People enjoy their time sitting on the Karakoy beach in Istanbul, Türkiye, Aug. 24, 2022. (AP Photo)

The debate on lifestyle in Türkiye

Anyone that fuels the existing tensions for identity politics or a cultural clash is doomed to fail.

The arrest of a singer over her hateful and discriminatory remarks targeting the graduates of Türkiye’s religious “imam-hatip” schools has reignited the “lifestyle” debate. In truth, the vast majority of the Turkish people agree that the singer, who was previously criticized for waving the LGBT flag at a concert, used some unacceptable words. Yet the debate over her arrest quickly evolved into a competition between opposite political discourses thanks to the back and forth between the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) officials.

CHP Chairperson Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu urged the authorities to release the singer without touching on her comments, which caused many people to question the sincerity of his earlier pledge to “make amends.” At the same time, the people, who described the singer’s arrest as unlawful, charged the government with “authoritarianism.” Some secularist commentators went further, accusing the authorities of “destroying culture” and failing to stop “the Islamofascists.” Yet others focused on whom the latest war of words was likely to benefit.

Provided that next year’s election is likely to turn every single issue, however minor, into a subject of political debate, hardly anyone was shocked to see the “lifestyle” debate kick off anew – just as competing “national survival” discourses had risen to prominence. Over the next months, there is every reason to assume that various identity groups, including Alevis, Kurds, seculars and the religious, will be tested – or, shall we say, provoked.

Successive AK Party governments oversaw major transformations in Türkiye over the course of two decades. They created an environment, where elected politicians alone have the power to determine the country’s future. The movement not only pushed back against domestic and external tutelage but also addressed a great many demands of Kurds, conservatives and women.

Obviously, the AK Party made so many critical decisions during that period that it makes perfect sense for it to engage in certain debates. One ought to be careful, however, in the face of the lifestyle debate heating up ahead of next year’s elections. It would serve the interests of no social group or political party for political tensions to escalate or an atmosphere of cultural conflict to emerge – especially because those things are out of sync with Türkiye’s realities.

To describe the AK Party’s tenure, the final link in the chain of Turkish modernization, as “Islamofascism” and “destroying the culture,” would also be completely out of touch with the nation’s socio-economic realities. During this period, when the government addressed many Muslim-conservative demands, such as lifting the headscarf ban and accommodating religious instruction, secular practices grew more commonplace as well. As such, the political clashes between rival elites must not lead to ignoring the diversity and richness of social inclinations in Türkiye. Nor should anyone fuel fear, anger or hatred by making exaggerated assessments.

One must also resist the temptation to exploit the cancellation of a handful of concerts for political gain to drive a wedge between Türkiye’s religious and secular citizens, who have been accumulating an experience of peaceful co-existence. The country has reached a certain level where it can address the “lifestyle” demands of various identity groups. That is where our collective experience with modernization has taken us and I do not believe that experience to be reversible.

The individual and collective differences between Islamic-conservative life choices and secular practices must be treated as a fresh source of productivity, dynamism and novelty. The politicians would make a positive contribution to our democracy and social peace by competing on the campaign trail with that level of consciousness. Anyone that fuels the existing tensions for identity politics or a cultural clash is doomed to fail.

[Daily Sabah, August 29, 2022]

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