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December 30, 2012, Sunday

Turkey beyond clichés

In most articles on Turkey in the foreign press, journalists define the major fault line in Turkish society as the one between Kemalist secularists on the one hand and Islamists on the other.

Depending on the personal views and preferences of the observer, Turkey is described either as a country in danger of losing its secular characteristics, slowly turning into a more Islamic nation, or as a state moving away from a semi-democracy under military and judicial tutelage towards a full democracy reflecting the views of the conservative majority of the population.

This tendency to paint a portrait of Turkey full of popular clichés has been challenged in the past by open-minded analysts. The main objection against the simple secular-Islamist divide being the fact that most conservative Muslims in Turkey are not anti-secular but object to the dominant, rigid Kemalist interpretation of secularism. Instead, they promote another type of secularism that leaves more space for public manifestations of religion.

There is good news for those in Turkey and abroad looking for more good arguments against the black and white pictures of Turkey that still pop up regularly in the media. I would strongly recommend them to read the new book by Jenny White called “Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks.” White is an associate professor of anthropology at Boston University who has lived and worked in Turkey for many years.

In her latest publication, White tries to show that Turkey is not divided between two competing monolithic blocs but is a country full of contradictions that is slowly trying to find a new definition of what it means to be Turkish. Her book is rich with anecdotes and observations based on years of talks with Turks from all walks of life. Her analysis is to the point and should stimulate both Turkish pundits and foreign reporters to look at the country in a different, more nuanced manner.

Let me highlight two of book’s themes: the growing diversity among modern Muslims and the similarities between the old Kemalist nationalism and the revised Muslim version.

White does a great job in describing the change of a coherent cultural tradition that makes up Turkish national identity into what she calls “a bewildering variety of choices of values, practices, and modes of affiliation. … Turkishness is being redefined in a variety of ways, and national identity, beyond certain core shared characteristics, has become a matter of choice.” Modern Muslims want to construct their own views and lifestyles, combining parts of old Turkish traditions with elements picked from the international media or the global market place. Politically they switch pragmatically between liberal and conservative positions. According to White, political Islamism has been replaced by cultural Muslimhood, especially among Turkish youngsters who “exhibit simultaneous layers of sometimes contradictory views and values and sport multiple labels.” For the author it is clear that putting all Turkish Muslims into one box does not make sense at all. The reality on the ground is much more complicated and paradoxical than many self-declared secularists want to see and old-style Islamists dare to admit.

White also successfully explains the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s often confusing vacillation between support for individual, cultural and minority rights and hard-nosed “Turkey for the Turks” nationalism. She compares the new Muslim nationalism with the old Kemalist variant and concludes that both share a belief in the superiority of Turkishness, including some basic assumptions on the role of women, a proneness to authoritarianism and a belief in the efficacy of social engineering. At the same time, White underlines: “Muslim nationalists define Turkishness primarily as a Sunni Muslim identity, which is potentially inclusive of Kurds as fellow Muslims within the Turkish realm. … In contrast, Kemalist nationalism excludes Kurds from the nation unless they reject their roots and become fictive Turks.”

These are only two examples of the original and thought-provoking way in which White depicts Turkey, a country in transition that deserves to be analyzed beyond journalistic platitudes. That is exactly what White has done. I hope her latest book will be read by many and will be translated into Turkish soon.

Previous articles of the columnist