the public debates about the Islamic headscarf is the power to define the language and the rules of conduct in the Turkish public sphere, particularly when it comes to the legitimate place of religion. To use a term coined by José Casanova, the conflict is about the “knowledge regime of secularism.” The current debates reflect the trembling of this knowledge regime, and in this sense the anti-Islamist rhetoric that is found not only among staunch laicist Kemalists, but also among many traditionalist—and laicist—Muslims, is proof of the success of this regime, as it has, for roughly 80 years now, been propagated by the institutions of the state, and dominated public discourse. More recently, with the opening of the public sphere to previously marginalized segments of society, the knowledge regime of Turkish laicism has come under question, and the meanings of laicism are now debated as openly and controversially as never before: should Turkey stick to its top-down, state-centered definition and organization of religion, or might it be beneficial for the public good if the state were to soften its grip on religion? How should the realms of the private and public be defined, and how much room should there be for religious symbols and speech in the latter? Finally, what are legitimate communal and individual religious rights, and how should one weigh them if they appear to be in conflict? The origins of this debate can be traced back to the beginnings of the Republic, when discussions about the headscarf, the female body and laicism operated as a proxy for the larger debate on the modes and direction of Turkish modernization, and its civilizational commitment.
A critical analysis of the history and politics of Turkish secularism certainly has to be part of any attempt to grasp the current crisis, and the semantics of Turkish politics more generally. The analysis should not end here, however, but should also consider broader political and material interests, beyond the realm of ideological contestation. In other words, one should not forget to ask who benefits from the maintenance of the current knowledge regime of Turkish laicism. What are the stakes for those who seem never to tire of casting the debate in religionist-laicist terms? As a matter of fact, one could easily argue that for many major recent developments, the laicism/religion focus bears very little explanatory potential. It is, for example, not for religious reasons that the Turkish economy (and not only those parts of it with roots in traditional Islamic culture) has been supportive of the AKP, and neither is it for religious reasons that the AKP has proved to be the political party invested the most strongly in advancing Turkish prospects to enter the EU. It is also hardly for religious reasons that there occurred in the Kurdish dominated southeastern provinces of the country in the last elections a remarkable transfer of votes from Kurdish nationalist candidates and parties to the AKP. These developments—and more examples could be given—have more to do with economic interests and political reasoning than with civilizational or religious commitments.
The simplistic perception of Turkish society as divided into two camps, one laicist and the other Islamist, is but a caricature; the large majority of the population does not easily fit into this scheme. A Turkish citizen who is undecided about whether to cast her vote for the AKP or for the Kemalist CHP is therefore not schizophrenic. The considerations that influence her decision are not ideological, but rather pragmatic and everyday: economic concerns, both personal and general; concerns over affordable housing and retirement; and concerns about public services such as health care and education (to name the most pressing issues in the minds of many). One can hardly deny the existence of identifiable groups of Kemalist hardliners—as well as staunch Islamists—whose respective lifestyles and worldviews can be fitted in the dichotomist laicist/religionist perception. And it is also true that people can get temporarily polarized around extremely controversial issues. But the political, ethnic, cultural, religious, and class divisions of Turkey are multiple, and to divide Turkish society categorically along laicist/Islamist lines is not more meaningful than dividing it according to ethnic (Turkish/Kurdish), religious (Sunni/Alevi), cultural (Istanbulites/Anatolians), class specific (bourgeois/proletarian) or other binary categories.
All of this said, the questions that remain to be answered are: why has the secularist/Islamist binary acquired as much political leverage as it has, and why does this divide appear to so many observers as such an obvious starting point for an analysis of the current political crisis? Beyond the obvious success of the knowledge regime of Kemalist laicism, and the pressures resulting from this laicism’s institutionalization in state institutions and civil minds, let me suggest some aspects that should additionally be considered in attempts to develop an answer.
(1) The fast speed of the urbanization of Turkish society since the 1950s, and the cultural and economic changes that the subsequent migration into the urban centers have meant for huge parts of the population are important factors that have to be considered. The headscarf student and the Islamist party are urban phenomena that reflect the search for new models of development/modernization in line with traditional values. They demand a voice in the public sphere and proportional access to political institutions and state services. This emergence of new types of actors in the public sphere naturally means shifts in the distribution of access to political and cultural resources, and is bound to provoke resistance by those who resent such redistribution.
(2) A new Islamic bourgeoisie with roots in Anatolian culture (the “Anatolian Tigers”) has become economically very influential, and claims its share in the distribution of social and political capital. It has found a political ally in the AKP and it is clear that this symbiosis is seen by the Kemalist establishment as threatening its privileged position. The “Kemalist establishment” in this case includes those segments of society that hold positions of power in the state institutions (such as the educational system, the judiciary, and the army) as well as those who have, due to their economic position, been able to lead comfortable secular lives and see their secular lifestyles under threat by growing conservative segments of society.
(3) Since the 1980s, Turkey has rapidly transformed into a society strongly influenced by consumer capitalism. Those who benefitted from the economic liberalization and have material stakes in the well-being of corporate capitalism will naturally not like language which frames societal conflicts in terms of class and access to particular consumerist lifestyles. It can be assumed that debates on laicism/religion are much less upsetting to the capitalist sector than debates that focus on the material fault lines that divide Turkish society and problematize the increasing cleavages between socio-economic classes. Attempts to seriously question the neo-liberal politics that took hold of Turkish society after the coup of 1980 have been launched both by the Kemalist left and other leftist critics, but they never were able to set the tone of public debate, and were—especially within the Kemalist camps—sidelined by ideological debates like those on laicism. In this context, it is important to know that the mainstream Turkish media is to an enormous extent monopolized in the hand of a small number of media holdings.
(4) The Turkish military justifies its place above politics with its role as guardian of national unity and the laicist order. If Turkish laicism were to be redefined in a more liberal direction, then the military would be deprived of a major argument to legitimate its supra-democratic status. Therefore, one should assume that the military has an existential interest in safeguarding the current knowledge regime of Turkish laicism. And in fact, the military plays a leading role in public campaigns against enemies of laicism, namely political Islam as the recent political crisis has drastically shown.
The concept of religion dominant in the Turkish public sphere is utterly modernist. It is based on mono-linear readings of history dominated by the Kemalist master narrative, and conceives of the religious and the secular as opposite poles in a two-dimensional plane. This dichotomist view renders the articulation of alternative perspectives on modernity, history, religion, and politics, as well as alternative visions concerning the rules of the public sphere, extremely difficult. This is particularly true since emerging alternative readings of these concepts are not only perceived as an ideological challenge, but also impact the distribution of socio-political power and material privileges. From this perspective, I would argue that the investigation of the knowledge regime of Turkish laicism, which cultivates a perception of the world in line with the religionist/secularist binary, has to be supplemented with a close look into demographic transformations, political privileges, and economic interests. It appears to me that those who feel politically and economically threatened by a new class of political actors, the emergence of a new religiously conservative middle class, as well as the capitalist sector in general, have very manifest interests in the maintenance of the current knowledge regime of Turkish laicism. Any comprehensive analysis of Turkish laicism will have to take these factors into account if it does not want to limit itself to mono-causal models of explanation, which are themselves stuck within the mono-dimensional semantics of the secular-religionist paradigm.