Egyptian zebibas and Turkish headscarves

Published in Turkish Daily News, 18 August 2008

Religiosity is quite difficult to measure. Is it the wearing of religious symbols that shows how deep a society is religious? Can you measure what role a religion plays in a society by keeping records of attendance throughout the years and come to the conclusion that high attendance means high religiosity and low attendance low religiosity?

This has been the case for studying religiosity in Europe. Attendance -- or lack of it -- to official churches was taken as proof that religious belief was in decline, almost non-existent. Yet, religion in contemporary Europe proves that although attendance to traditional churches has fallen along with the trust of Europeans of any authority and institution, religious beliefs have modified themselves and given birth to “belief without belonging” and non-traditional forms. It appears that God has not died after all; it's just that our measurements have been faulty and religious beliefs still play a significant role across Europe.

A similar problem of measurement emerges when we try to assert that Islam is rising or falling in a given country. Is it the number of people at the mosque? Or the number of people who wear headscarves? Given the fact that all women wear headscarves in Iran, can we conclude that Iranian society is deeply Islamic? Given that under the Taliban every man prayed regularly and attended the mosque, can we conclude that Afghan society was full of devout Muslims? In both cases, enforced practices are in no way true reflections of how deeply Islam is internalized.

Measuring religion in Turkey

This fundamental problem in social scientific research has serious implications for ongoing arguments about the “rise of Islam” in Turkey. There are two types of evidence used to argue that Turkey is becoming more Islamic: anecdotal and quantitative. Anecdotal evidence is made up of personal stories of the daughters of friends, who went “undercover” overnight or of foreigners who have been coming to Turkey every couple of years and say they feel people are more religious now. Quantitative evidence is the result of surveys that present a percentage for the broader society based upon data found through studying small populations, such as questionnaires showing us what percentage of respondents want Shariah rule in Turkey.

Anecdotal evidence is always problematic as it is driven from a small sample wearing subjective lenses and drawing subjective conclusions. Where I live, whom I know or what I am worried about may easily define what I see or think about Islam, which may never reflect the full picture accurately. Quantitative research suffers from similar weaknesses in design and outcome, but the most important issue is that the data itself is hardly conclusive.

It is true that quantitative studies as well as anecdotal narrations show us, with a serious margin of error and no authoritative percentage, that the numbers of women who wear headscarves in Turkey has increased. Yet, those who conclude that these data on their own prove the indisputable fact that theocracy is on its way shall not rejoice that quickly.

Egyptian zebiba

Allow me to show the problem with this premature conclusion by comparing Turkey with Egypt. Almost every year, I travel to Egypt and realize the increasing number of men, especially young, who have dark spots on their foreheads. These are called “zebiba,” and it is claimed that a life of prayer leads to visible marks on the spot where the head touches the prayer mat during Islamic prayers.

So, the increase in the number of “zebibas” should ipso facto mean the increase of religiosity among Egyptian men. However, I never see “zebibas” in any other Muslim country, but only in Egypt. Also, “zebibas” are increasing especially among young men, signaling the possibility that the traditional assertion of lifelong devotion is short-circuited by the youth. Honest conversations with Egyptians show further that most men use certain prayer mats and work “extra hours” to burn their skin so they can be accepted by the Muslim Brotherhood and find socioeconomic support.

This rational investment in “zebiba” points out that when religious groups gain social significance and individuals can benefit from association with them, human beings will learn to play the game in line with their own calculations of cost and benefit.

Turkish Headscarves

A similar point can be made about headscarves in Turkey. The quantitative “facts” that headscarves are increasing but the number of people who want Shariah rule in Turkey is still less than 10 percent, signal a significant problem with those who read the headscarf data as undeniable evidence of a Turkish retrogression to Iran. In many ways, the power-center change that came with the Justice and Development, or AK, Party has developed a new elite. Until recently employment, economic opportunities and state “favor” demanded one kind of affiliation; now the new game in town demands another. So the rise in headscarves might also be seen as a “rational social-economic investment” not reflective of deep religiosity.

On the other hand, one cannot deny that on some other levels Islam is gaining a fresh popularity in Turkey. Turkish Islam is increasingly becoming attractive on its own terms. When it is juxtaposed with other Islams across the world, it is the most dynamic, and believe it or not, secular, modern and pragmatic expression of the Islamic faith today. Ironically, Turkish Islam owes its regeneration and modernization to Ataturk's legacy and the current failures of Turkish politics and globalization..