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The Politics of Culture in 'New Turkey'

Session XI-01, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
This roundtable will discuss the political dominance of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), and contend that Turkey has been undergoing an ideological transition from one hegemonic project to another, from ‘Old’ to ‘New Turkey,’ over the past two decades. The effects of this change and the question of what exactly is new about ‘New Turkey’ will be addressed in various ways by the participants, who come from different academic disciplines. In particular, these participants will discuss how Turkey’s transition is negotiated in the field of culture. In a broader sense, the subject of this roundtable contributes to a better understanding of the rise of authoritarian populism and the decline of democracy in Turkey, linking the Turkish case to a wider debate on the global ascent of contemporary authoritarianism. It is in the realm of culture where contending hegemonic adversaries of Turkish society meet and clash over norms, practices, representations, and values. The cultural is always linked to the political and can only be fully understood if questions of power are taken into account. Culture can be a medium of both maintaining and contesting political power and must be seen as a site of ideological struggle. Accordingly, the participants of this roundtable do not confine their studies of culture to artistic production, but rather seek to analyze performative acts of cultural production in everyday life. One participant illustrates how the ruling elite has used alcohol to draw a symbolic line between the ideological grounds of ‘Old Turkey’ and ‘New Turkey.’ Another participant investigates counter-hegemonic discourses in Turkish satirical magazines during the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013, highlighting how these magazines successfully challenged the dominant narrative through the power of wit and humor. Two participants address national identity and the cultural parameters of Turkishness, showing the immense complexity of the dominant discourse when faced with questions of how to deal with ethnic minorities. One critically engages with the Turkish government’s Sunni supremacist policies towards the country’s Alevi community, while the other explores a case of supposedly successful ethnic incorporation. Finally, another participant’s contribution on atheism and non-belief in ‘New Turkey’ demonstrates that the rise of pious conservatism has forced many non-believers into hiding. However, it has also triggered an awakening of atheist activism and a new secularist movement from below.
  • For most of the 20th century, Turkey has enjoyed a relatively liberal relationship with alcohol. Keeping with the secular vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish Republic’s venerated founder, the state has decriminalized and even encouraged the consumption and production of alcoholic beverages in a predominantly conservative Muslim society. As a result, drinking has become an accepted social norm amongst Turkish citizens pertaining to a secular lifestyle. Yet the past decade has witnessed some dramatic reversals in both social and state attitudes towards alcohol. Ever since the arrival of the neo-liberal and Islamist Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) to power in 2002, alcohol has become a deeply divise, contentious issue in contemporary Turkish society. Successive AKP governments have greatly increased the taxes on alcohol products and enacted draconian regulatory legislative measures aimed at curtailing the presence of alcohol related imagery in public spaces. Yet the AKP has not attempted to implement an outright prohibitory regime; it has instead opted to a) declare a regulatory “crusade” on alcohol, b) politicize the cultural symbolism of alcohol, thereby contesting the myth of nationhood espoused by secularistic establishment in Turkey, and c) use alcohol to intensify a populist, majoritarian form of politics which assumes polarization rather than consensus as a social norm. Alcohol, in other words, has become the frontline in the AKP’s attempts to (re)invent Turkish national identity and culture within the parameters set by Islamic pious conservatism.
  • Satirical magazines have historically had a strong presence in Turkey. Though their survival has often been troubled, they have nonetheless managed to establish a reputation among their readership as key voices of criticism against the misdeeds of the political class and the absurdities of certain sections of society. In the past, these publications have frequently exercised a counter-hegemonic function, especially at times of political crisis and during anti-democratic crackdowns. Over the last decade, the growing authoritarianism of successive AKP governments has certainly provided fruitful material for these magazines, while also exposing them to the risk of becoming targets of repression. This roundtable statement will propose that also in ‘New Turkey’ satirical magazines are able to formulate successful responses to hegemonic power at various levels. First, their cartoons propose representations that challenge official discourses, thus providing valuable counter-narratives. Second, specific editorial policies of these magazines encourage a two-way dialogue with the readership. This contributes to the formation of a dissenting public and thus performs a counter-hegemonic function which extends beyond the boundaries of representation. At the same time, in the repressive context that characterises the period, power interferes with satire through lawsuits and other forms of pressure. Especially the arbitrariness of these interventions appears to make them effective as strategies of containment in the long run. Satirical magazines thus find themselves in a state of permanent low-level tension and are confronted with the challenges implied by this uncertain scenario on a daily basis.
  • The ruling AKP and President R.T. Erdoğan’s “New Turkey” claim to put an end to the degeneration of the Turkish nation by (re)affirming Turkish national pride and bringing an end to the humiliation of the country’s pious majority. This discourse of unity, religious and national purity, authenticity, resoluteness, and irredentist dreams of a revived (Ottoman) empire through the creation of a new pious community represents the cornerstone of today’s “New Turkey”. The vision of a “New Turkey” is a myth insofar as it is built on ideological abuse and seeks to establish the views of the ruling elite as the commonly accepted norm. R. T. Erdoğan and the AKP successfully monopolized such religious and nationalist aspirations in a plebeian/right-wing populist, anti-elitist “indigenous and national” (“Yerli ve Milli”) discourse. The major cleavages, including the secular-religious divide, the Turkish-Kurdish and the Sunni-Alevi tensions are constantly utilized in this discourse. In Erdogan‘s vision of a “New Turkey”, minority issues have been problematized and the unspoken privileges and advantages associated with being Turkish, being Sunni, and being male in Turkish society have been stressed/enhanced. The common sense of belonging to a community, exclusionary politics in dealing with the other and awareness of privileges and the ruling elite granting privileges based on being Sunni, being Turkish, being male basically forms the majority identities. This presentation sheds light on the logic of what the author prefers to call Sunni supremacism that generates a set of privileges and advantages for some. To grasp the current condition of Sunni supremacism, this chapter explores the politics of religion by analyzing recent legal/institutional adjustments and the key aspects of the “New Turkey”s Sunni supremacist discourse.
  • In the years following the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013, Turkey’s governing AK Party, once hailed as a moderate Islamist party with aspirations to the European Union, has become increasingly authoritarian. Yet, one of Turkey’s most socially disadvantaged groups, the Romanlar (‘Gypsies’), frequently appear in the public realm as entertainers and performers, representing the government’s tolerance of diversity and commitment to minority integration. This raises two important questions. First, why is Turkey’s government invested in representing the Romanlar as happy citizens? Second, why do the Romanlar accept (or at least enact) the role of performers of pluralism, and do such performances result in any tangible benefits for them? In addressing the first question, this roundtable statement will propose that culture is a safe zone for the representation of minorities in Turkey, where ethnic and religious differences are officially subsumed under Turkishness and Muslimness. Unlike Kurds, Alevis, and other minority groups in Turkey, the Romanlar have not generally insisted on recognition as a minority group, but rather on the celebration of cultural differences associated with music, dance, dress, food, and holidays, all seemingly apolitical activities. This kind of cultural difference is easily assimilated into the AK Party’s reform process, geared toward establishing a ‘New Turkey’ that is reconceptualized as Islamic. Tolerance and multiculturalism are justified using Islamic reasoning and, while discrimination is forbidden in this reasoning, so is mobilization based on ethnic or racial differences within the Islamic community (Aktürk 2018). In addressing the second question, it will be suggested that performative moments that seem to be in support of the political status quo enact the ‘art of presence’ (Bayat 2010) through which the Romanlar occupy present time and space, from which they are generally excluded. Via public performance, it will be argued, the Romanlar create the conditions for co-presence with members of the political elite, establishing a counter-intuitive and uneasy proximity between the representatives of a conservative Islamist party and a people often associated with public entertainment. Turkey’s urban Romanlar engage in public performances as a strategy to make their presence known without explicitly resisting the hegemony of the ruling elite. Public performances simultaneously heighten their visibility and perform their belonging in the here and now, against the ideological and physical distancing that defines their marginalization.
  • Religious identity has always been a contentious issue in Turkish politics. Even though Turkish political Islam often claims otherwise, Turkish secularism has never been anti-religious. However, it did seek to control religious institutions, eliminate religious sources of power and establish the state’s unconditional Deutungshoheit on religious matters. A commonly shared religious identity has thus been an essential component of Turkish nationalism ever since the early Republican era. The Erdoğanist commitment to a culture of pious conservatism and raising a new pious generation represents only the latest stage of a long process of merging religious identity with Turkish nationalism. Dominant discourse thus commonly denies the existence of atheism and non-religion and emphasizes the (Sunni) Muslim nature of the Turkish nation. Being Turkish supposedly equals being Muslim. Being atheist, on the contrary, means to represent the Turkish nation’s virulent adversary spawned by Western imperialism. ‘New Turkey’s’ ideological fixation on Islam has yet obscured the fact that a significant number of people have left Islam in recent years; many of them in reaction to the AKP’s political abuse of religion and an increased sense of disillusionment with religious values. The rise of authoritarian populism in Turkey has not only prompted the rise of organized atheism but also an apparent trend toward an increased level of religious individualization. Turkish non-believers and atheists represent a heterogeneous group. They do not form a coherent counter-hegemonic bloc that follows a tacit agreement of resistance against the dominance of political Islam or pious conservatism. However, they represent deviance from the hegemonic norm and thus indicate a breakdown of consensus and a crisis within the hegemonic order. Considering the question of hegemony, the group of the ‘disillusioned true believers’ appears to be most important, as it provides a possible answer to recent concerns over why the AKP’s Islamic adventure is falling apart. Another question that also needs to be addressed – especially if we want to further reflect on the future of religion in Turkey – is whether political Islam’s hegemonic adversary, secularism, is about to re-emerge in a new guise. Are we in the process of witnessing a new secularist movement from below whose roots do not lie in the Kemalist past, but in the pious conservative present?