A Critical Review of Turkish Society

by Begum Burak

In Turkey, in my opinion, while discussing daily political and social issues, the most prominent conceptual confusion is seen in the difference between “conservative” and “pious”. When one talks about piety, what I simply understand is the performance of daily prayers (in Islam that is five times a day), fasting during the Holy month Ramadan…and so on. On the other hand, a conservative person may be politically conservative and vote for the right-wing parties while leading a traditional life in which family-related values dominate, but he/she may not perform the basic religious activities. However, in the Turkish case these two words “conservative” and “pious” are generally used interchangeably. For instance, the fact that a conservative person may vote for Islamist parties does not mean that it leads an Islamic way of life (which I see necessary in order to be a devout Muslim)

My argument in this article is that a pious person does not necessarily mean that this person is also (politically) conservative or vice versa. Another crucial point that is noteworthy here in leading us to understand the distinction between conservatism and piety is about the segments in the Turkish society. As known, there are two main segments in Turkey: one is the (ultra) Kemalist/Statist/Secularist[1] CHP voters (Republican People’s Party – the main opposition party in Turkey); and the other one is the segment consisting of Conservative/Economically and Politically liberal/Defending an Anglo-Saxon type of Secularism. (Mainly the AKP voters – the Justice and Development Party, the ruling party in Turkey since 2002). The first segment is called “white Turks” and they see themselves as “enlightened and modern”. Also they attach themselves to an interesting mission of “enlightening the society” which is (according to them) backward just because of the religion.

A picture from the Turkish movie, “Büşra”

One of the major problems that impedes democratic consolidation in Turkey and undermines civil liberties is the pathological characteristics that exist in the relationship between these two different societal segments. The Kemalists see the state as their own domain; by contrast, the other segment has been so far (at least up until the early 2000s) excluded from the public sphere because of their different secularism interpretation and religion-driven identities.[2]

In Turkey, these different segments generally see one another as existential threats and they look at the world through the lens of conspiracy theories. In fact, to be fair, Conservative people are so far excluded and oppressed. However with the AKP rule, they can nowadays, to an important degree, do the things they want without any considerable prohibitions. In short, Turkish society consists of two really different segments. Unless they get to know each other well and unless they try to see each other’s positive sides, a democratic culture and a peaceful-coexistence will hardly flourish.

[1] A secularist person in Turkey defends not just the separation of state and religion affairs but also defends the argument of “secularism is a way of life” and dictates this single view. (Secularist tendencies in Turkey impede democratic deepening in Turkey.)

[2] What I mean by “religion-driven identity” is, for example, the identity of a girl who wants to go to the university with her Islamic headscarf.


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