A recent speech gave Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a new opportunity to define and condemn his critics. Calling the students of Middle East Technical University who protested the construction of a highway near the campus “leftists,” “atheists,” and “terrorists,” he repeated his determination to crush those allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. One may remember at this point how the same prime minister had stated several months ago that his government would protect the rights of “even the atheists,” but at a time of great tension and conflict such as this, “atheist” came back as an overt, rather than an implied, insult. At the risk of being simplistic, one could argue that “atheist” has long been the trump card of conservative political discourse in Turkey. In this discourse, “atheist” is a meta-label encompassing the connotations of many other exclusivist labels from the distant and not-so-distant past. In a sense, the atheist represents everything a “true” citizen of Turkey is not supposed to be.
Stereotypical antagonisms are part and parcel of folktales and national myths: the civilized versus the barbarian, the pure versus the impure, the authentic versus the imposter. Perhaps the most famous antagonists of Turkish folklore, the shadow theater characters Karagöz and Hacivat, are impersonations of such basic oppositions: Karagöz is illiterate but honest, practical, and represents the voice of common sense, while Hacivat, with his lofty but awkward language and pedantic attitude, is the man of the establishment. Similar characters can also be found in Turkish folk theater (ortaoyunu)—Kavuklu, the outspoken common man, versus Pişekar, the conniving know-it-all.
Basic dualities of this nature took center stage in the Ottoman Turkish literature of the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The new genres of novel and play provided Ottoman litterateurs with unique opportunities for offering social commentary in this period, and many authors presented their views on “the new” and “the old” through the characters they created. One of the most popular stock characters that emerged in this period was the fop, the “wrongly Westernized” snob, who, with his appearance, manner of speech, and tastes, served a purpose somewhat reminiscent of Hacivat’s. He had access to power, seemed knowledgeable and fashionable, but was essentially inauthentic and shallow. He fancied himself a Frenchman and a lover of progress, yet not only was he just a clumsy imitator and a superficial materialist, but a man who had lost his very identity in the meantime. Unless he was saved, the snob was likely to become a godless, immoral degenerate.
The antagonist of the snob, for his part, was much more sophisticated than Karagöz. Ottoman authors like Ahmed Midhat and Namık Kemal depicted the character that prevailed over the snob as an authentic member of the community who had also truly understood and internalized the virtues of Europe while avoiding its vices. Note, though, that the “true Muslim/Ottoman/Turk” needed the snob, as it was the latter that showed the reader what he/she should avoid becoming—the snob was there to warn and discipline the reader.
In the early Republic, dualistic representations remained common. On the one hand, there were new fictions involving the encounter between the educated, ambitious, Westernized urbanite and the coarse, ignorant, yet salvageable peasant. (In contemporary Turkey, this representation still operates in the form of the “enlightened follower of Atatürk versus the resentful bigot.”) On the other hand, the theme of the “alienated elites versus the authentic traditional communities” continued to appeal to readers in the 1930s and the 1940s. During the Cold War, the latter theme evolved into more direct attacks against the ideologies and attitudes of the Kemalist elite in the hands of more right-wing nationalist authors, as well as Islamists like Necip Fazıl Kısakürek and Mehmet Doğan. Indeed, the figure that these authors referred to as the enemy of the community often was an amalgamation of all the attributes of the stock figures of the past—arrogance, shallow knowledgeability, estrangement—as well as the chief concern of the period: communism. “Materialist,” a label that had gained some popularity in the late Ottoman Empire, also returned with a vengeance, thanks to its many handy connotations: adoration of everything Western, rootlessness, Marxism, and of course, atheism.
Interestingly, and most crucially, discourses based on these simplistic dualisms have found fodder in revisionist scholarship in history, sociology, and political science. In the 1990s, the appropriation of influential social scientific frames such as “center and periphery” and “state and civil society” in a reductive fashion produced a neat, facile, and hence popular political narrative. What can most politely be called lazy scholarship and ready-made punditry transformed the explanatory potential of these frameworks into a magic formula revealing the essence of every facet of late Ottoman and Turkish history. Reducing the complexity analyzed by such approaches to, once again, a basic, easily comprehensible dichotomy, this narrative stated that Westernized (and by definition, estranged) elites had first emerged in the late nineteenth century Ottoman Empire. These elites had then constructed the nation-state and established an elitist oligarchy that excluded from the center those in the periphery, unless they changed their ways of living and thinking. In short, recent Turkish history amounted to a clash between “white” (read irreligious, Westernized, hence inauthentic) and “black” (read religious, “unwesternized,” hence authentic) Turks.
With the rise of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), this frame came to dominate newspaper columns and televised debates. The AKP had a revolutionary mission, in a sense: bringing to power the underdog who was actually the genuine member of the community, and enabling the periphery to occupy and shape the center. The party’s rhetoric also made ample use of the by-now commonplace dichotomy between the authentic and the imitator, where connections to the late Ottoman ideas concerning “alienated snobs” frequently became apparent. The Prime Minister’s frequent references to the old guard in Turkish diplomacy as “mon chers” were essentially allusions to this alleged continuity. Now it was time for “the people” to be in charge; the long rule of the imposters was over. As a result, while normalization and inclusivity became mantras of the ruling party and its ideologues, the dominant political discourse they constructed consistently and systematically produced overtly exclusivist statements about authentic and inauthentic citizens.
The label “atheist” alludes to this entire history. The word has myriad connotations, but ultimately two basic suggestions: the labeled is not a true member of the moral community, and the labeler is. The currently only methodical study on the topic found that atheists, along with gays, constitute the “penultimate other” of Turkish society, with roughly forty percent of the respondents stating that it is acceptable to put constraints on the right to profess no belief in God, and sixty percent finding atheism to be an identity that should be concealed in public. Just as in the US case that the sociologists Edgell, Gerteis and Hartmann studied, self-proclaimed atheists are a very small minority in Turkey even though atheism itself is commonly referred to as a great threat (ninety-four percent of the respondents expressed belief in God in this Eurobarometer study from 2011, but of course much more research is required to have a better sense of the prevalence of atheism in Turkey). The actual significance of the concept is thus rooted in the plethora of meanings that those who deploy it load upon it.
The Turkish Prime Minister and the members of his party themselves commonly refer to an ill-defined “religiosity” as the code word for genuine citizenship. It may be helpful at this point to remember the most public statement of this definition—the Prime Minister’s announcement that his government’s goal was to raise religious generations. In the speech where he was most clear about the meaning of this goal, Erdoğan noted that the reaction against this policy came from those who were against the “religious, national, spiritual values of this country” (for similar remarks see here, here and here).
His critics, according to Erdoğan, were those who did not want the sons and daughters of carpenters, tailors, or janitors (in his words, “the children of Anatolia”) to get the education to become lawyers, technocrats, or artists. The undeserving occupants of the center had, in a sense, declared war on Anatolia—the word most political movements (left and right) use to refer to the “essence” of the nation. The question of religiosity was thus transformed into a question of being for or against the people. Now if those against religious education—that is, the irreligious—are those that oppose the upward mobility of the true “children of Anatolia,” they are nothing but adversaries within, the white Turks par excellence. This representation is further compounded by the AKP discourse that the government is the representative of the “national will”; those who oppose them are thus antagonists of the nation itself.
Hardly just a matter of belief or disbelief in God, irreligiosity in this usage concerns the boundaries of the community, but this is not all. Addressing those who were critical of the idea of “religious generations,” Erdoğan asked in the same speech: “Do you want this youth to be substance abusers? Do you want this to be a generation that rebels against its elders? Do you want this youth to have no direction, no purpose?” In addition to establishing who is a loyal member of “us” and who is the alien, the discourse also defines the irreligious as rootless, soulless, hence disobedient others that should be excluded. The question of disobedience is particularly important in the post-Gezi context, as the tone of the more recent reference to “atheists” illustrates; no longer considered to be simply alienated and elitist, “atheist” now stands for an open enemy of both the nation and the one and only representative of the national will. (Interestingly, supporters of the government complain about the “problem” of atheism—and hence, opposition to the government—within the Kurdish movement as well.)
Erdoğan had adopted the “terrorism” frame during the Gezi uprisings to vilify the protestors; the current usage establishes a continuity, but identifies the label “atheist” with enmity toward the nation perhaps more bluntly than ever before. These connections had also arisen during the uprisings, and their effectiveness can be observed both in the defensive attitude of some of the participants, and in the ceaseless efforts of some of the activists to prove that while they were irreligious, they were not enemies of the people. In their endeavor to challenge the dominant discourse, these very efforts demonstrated how heavy the burden of proof borne by the critics of the regime is: what is at stake is proving one’s proper membership to the community. From the “degenerate Francophile snob” of the late nineteenth century to the “godless communist” of the 1960s, all past stereotypes about the “alien within” weigh on the shoulders of the contemporary activist.
What is also clear is that the “cultural split” and “authenticity” narratives are appealing to both of the contending parties in the current conflict in Turkey (it may be helpful to remember this text referring to a “wrecked generation” that needs rehabilitation). The Kemalist alternative, for its part, involves different but equally simplistic mirror images of these narratives. Ultimately, it is not atheism or religiosity that is at stake; instead, the main question is how to render the concept of authenticity itself irrelevant. This is not a light task, considering the deep-rootedness of the ideas about truth and imitation in the existing political discourses. Furthermore, in the current political climate, where the “modern state” as we know it has all but been put on hold and politics has been reduced to intrigue and conspiracy, all that appear to remain are tests of loyalty. As a result, genuine membership within the community requires even more evidence than usual in Turkey. Every citizen had better be prepared to be called an atheist.