Head Scarves and Socio-Economic Mobility in Turkey

Few individuals in Turkey or beyond lack an opinion about the AKP's proposal to give young women attending university the legal right to wear head scarves in university facilities. The mere political progress made by this reform convinces many of the country's secular citizens that their country is five years away from resembling Iran - a type of doomsday "back to the future" scenario considering the last great Islamic revolution was in 1979. Western voices, which laud the democratic or Western aspects of these impending reforms, are chastised by the secular elites for not understanding the critical threat of "politicizing" religion in such an important public sphere of Turkey's legally secular society. These elites furthermore derive a feeling of abandonment and perhaps betrayal from the West’s tendency to cite Turkey as an example of the potential for democracy to cohabit with Islam.

In addition to the rhetoric of politicians, Turkey’s secular community has made most of the headlines with flag-waving political demonstrations. There nevertheless exists a less publicly assertive portion of Turkish society, which is a less-widely reported, but is nonetheless growing in importance for the Turkish social landscape. This segment is composed of individuals who are less concerned with issues such as secularism or political symbolism. They desire equal opportunities for religiously observant woman, who want to remain faithful to the commandments of their religion while in the act of receiving a Western-style education in Turkey's universities.

Arguments concerning the validity of religious symbols have enveloped the domestic and international discussion of head scarf reform in Turkey, obscuring other extremely important and equally symbolic aspects of the political initiative. Not simply an issue of religious political symbolism clashing with the original secular values of the Turkish Republic, the crisis over the head scarf is perhaps more importantly symbolic of frictions related to the socio-economic evolution that defines modern Turkey.

As is the case in many fledgling nations, accumulating wealth, increasing one's standing in society or simply creating a sense of security have all been a function of a citizen's proximity to the state. For the first five or six decades of the Turkish Republic's economic history, the state was almost the exclusive orchestrator of economic development in Turkey. Foreign investment was non-existent, entering the economy only by way of various aid packages from the United States and other allies in the West.

The development of many of the substantial conglomerates, which currently rule Turkey's modern economy, accordingly followed this rule of proximity to the state. Vehbi Koç, the founder of Koç Holding, was a mere grocery owner in Ankara during the 1920s. Tapped by
Atatürk to become one of Turkey's early captains of industry, his descendants now control an empire of 98 companies that ranks 358th in the Fortune Global 500 of 2006. While the Koç story is extraordinary, it is nonetheless indicative of an economy strongly influenced by the state. Successful participants in Turkey's private sector, in addition to generations of Turkey's armed forces and other state organizations, traditionally acquired great wealth or more moderate financial security due to their affiliation with the Turkish state. Such affiliation naturally included their adoption of state-sponsored social mores - unabashed secularism chief among them.

Free market reforms during the 1980s, which were implemented under the leadership of then Prime Minister Turgut Özal, would prove to have a dramatic, and perhaps unintended, influence on the socio-economic dynamics of Turkey. Privatization of state assets allowed the Turkish economy to develop in new ways and slowly increase its interaction with global markets. This in turn paved the way for a customs union with the European Union in the mid-1990s, greater foreign investment, and ultimately the economic conditions in which a non-state affiliated lower-middle and middle classes could emerge.

This phenomenon was marked by free market economic growth that was not restricted to the traditional Turkish industrial centers such as Istanbul, Bursa or Ankara. During the 1990s and most prominently since 2001, unprecedented levels of prosperity, which were still extremely low by European standards, were also felt in traditionally underdeveloped places like Gaziantep, Kayseri and Konya. Business Week-type clichés such as "Anatolian Tiger" were accordingly coined to describe a phenomenon that would not have been possible two decades earlier. Turkey's president and AKP leader, Abdullah Gül, started his political career in Kayseri. Much of the AKP's current domestic political punch is thanks to the influence of wealthy businessmen from Kayseri and other regions in Anatolia that had been neglected by economic development prior to the free market reforms.

From the perspective of social values, these traditionally poor areas of Anatolia had understandably not bought into the mores of Ataturk's republic quite as enthusiastically as the more economically developed centers. Moreover, the social values and political concerns that had always held sway in these areas did not necessarily evolve due to the greater levels of economic development. Rather, they gained a more prominent political voice since they no longer represented a strictly poor cross-section of society as had traditionally been the case. With the gradual economic development of a non-state affiliated middle class in interior Anatolia starting in the 1990s, values common to interior Anatolia would come to develop a stronger political voice at the national level.

The development of the poorer regions in Anatolia has been a priority of the Turkish Republic since Atatürk's time. While it is true that the state did invest in these regions, it was ultimately capitalist free market actors that would appear to have generated the greatest momentum for socio-economic mobility. While Atatürk no doubt hoped that such an "Anatolian Tiger" renaissance would some day occur in Anatolia, it is doubtful that he would have appreciated the interior Anatolian social values that it has assisted in bringing into the national political arena.

It is ultimately within this framework that one can further consider the great paranoia of the secular Turkish elites concerning the current head scarf crisis. In particular, the emergence of the head scarf issue serves as a reminder to Turkey's secular elites that conservative social-values no longer exclusively belong to the domain of the poor in interior Anatolia. Rather, these values are espoused by Turks, who are steadily growing into sizable middle classes, and who consequently have a much greater will and ability to realize their social interests through politics. While still solid, the secularist economic power base established by Atatürk maintains a weakening grip on the direction of the country.


Anonymous said...

"The head scarf is a political issue for many in both sides. Liberal intellectuals and Islamists support it for different reasons. Liberals see it as an issue of freedom of religion. However, there are many among the ranks of the islamists who see it as the revenge of the past which in turn makes the secularist quite upset. The secularists position is a weak one in a democratic state. They managed to hold on to it due to the secular people in key govermental positions. Islamists, as you said, were members of the lower (ruled) class. When they came to power and establish their members in the state, it was inevitable that this issue would come to the fore. Important thing is that now, the Islamists are not the lower or middle class but also upper class with the means to exert authority. Secularists are extremely suspicious but weak, morally and politically."

Gulay said...

If this is as has been widely reported an issue of huan rights blah blah then at the same time can the Goevrnment also remove the law that requires women to wait 300 days after a divorce to remarry, remoave th ban on porn, reduce tax on beer allow unrestrcted sales of heroin, permit the Greek Patriarch to open a new seminary etc. etc. lets face it without such moves this is nothing less than a blatant attepmt by Erbakans old cronies to stick a large middle finger to those who believe state and religion should be separate.