CEFTUS Insights Interview with Dr Jenny White
4 February 2014
Dr Jenny White is a writer and social anthropologist and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies and a professor at Boston University. She is the former president of the Turkish Studies Association and of the American Anthropological Association Middle East Section, and sits on the board of the Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington, DC. She is author of Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks (chosen by Foreign Policy as one of three best books on the Middle East in 2012); Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (Winner of the 2003 Douglass Prize for best book in Europeanist anthropology); and Money Makes Us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey.
“They [the Gezi protestors] look at their own government and see a 20th century government with rulers who demand obedience, as opposed to elected representatives who manage diversity.”
CEFTUS Insights: You had identified a new youth that was conservative and pious but also international and liberal. How do you interpret the youth that made up the Gezi protests? How are they positioned in relation to the new youth that you mention in your book?
Dr Jenny White: These are the people that I was describing in my last book Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks. I don’t know if you saw a recent poll about the participants of the Gezi protests. They found that participants in and supporters of Gezi reflected the characteristics of the population. Even though I thought that not many Kurds participated initially, in the end their numbers were proportional to their representation in the population. It was the same with other characteristics; there were some lower class and some upper class participants and supporters, but the majority were in the middle. The poll gave actual salaries, which were not high. Again, this reflected the characteristics of the population as a whole. There were pious as well as secular supporters, not just small groups like Muslims against Capitalism. There is a link to the survey on my blog kamilpasha.com. This population is the result of a growing economy, tripling of the middle class, the expansion of education and of professional opportunity, as well as of expectations of opportunity, whether realised or not. These people know what is going on elsewhere, they are plugged in,and they know what democracy looks like in Europe, in the US, elsewhere. They look at their own government and see a 20th century government with rulers who demand obedience, as opposed to elected representatives who manage diversity.
CI: Ironically, it is the Prime Minister’s rhetoric that he is elected, isn’t it?
JW: There was a poll some years ago that I cite in my book, which asked Turks across the country what they thought democracy was. They said ‘whoever wins’. Whoever gets the most votes is thereby allowed to impose their values onto the rest of the population. Many people believe that. This describes majoritarian democracy, not liberal democracy. It is what Morsi was claiming in Egypt. Both Morsi and Erdogan said to their citizens, ‘if you don’t agree, elect your own government!’ There is no sense that an elected government has to represent the ideas and values of people that did not vote for it. The young people behind the Gezi demonstrations question this approach because they don’t understand it. What they see is the paternalistic father figure of Kemalist tutelage; a large part of the population grew up under its sway and expect that the ‘devlet baba’ is going to protect them from evil outsiders, that outside enemies will penetrate and undermine Turkey’s borders because they hate them for variety of reasons and they don’t want them to succeed. This is the rhetoric found in school books and rituals. Only recently was it taken out of the books… Now the inside enemy is the Hizmet Movement, rather than non-Muslim minorities, as in the past…
I discuss this in the book; the overtones of women’s honour and sexual shame are used similarly in discussions of the nation and nationalism. The daily Milliyet published a photograph taken in Aktutun where Turkish soldiers had been killed by the PKK. One photo showed a bunker where a soldier had arranged stones to write out ‘Hudut namustur’ – ‘The border is honour’. I give many more examples in the book of a militant masculinity and the sexualising of the conception of the nation.
“The Gezi protestors used the exact same rhetoric. It was highly sexualised and it had to do with penetration, shame and honour.”
CI: Is there similar symbolism used in the Gezi protests?
JW: Yes, absolutely. There was a good article on Jadaliyya.com by Zeynep Kurtulus Korkman and Salih Can Aciksoz that analysed the rhetoric used both by the PM and against the PM. It was highly sexualised and it had to do with penetration, shame and honour. The PM played that card by insisting that covered women were not safe from assault in the streets. The Gezi protestors used the same discourse against the PM. The article called it using ‘the language of power’ against power.
Media and Gezi
“I don’t think they understood Gezi. They think it must be led by somebody or some organised group of people who are out to get Turkey. The fact that it could be their citizens talking to each other and organising without leadership is not viewed as an option.”
CI: What do you think of international media’s portrayal of the events in Turkey, were they Orientalist when they initially delineated the protests as Islamist vs secular? Also, what do you make of Erdogan’s attack on Western media and also domestic media?
JW: Just from a superficial viewing, it seems to me that the European media focused a great deal on Gezi as a fight between secularists and Islamists, which is Europe’s preoccupation. In the US, media tended to talk about a “Turkish spring”, by which they meant protest against an authoritarian, autocratic government. They did not mean necessarily against an Islamist government. This reflects American preoccupations with freedom of speech, and so on. But I don’t think we can make an “Orientalist” generalization.
CI: How about Erdogan targeting media? Erdogan has the tendency to target certain authors, journalists and media outlets. I guess that is also incorporated in his polarising discourse.
JW: It has been going on a long time; this buying up of the media, threatening the media. And it has been enormously successful, in part because even before Erdogan the media were never entirely independent. In the 1980s they had blacklists of journalists that came down from the army. When media outlets get their money from somewhere else, that puts them in a vulnerable position. Now the owner of the blacklist has changed. It has become worse because it is not just individual journalists but entire papers that are targeted in an attempt to shut down unofficial information flow altogether, including talk of blocking the internet.
This tells me that they don’t understand the internet. The politicians in charge are from an older generation. During Gezi, some in AKP were talking about #Occupy saying this must be an international organisation leading the protests. I don’t think they understood Gezi. They think it must be led by somebody or some organised group of people who are out to get Turkey. The fact that it could be their citizens talking to each other and organising without leadership is not viewed as an option. A study compared internet use during the anti-Mubarak uprisings in Egypt with internet use during the Gezi protests. It turns out most of the tweets in Cairo originated outside of Egypt. Most of the tweets in Gezi originated in Turkey. I think this is very interesting. (A link to the survey is on my blog.) Gezi was a Turkish phenomenon. This is the first time there have been mass protests without ideological or group leadership. This is something that emerged from the population that was facilitated by having this platform.
Women in Turkey
“There is no room for women or youth in politics in Turkey. Women are negligibly few in politics, especially at the local level, and those in parliament, perhaps with the exception of the Kurdish party, are far from the centre of power.”
CI: How would you interpret recent polarising rhetoric of PM Erdogan and the government in relation to Turkey’s political history’s traditional ‘us and them’ dichotomy and ‘enemy within’ discourse that you discuss in your book?
JW: They abandoned it for a while, for about 10 years after the AKP was elected. The AKP was successful at the polls in part because they looked like a party that was going to combine liberalism and conservatism, which is really the sweet spot of Turkish politics. Much of Turkish society is highly sensitive about cultural constants like the authority of the father in the family, which is usually untouchable among both conservatives and liberals in Turkey. Yet even among those conservative people, many want a more liberal society that allows them certain freedoms, particularly women and youth. Society has moved on, but the government is not keeping up as they are all white-haired men with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which has served them well as a source of authority and power – and profit. There is no room for women or youth in politics in Turkey. Women are negligibly few in politics, especially at the local level, and those in parliament, perhaps with the exception of the Kurdish party, are far from the center of power. Some of that has to do with the sexualising of masculinity and the nation. In the book, I describe how in the discourse of both the national and the traditional family women potentially cause trouble because they are vulnerable. Older women find themselves distanced from their sexual definition to become mothers or mothers of martyrs. There have been few other roles for women. A woman must be protected because she could be penetrated by evil outsiders, destroying the honour of the family/nation. Therefore, she can’t really be put in a position of authority. Or she is a mother, in the national ideal, the mother of a martyr. What other role for women was there in the nationalist psyche of Kemalism? Is the situation different for women now under the Muslim nationalists? No, they are very similar.
CI: You have answered one of our questions on utilisation of the body, of female and male identity. However, specifically the democratisation package has now allowed female MPs to wear the headscarf in parliament. How do you interpret this move in context of your analysis of the utilization of headscarf and in general the female body as sources of symbolisms?
JW: When I interviewed a group of highly educated pious women, they told me that they considered themselves to be a feminist organisation. They were tired of being asked about the headscarf because they said women have many other problems, for instance, domestic violence… They suggested that men in their community were using the headscarf issue to avoid dealing with these other issues, with the idea that once the headscarf problem is fixed everything else will be fine. This is a familiar scenario. Leftist movements had the same rhetoric: ‘we are not going to worry about women’s rights. Once the revolution is done, all that will happen naturally’. Of course, it never does and women revolutionaries are then expected to go back to the kitchen or the bedroom to create more soldiers or revolutionaries. I am glad that the headscarf issue has been largely resolved, because other issues that women have can and should now be discussed.
CI: Why do you think it took so long to resolve the headscarf issue?
JW: I think society had to move away from that very strong Kemalist indoctrination. I was reading recently that secularists are saying ‘I don’t really care about the headscarf as long as they don’t make me wear one.’ As little as 5 years ago, the mention of the headscarf would have elicited the fear of turning into Iran… I think that something changed in the make-up of society that allowed people to move away from the headscarf to other topics like corruption, transparency, government responsibility, ecology and so on. This is not to say that there isn’t still a problem; women with headscarves are not welcome everywhere and vice versa. I think the polarisation has less to do with religiosity and secularism than with politicisation, and this is the sort of thing that Erdogan is now kicking up.
“The tesettür (headscarf) market expanded and that fashions trickled down and the poorer neighborhoods copied it. Suddenly you had the ability to be covered and to be an upwardly mobile city girl. That happened in the late 1990s; it really took off with the AKP because they modelled it.”
CI: Compared to 1980s and 1990s would you not see any sort of improvement, do you think there is anything that this government has contributed in terms of women’s rights and living standards or perhaps at least discouraged violations against women’s rights as well as a broadening of an increase in living standards?
JW: I think in the 1980s, the notion of upward mobility was limited. For the people I knew then, who had migrated from the countryside, their notion of upward mobility was very basic, focused on the struggle of making a living. They were not thinking in terms of stylishness. They could barely dream about opening a shop. By the 1990s, the AKP had a demonstration effect. You could see people who looked just like you, who grew up maybe in similar circumstances, getting wealthy and powerful. Also, the tesettür (headscarf) market expanded and fashions would trickle down and the poorer neighborhoods copied it. Suddenly you had the ability to be covered and to be an upwardly mobile city girl. That did happened in the late 1990s; it really took off with the AKP because they modeled it. You could see that this actually worked; even if it was not working for you, you could dream. What were you going to aspire to in the 1990s or before? If you were covered, people assumed you cleaned kitchens or you were a peasant. How could you have been middle class?
Anti-Capitalist Muslims and Milli Görüş
CI: Do you see any possibility of social or economic criticisms of the AKP from its own constituency? Or do you think people are going to continue to believe in the possibility of a better life with the AKP? The anti-capitalist movement may be a fringe movement but do you see a wider criticism of the AKP not delivering on its economic promises?
JW: From the interviews with them that I read, the main critiques leveled by the anti-capitalist Muslims was that the AKP is not being truly Muslim because of their ostentatious wealth. This was symbolised by the anti-capitalists Muslims’ yeryuzu sofrasi, as opposed to the fancy iftar put on by the AKP with fancy boxes of food that cost 10 liras. As far as I know, that is their main criticism. There don’t seem to be many people involved. From what I have read, anti-capitalist Muslims are not people from within the constituency of Erdogan. I think they are interesting and important, but not as a sign of dissent within Erdogan’s constituency.
I am not even sure Erdogan has a constituency. We always talk about as if there were a constituency, in fact there are many different reasons why people would vote for him, thus many different reasons why people would stop voting for him. I have heard that some people within his party are unhappy with various recent government decisions, but they have nowhere to go. This is the issue. If they leave the AKP, where would they go? The only possibility I can think of is that the party might split. Much as Erbakan’s Fazilet split and produced AKP when Gul and Erdogan and others started their own party that was more liberal and more outward looking. They moved away from Erbakan’s Milli Görüş (National View) paradigm.
CI: Do you not think that Erdogan is very close to Milli Görüş?
JW: I think that he was moving away from it. At some point – I don’t remember exactly when – he actually repudiated it. But Milli Görüş was very nationalist and was not outward oriented the way the AKP is. It was very suspicious of the West and it did not have this notion of being a world power. Its ideology was more like ‘Turkey for the Turks’, which it shared with the Kemalists. That is why the AKP became close to the Hizmet (Gulen) movement, which had the same kind of outward, globalising, pro-business, piety and profit attitude. Whenever Erdogan flew anywhere in the world, he had a plane load of businessmen with him. There was piety, but it was really a lot about profit.
Future of Turkish politics and the EU
“This is why I say that Turkey is at a tipping point because if the prime minister continues down this very extreme road of dismantling democratic institutions and undermining the balance of power, Turkey will become a very different place.”
CI: What do you think will be the continuation of the social mobilisation that has surfaced with Gezi?
JW: The Gezi protests happened in 70 cities. It was very widespread. I think the important thing is that it shows a new constituency. One of the problems is that the demonstrators do not want to be affiliated with anyone. They do not want to engage in politics. Instead, they want to have forums in their neighborhoods. But in Turkey, they are faced with a 20th century system. You cannot change this by having forums in the park. Somehow they must have leadership. Somehow they must get into the institutions to change them if they want to change the context within which they operate, so that their environment is more democratic. You cannot give up the responsibility for changing institutions. I am not sure whether the demonstrators are willing to do that. They are afraid of losing their innocence if they enter politics. They are also young. They really have no place in politics as it is now structured, unless they start their own party. It is not hard to start a party in Turkey but it is hard to fund a party in Turkey.
CI: I think there is a Gezi party.
JW: That is too narrow, there needs to be a real party that covers a larger constituency. I think the only place it can come form is if the AKP splits. I don’t think it can come from the CHP. Maybe there will be some merging, I don’t know. I think the CHP is also still a 20th century party in terms of their structure. Young people and women have little effect on how these old-fashioned parties operate. I don’t know whether or how the Gezi constituency will enter politics. It is possible that AKP will be re-elected and will crack down. This is why I say that Turkey is at a tipping point because if the prime minister continues down this very extreme road of dismantling democratic institutions and undermining the balance of power, Turkey will become a very different place. Even in the past, elected officials left if their party lost at the polls. In this case, Erdogan seems to want to stay on no matter what. That would be a turning point for Turkey and I am not sure if people will put up with it. Because one thing that Turks have in common is that they are very proud of being a democracy where voting works and is fair. If they feel that this is in danger, I don’t know what will happen.
CI: Speaking of democratisation and Turkey’s future, what are your opinions about Turkey’s efforts to gain eventual accession into the EU? What do you think of EU membership as holding Turkey’s democracy to a level?
JW: I was really surprised that Erdogan went to Brussels and Germany. I listened to his talk -it sounded so unlike what we witnessed in Turkey. The Europeans were very non-committal, focusing more on whether Turkish institutions were aligned with Europe. No matter what his internal problems, they warned him against eliminating the balance of power. I was surprised that he actually went to Europe to re-kindle that process.
CI: Erdogan did say 2014 is the year of the EU.
JW: He has said some anti-EU things too. I don’t know what to make of that. The process of aligning with the EU has been enormously good for Turkey, no matter the result. For example, taking the army out of politics, reforming the school systems, re-doing the text books (taking out the more extreme nationalist elements). Things have been going well for Turkey and these past couple of months have been quite depressing.
CI: Thank you very much Dr White for this very interesting interview.
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