Analysis

August 6, 2012

Summary: Turkey is an interesting case of the “Clash of Civilizations,” with various segments of society becoming more liberal on gender relations and lifestyle choices, as has been the case in the West, while trends in the rest of the society more resemble those in most Islamic nations. To add to the complexity, political divisions in the country are also increasingly built around these cultural cleavages, between the ruling AKP and more “liberal” opposition parties.

Rights, Wrongs, and Freedoms in Turkey
by Diba Nigar Göksel

“The cultural gulf separating Islam from the West involves Eros far more than Demos,” conclude Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their “Testing the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Thesis.”1 They argue on the basis of the World Values Study, that “the most basic cultural fault line between the West and Islam concerns the issues of gender equality and sexual liberalization,” not political values and attitudes. Turkey is an interesting case in this regard, with various segments of society becoming more liberal on gender relations and lifestyle choices, as has been the case in the West, while trends in the rest of the society more resemble those in most Islamic nations. To add to the complexity, political divisions in the country are also increasingly built around these cultural cleavages. A version of a clash of civilizations is at play within Turkey itself. Particularly in the past few years, as the ruling Muslim-conservative AKP consolidated power, the party has stepped up its advocacy of a conservative agenda. The higher profile of “morality” in legal action and political
1 http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/ Clash%20of%20Civilization.pdf

rhetoric stokes cultural clashes, and reflects negatively on the perception of vulnerability among intellectuals, journalists, and right’s activists. These tensions are a handicap for Turkey to live up to its claim of helping to overcome civilizational clashes on a global scale, and to enter new leagues of advancement. Conservatism Veiled under Change While it is to be expected that the AKP — an overtly conservative political party — would take pro-family stances and advocate traditional values, increasingly in doing so, its actions and rhetoric have lacked the necessary caution to ensure that individual rights, freedoms, integrity, and security are protected. Women are at the center of this debate, but it is carried out primarily by men. The prime minister has regularly spoken out against birth control – labeling it a tactic employed by “forces that want to weaken Turkey’s demographic potential.” More obscurely, he also framed cesarean birth as a form of destructive “population control,” claiming it limited women to just two children. He has repeatedly called on every woman to have three children.

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Analysis
Most recently, in late May 2012, he came out harshly against abortion, pledging to change laws to criminalize this form of “murder.” Adding insult to injury, some female activists who have protested the foreseen ban were detained. The concern about AKP’s advocacy of social conservatism is not new, nor are attempts for this conservatism to be enshrined in law, however, there appear to be less checks and balances today. This is related to the stall of Turkey’s EU accession process, the marginalization of the liberal civil society, and the winds of the Arab Spring. In 2004, for example, shortly before the submission of a newly drafted penal code to parliament, an amendment that would criminalize adultery was proposed with the backing of the prime minister. At the time, the dedicated feminist civil society worked with partners in the Turkish media and the EU to push back, and the proposal was withdrawn. In crafting the female-related sections of the penal code (in an admittedly participatory process, for which AKP received rightful recognition), activist lawyers, NGOs, and journalists painstakingly ensured that individual rights were the basis of legislation concerning women, rather than abstract terms that can be subjectively (and patriarchially) interpreted, such as “morality,” “shame,” or “family honor.” Since then, seemingly contradictory trends have been apparent in policymaking and political rhetoric. While on one hand, implementation of progressive domestic violence laws are still in the phase of being fine-tuned for more effective enforcement, on the other hand, steps are taken that contradict the spirit of these laws, such as taking the family rather than the female citizen as the interlocutor (or addressee) of state institutions. The prominence of family unity over women’s rights has been creeping into new legislation, regulatory practices, court verdicts, and political rhetoric. The urbanization and socioeconomic mobility of conservative masses in Turkey has led average family sizes to shrink and average education rate of girls to rise, as postindustrial European societies also experienced. But the verdict is not yet in about where these trends will settle. Besides state policies, the values underscored by power-holders will also matter. For years, prejudices against women wearing headscarves and their ban from working at government offices or studying with this garment created social tensions and political divides. Today, a reverse stigmatization, driven by vengeance, is perceived. The increased profile of the religious directorate, taking positions on political affairs and laws, aggravates such concerns. Reverence to the head of the family often comes together with reverence to the political leader, a mindset of obedience, and intolerance to dissent. When the democratically elected leader presents his path as the will of God and of the nation, the space for challenge on behalf of pluralism is ever more narrow. Progressive change on the front of gender relations may be dependent on, and in turn fuel, advancements in how society and authority, at large, relate to each other. The “Direction” Debate: The Private Versus the Political There are a plethora of assessments about where Turkey is going, argued on the basis of symbols of conservatism and reaching opposing conclusions. It is not hard to see why. Aided by economic mobility and access to information, the consumption patterns and demands of conservative middle classes have evolved. There are more restaurants that do not serve alcohol, but also more that do. While overall alcohol consumption has increased, in many provinces across the country, it can only be consumed in seclusion or on the top floor of a high-end hotel catering to outsiders, far from the local public eye. While headscarves appear more abundant in the bustling city districts, studies do not reveal an increase in the number of women who wear them. There are more gender-segregated swimming pools but also more gay-friendly bars or saunas. Capitalism is in action, catering to the new diversity of consumers, albeit in zones and sometimes unleashing conflicts. The political solution often resorted to is “banning” the practice or expression of choices related to sexual orientation, atheism, or alcohol consumption. Access to websites depicting pornography has been blocked. Gay-friendly locations claim they face unprecedented pressure and some are shut down, while frequenters say they are uneasy with police raids and identification controls that compromise privacy. A recent restriction on beer at an open-air concert and the charging of Turkey’s famous pianist and composer, Fazil Say, with “insulting religious values of the nation” in a Twitter message expressing his atheism, further raised concerns about tolerance and pluralism.

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Analysis
The precedent set by a recent court ruling establishing that people who download or possess videos depicting unnatural sexual conduct (which can include oral, anal, group, or gay sex) can be sentenced to prison suggests that almost any political opponent or active critic of the authorities is vulnerable to politically motivated charges. How issues of conservative significance are dealt with is becoming an issue of democratic culture and standards. Leading the Turkish society as smoothly as possible through the social clashes of this phase would also require political rhetoric highlighting tolerance for differences, respect for individual choice, and the embrace of diversity, assurance of impartial state institutions, and the introduction of effective measures against discrimination or hate speech on the basis of gender, religious conviction or symbols, lifestyle, sexual orientation, and the like. The general lack of confidence that state institutions are ideologically impartial and the conviction that laws are arbitrarily implemented renders the conservatism debate integral to democracy. In other words, if conservative symbols become a sign of allegiance to the government, or if laws regulating obscenity or the insult of religion are used to intimidate political opponents, it becomes harder to distinguish between the private and the political. Due to cases of release of illicit sex tapes of journalists and opposition politicians, fear of intimidation on the basis of surveillance of sexual relations has become widespread. Lack of faith in the neutrality of the judiciary exacerbates this sense of vulnerability. While the ruling party somewhat capitalizes on the concerns about social decay among the conservative masses of the country, there is also a built-in constraint based on the realization that a competitive workforce, an innovative economy, a vibrant tourism sector, and the democratic image Turkey’s global-player credentials rest upon also feed off of freedoms, some of which clash with the conservative agenda. That the government often yields to pragmatism in action (even if less so in rhetoric) is thus a safety valve optimists rely on. In order for Turkey to keep up its development, and for the government to maintain its edge, there is supposedly a limit to which conservative social engineering can be pushed. Considerations of the potential economic implications on tourism are kept in mind while crafting new regulations on alcohol, ensuring that entertainment can flourish but is relatively contained (though this is not declared as a policy), functioning under consistent pressure, and concentrated in the big cities and Western coastline of the country. On one hand, with massive urbanization, the fear of erosion of traditional family structures has led to heightened efforts to control women. Yet on the other hand, with more education and the internet, even women without permission to leave the family house physically are no longer cut off from information, or from creating a social life. Though religious education and allegiance to authority are promoted, it is also understood that critical thinking will need to develop for an innovation culture to emerge. While women’s role as caregivers is emphasized and public childcare is practically unavailable, economic strategists in the government recognize that women’s employment figures will have to rise above their abysmally low current rate for Turkey to economically catch up with its Western counterparts. Assuming that such pragmatic change will follow, so will challenge of the rights and wrongs imposed by authorities about Turkish identity, unity, national interests, or symbols of deference versus defiance. This optimistic outlook assumes, though, that the motivation and can-do spirit of those striving for a liberal democracy is preserved, and that the role of the West for Turkey’s development cannot be substituted by the “rising East” — dynamics that also depend on how international partners position themselves vis-à-vis Turkey. The pessimistic view is that instead of developing a new social contract that broadly increases freedoms and respect for all choices, the mentality of a zero sum game is consolidated, pitting the outwardly pious and the “rest” against each other, incrementally “resetting” the society. To reassure citizens about these concerns, it is important that a broader freedom agenda that can appeal to the diversity of the Turkish society is rallied around.

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Analysis
Winds from the Arab Uprisings A constellation of political and economic shifts in the global, regional, and domestic arena have fed into rising conservatism in Turkey. Western preoccupation with economic crises, interest in Turkey’s stepping up to a more prominent role in its Muslim neighborhood, Turkey’s aspirations for a stronger global role fuelled by traction in the Muslim world, the EU vision deficit in managing Turkey’s accession process, and the political upheaval across the Arab world play into the already complex interaction of conservative tendencies and demand for individual liberties in the Turkish society. Thus far, European characterizations of Turkey have generally been unhelpful. On one hand are the existential arguments, that Turkey is not European because Islam and democracy or liberalism cannot go together. On the other hand are the multiculturalist Europeans who presented today’s Turkey as the primary proof of the compatibility of Islam with Western-style democracy, and are reluctant to recognize patterns that might cast a shadow on this representation. Both approaches disempower rights advocates and entrench conservative symbols as a sign of national honor and patriotism in Turkey. The Western positions taken toward Turkey are ever more complicated by two elements related to upheavals in the Arab world: the fact that Turkey’s rising strategic prominence gives Ankara immunity from Western criticism of its democracy deficits, and the view that rising conservatism in Turkey may aide Turkey’s credentials for soft power among its Muslim neighbors. Turkey’s Western friends need to take a firm yet objective stance on the side of individual rights, freedom of expression and dissent in Turkey, while also working to overcome European “civilizational” prejudices, and ensuring that Turkey is treated fairly in EU accession and integration processes. A small but positive step to this end is the recent EU initiative to offer a process that could lead to Turkish nationals traveling visa-free to the EU. An important pillar of the depth of Turkey’s strategic advantage in its Eastern and Southern neighborhood is the diversity of its society, and the liberties painstakingly forged over the years, often with inspiration and support from the West. For Turkish men and women to continue to inspire and bridge differences across the region, they need more social reconciliation and less political vulnerability at home.

About the Author
Diba Nigar Göksel is editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www. gmfus.org/turkey or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database. gmfus.org/reaction.

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