Islamophobia in Turkey: A kind of self-hatred?

Saturday, August 11, 2007, Turkish Daily News

Orhan Kemal CENGIZ

In my opinion, the term ‘Islamophobia’ is insufficient for and incapable of explaining the situation in Turkey. ‘Islamophobia’, a term created to describe the Western reaction to Islam, does not operate with the same clarity in the Turkish context.

For Westerners, Islam is a totally external entity, something completely foreign, with Muslims in Europe and the U.S. representatives of this foreign culture. However, in the Turkish context we are talking about a predominantly Muslim society in which some people have a strong dislike or even hate toward devout Muslims and public manifestations of Islam.

Sometimes these feelings are so strong that there are those who would rather experience another coup than see religious people in the government. We can call a Westerner Islamophobic for his or her reaction to something totally external to his or her culture, but the term does not work when describing a reaction to something one has been raised in or at least surrounded by his or her whole life.

I suggest a new word be forged for this phenomenon in the Turkish context, although I am not able to create it at the moment. However, to help produce this new word I would like to share my ideas with you by thinking aloud. With all due respect to secular people in Turkey, and apologizing in advance for any inconvenience this article may create, I will start my brainstorming.

I have a tendency to think that whenever we show a strong emotional reaction toward something, a reaction out of proportion to the situation, we should look inside ourselves to find the root cause of this reaction.

Why and how some people in Turkish society built up these strong negative feelings toward devout Muslims? How did these otherwise intelligent and sophisticated people become myopic when it comes to Islam and Muslims in Turkey? How did democratic people, highly tolerant in respect of many different things in their lives, become so intolerant toward the lifestyles of Muslims? Why do we see analyses of political Islam every day, speculations on hidden agendas, and discussions of many related things that are far from the realities of this country?

A new description is needed

As I said earlier, for Westerners Islam and Muslims are totally external subjects and therefore Islamophobia can be an accurate term to explain and understand their reactions. However, how can we explain individuals’ fear, dislike, abhorrence, or hate toward something in which they have been raised? As I also said above, this is a kind of thinking aloud with no claim of being scientific at all, but I have a hypothesis about these strong emotions. In my view, Islamaphobia in Turkey represents a kind of self-hatred or at least self-dissatisfaction.

We have quite a Western lifestyle. We drink alcohol, our relations with the opposite sex are relaxed, and the way we dress and behave are quite Western. No one interferes with our lifestyles. However, when we see a woman swimming in the sea with a head to toe swimsuit on, or crowded group of women with headscarves, we become very angry! Why we are so irritated with this? Do they remind us we are not Western enough, that we have strong roots in the East? Or maybe something closer, more private? Do they tap into our emotional baggage we still carry from the struggle with our parents who were devout whereas we became atheists or non-practicing Muslims? Are we ‘latent Muslims’ who could not resolve our intellectual and emotional struggle with Islam? Do these people represent our repressed side?

I think we must ask ourselves these and other similar questions. When I read some comments by distinguished secular intellectuals in Turkey, I cannot stop thinking that for them the only solution is that all devout Muslims become secular; that Muslim women relinquish their headscarves, or there will be no peace in Turkey! Is our peace based on the idea that some people in our society must change their beliefs and religious practices so they better resemble us? Can we accept something like this?

We do not have to like devout Muslims but they also have the right to lead their lives in accordance with their beliefs. People have the right to believe what we think is total nonsense, and to do things we find nonsensical as well. In my opinion, freedom of religion is one of the key freedoms necessary for Turkey to be completely democratic because in this way we will accept that people who, in our opinion believe in nonsense and lead their lives accordingly, are also adults and no one has the right to force them to live a certain way. I can hear the objections ‘we are not against the devout Muslims or any religion but we are against political Islam!’ But the problem is that in Turkey, people’s attempts to lead their lives in a manner suitable to their beliefs are being seen and labeled as the manifestation of political Islam!

The question remains, do we really, objectively see any danger that a religious state will be established in Turkey, or is it our very strong dislike of the Muslim lifestyle that leads us to smell danger in the wind that will justify our hatred toward…ourselves perhaps?