Is Turkey going through the birth-pains of postmodernity?

Published in Turkish Daily News, 15 November 2007

Turkish intellectuals are often bombarded with new dramas unfolding every single day. As they rush to analyze the issue at hand and propose a way forward, what they often fail to process is the broader picture and how (or whether) these events are connected to each other.

Surely, every event is inherently contextual and unique. However, as the world we live in has begun to erase the clear distinction between the local and global, it is not only that most of the local problems have roots in global realities, but also that local problems often have global effects.

There is something uniquely Turkish about the issues we face in Turkey, but at the same time there is something extremely global about them. In this article, I present to the reader a chance to step back and look at contemporary Turkey in relation to a few global trends in order to see the matrix within which the ‘daily news' emerges.

Weakening of nation states:

Though I have never belonged to the tribe of social scientists who have been preaching the end of nation states, it is true that strict and purist nation state vision has lost much of its appeal and hold at home and globally.

As nation states continue to put themselves under international law and governing bodies or banks, their claims for ‘sovereignty' and control over their ‘nation', which was once taken for granted, are no more what they once were. The Human Rights regime under which we live and the presence of international NGOs and global media remove the arbitrary power that states have.

The issue of Kurds and non-Muslims in Turkey emerges not from some international conspiracy but from the increasing difficulty of trying to implement a 19th century vision of a ‘nation' by way of assimilation and social engineering.

Disillusionment with the elites:

One of the reasons that sociologists offer for the resurgence of political Islam in many countries, which were previously thought to be set on the blissful path of secularization is the fact that secularism is interwoven with a ruling elite who often are far away from the ‘people'. The word ‘halk' in Turkish, like the word ‘people' in every language, has an underlying notion of lesser beings or the herd.

When we look at how the AK Party was able to emerge in such a short amount of time and topple down all of the traditional political elites, we see not an ‘Islamization' of Turkey but the failure of the traditional power structures of the Turkish political system. Even though our Armed Forces asked for a ‘social reflex' amidst the well-orchestrated marches ‘to save the Secular Republic', the outcome of the last elections showed how the ‘herd', in line with their kind in other national farms, is tired of being controlled.

Failure of 19th century secularism:

Classical secularism is based on three assumptions; a) the separation of the state and organized religion, b) the limitation of religious belief to the personal sphere, c) the ultimate demise of religion. This 19th century vision, which has been thought to be the direction of the future, has been largely aborted by the academia.

The resurgence of religions in politics and its strong come back in academic circles and greater society since 1960s have proven that the assumptions b) and c) do not automatically follow a), and that religion flourish and continue to play a strong role under perfect a) conditions. As the politics of Latin and North America, Africa and Asia point, religion, one the most powerful social forces today, can never be ‘tamed'.

As long as the human race exits, our longing for ‘something more' will continue to make the religious a core part of our experience and what we believe will always influence every aspect of our lives. Thus, as we have arrived at the end of ‘Enlightenment' experiment, we are in need of a completely new paradigm for how religion's power can be channeled into a better future for all of us. Interestingly, AK Party seems to be the most advanced accommodation of Islam in the contemporary world.

Loss of neat and tidy identities:

The haunting recognition that the world is not as ‘solid' as we imagined it to be inevitably leads itself to anomy, a state of no longer having a firm know-how to run a country or even be a ‘patriot'. The Turkish society is struggling to make sense of and live in a ‘liquid' world, to use Zygmunt Bauman's vocabulary. This shows itself under every rock; from the contemporary memory boom to new and dangerous civil groups trying to do something for ‘our nation'; from increasing ethnic and religious violence to the synthetic tension between the ‘secular' and the ‘religious'; and from the wide appeal of conspiracy theories to anti-US and EU feelings.

What lies behind the calls to ‘close the door to globalization' is an instinctive reaction to the possibility that we may end up as the losers at the end of this slippery century. Behind every angry outburst lies a deep fear. Yet, none of this is limited just to Turkey. We see similar tensions in most of the countries in the world.

The list of global trends affecting Turkey can be extended further. Suffice it to say, the tensions we face in Turkey are not just Turkish. Our problem is that we are trying to be ‘modern' when the global experience has shown the shortcomings and failures of the modern vision. Whether postmodernism is or can ever be a paradigm internalized by the Turkish society is open to challenge, but it is increasingly becoming clear that Turkey is trying to find local answers to global problems in an outdated early 20th century toolbox.