A new class of Hybrid Turks emerging between White and Black Turks

Working on her Ph.D. at Bilkent University, while holding a prestigious job at a »»

Working on her Ph.D. at Bilkent University, while holding a prestigious job at a government institution, Ayşe Sözen considers herself belonging to a new model emerging in Turkey, one which includes a modern lifestyle alongside the meticulous practice of religion.

‘‘This new model’s distinguishing feature is the struggle to live a non-secular life in an increasingly secularized world,’’ Sözen says, although she is not sure whether it is a new class or not.

It is no more an oxymoron than to witness a young Turkish professional with degrees from a prestigious school in the US take a quiet prayer break during a jazz concert in İstanbul and resume having fun with her Kemalist colleagues. And you would be wrong to imagine that this is a woman with headscarf. Similarly, one can easily run into a bright scholar working at a top-tier university who arranges his vacation according to Ramadan.

‘‘I considered myself fortunate to have an idea about both worlds when a colleague told me that she had never met a person who does not drink until she went to college,’’ says an assistant professor at one of the top universities in Turkey. Having a degree from Turkey’s Boğaziçi University and a Ph.D. from the US, this 30-something academic comments on the condition of anonymity to avoid a possible judgment in her highly secular environment. ‘‘White Turks usually have a limited perspective when it comes to understanding the ‘other,’ and practicing religion is probably the most important difference between me and them,’’ she says.

This is a new, but often overlooked category in Turkey, a country where people often pay attention to the high level of polarization between the secularists and religious groups. However, there are a growing number of particularly young people who feel somewhere in the middle while candidly respecting the “other.” It is more accurate to call them “hybrid Turks” as they combine the features of both the religious majority and the secular minority which are usually perceived to be irreconcilable.

Both domestic and foreign analyses of Turkey have long used a similar dichotomy to explain the clash between the Kemalist elite and the conservative majority. And it worked conveniently well probably up until a decade ago. When the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002, and strengthened its mandate unprecedentedly in the 2007 and 2011 elections, the center-periphery debate went beyond academic circles. Though first used by sociologist Nilüfer Göle, the term “white Turk” referring to the urbanized, well-educated, usually non-observant (even distanced from Islam) ruling elite of the country, was quickly adopted by pundits.

The center-periphery debate turned into a widespread white versus black Turks in society. While some used the term “grey Turks” to refer to the aspiring blacks who quickly climbed the socio-economic ladder during the Turgut Özal era and gained momentum during the AK Party rule, it falls short of explaining this new breed. According to the figures of the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) the average income of an individual in the second quintile of Turkey increased by 100 percent from 1994 to 2005. Such a change in the welfare of this new upper-middle class changed the whole picture as they were better able to send their kids to study abroad, earn and spend more as well as travel.

Hybrid Turks are a natural by-product of the new Turkey’s sociological conditions. They are urbanized, well educated, fluent in English, travel abroad, believe in democracy and pluralism and observe their religion as carefully as any other pious Muslim. They seem happy to have the best of both worlds. A young member of this group in her late 20s that spoke on condition of anonymity, who now works in her family’s business after attending a top American high school in İstanbul and obtaining a college degree in the US, says she shares ‘‘the same music and movie tastes with her “white Turk” classmates, but feels ‘‘closer to the religious masses in terms of where she finds the meaning of life: in the pursuit of religiosity.’’

Sociologist Nilüfer Narlı confirms the emergence of a hybrid generation, and believes that they have a positive impact on society to ease the tensions among polarized groups. ‘‘I do not necessarily state my difference in beliefs unless asked,” says the İstanbul-based woman, which confirms the successful co-existence ability of this new breed. She says ‘‘religiosity affects all aspects of life from what to wear to what to drink,’’ but she is able to meet her old classmates at a place where people drink alcohol, although normally it would not be her first choice. However, Sözen says because of the high polarization in the country it is as though ‘‘we live in the same country, yet almost as if we are from different nations.” She gave an example of two young people from these two irreconcilable sides that were not able to even dream of a future together as a married couple, no matter how much they loved each other.

Markar Esayan: Hybrid Turks are a safety valve for Turkish democracy

As a columnist and intellectual, Markar Esayan has observed the emergence of this new generation and believes that this group will help in determining how quickly the country can move towards full democratization, since the big transformation in Turkey is among the pious group, which is open to globalization. “I am particularly hopeful about the contribution of these young women to Turkish democracy,” says Esayan, asserting that ‘‘they are a safety valve for Turkish democracy.’’

However, a high-level bureaucrat in his mid 30s who asked to remain anonymous due to his position in Ankara agrees that he would fit into the category of “hybrid Turk” but does not believe that ‘they “have accumulated enough power to officially carve out [their] specific lifestyle yet.’’ As a result ‘they “adapt the closest identity [they] find, and those who do not join any category are left out,’’ he adds. But he also thinks that although this new category sheds some light on the transformation taking place in Turkish society, it is not homogeneous, and has many varieties.

Columnist Ahmet Turan Alkan supports the above arguments that this new element will determine the basis of a balanced democratization, while agreeing that they have not reached the social stability to declare their status, which leads them to remain cautious about revealing their identity. Sözen confirms such an account since she believes ‘‘there is a tendency to place multiple social pressure on these people from the seculars to the religious and educated to the man on the street.’’ On the other hand, Seçil, a young Ankara woman with an undergraduate degree from the US running her own company in Ankara says, ‘’Compared to others, for instance in the public sector, I don’t feel any pressure,’’ which is likely due to the fact that she moves in homogenous circles.

‘‘The hybrid Turk is an accurate conceptualization,’’ says intellectual Mustafa Akyol, who is the author of “White Turks, Black Turks and Mountain Turks,” because a certain group of conservatives in Turkey ‘‘create their own style while holding on to their cultural codes.’’ Supporting Esayan’s observation, Akyol says he ‘‘witness[es] liberal conservatism more among young headscarf wearing women.’’ In parallel with other observers, Akyol is convinced hybrid Turks will contribute to democratization in Turkey. ‘‘It is critical that this segment of society remain in favor of freedoms,’’ adds Akyol, while warning that ‘‘although Turkey has made a lot of progress, there is still a long way to go for liberal democracy.’’

By any account, this emerging new breed in Turkey deserves more attention. Without a doubt, this understudied urban group will be the subject of research as Turkey continues to be an interesting case study.