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The Sum of All Secular Fears

[Originally published in Turkish Daily News] Do you now what the biggest nightmare of a secularist Turk is? It takes place mostly when he takes a vacation to visit some place in Europe or North America. He packs up, wears his stylish jeans and t-shirt, puts on his iPod, takes his elegant girlfriend and boards a plane. During the flight, he chats with one of the European or American passengers on board. At some point this indigenous Westerner learns that this chic couple is from Turkey and he confusedly asks, “Hey, don't you guys wear fez or turbans in your country, is this your national dress?” That's is a big insult to our secularist Turk. He gets really nervous, but calms himself down a bit, and then takes great pains to explain that Turkey is indeed a modern country and it has nothing to do with “the Arabs” and their culture. “We are a Western nation like you,” he insists, “when will you get that?” The indigenous Westerner might quite be surprised by this reaction. Each culture has its traditions, after all, and what's wrong in assuming that Turks would have their own? He did not mean to offend anybody; he was just trying to understand. Anyway, this unpleasant encounter leaves serious question marks in the mind of our secularist Turk. Why was he treated as if he were not a real Westerner? He really did his best. His outfit was perfectly fashionable and his girlfriend's fake blonde hair was as good as that of a Finn. And, of course, there is the 80-year legacy of the Kemalist revolution, which worked really hard to wipe off anything oriental from Turkish society. Why, so, these dull Westerners still don't get the fact that we Turks have become like them? Hatred and Fear Haunted by these questions, and after several days of pilgrimage in the temples of modernity, our secularist Turk returns home. Right after he gets off at Istanbul Atatürk airport, he comes across terribly unpleasant scenes. On Turkish streets there are men with beards who prefer mosques to nightclubs, and women with headscarves who, as their role model, take Prophet Muhammad's daughters – and not, say, Britney Spears. “These ignoramuses are the reason why we haven't become a real Western nation,” says our secularist Turk to his girlfriend. “I hate these cockroaches in those black veils.” The hatred against anything that is Oriental – and, sometimes, simply Islamic – soon becomes an obsession for our secularist Turk. The more he reads newspapers like Cumhuriyet or listens to politicians like Deniz Baykal, the more he is convinced that Turkey is facing a lethal threat from these “Islamists” who are conspiring against the brilliant foundations of the Turkish Republic. Fear becomes his major theme. Moreover, at some point, he realizes that the conspiracy is actually pretty international. He first sees that the “Islamists” are in power and they are doing a pretty good job in making Turkey a member of the European Union (EU). “There must be a catch here,” he thinks, “why, otherwise, would these backward bumpkins head toward the EU.” Then he realizes that the “Islamists” he hates and fears do not alarm most of the people from the EU or the U.S. Many Westerners actually dismiss his fears, and, instead, speak of nonsense such as religious freedom, pluralism, and democracy. Here comes the “aha” moment for our secularist Turk: He decides that there is a huge conspiracy against the Turkish Republic, which the Westerners and Turkish “Islamists” are, supposedly, cooking up hand in hand. Aren't they all saying that Turkey should be a real democracy, not a quasi-military quasi-dictatorship? Aren't they all arguing for civil liberties and free markets? And, hasn't the dull Westerner on the plane implied that Turks could have an authentic culture, which could, naturally, involve some elements of the Islamic tradition? The whole world seems to be united against “the Republic”. That's the point where our secularist Turk becomes fanatically anti-Western. He starts to see Atatürk not as a pro-Western modernizer, but an anti-Western national liberator. Filled with fear and rage, he decides to fight all the enemies within and without. The Problem With Superficiality That would be the sum of the tragic story of Turkey's authoritarian and radically secularist elite. The core of their problem is superficiality. While abandoning all the rich cultural heritage of the Islamic/Ottoman past, they only got the lifestyle of the West, not its ideas. So they well know how to dine, wine and valentine like a Westerner. Yet they don't know to think with Western concepts such as rationality, and they have no clue about Western values such as individual freedom. So what can they offer to Turkey? Not much, really. That's why some of the secularist Turks – actually their wiser ones – recently said to the Financial Times, “We all will vote for the CHP, but we all hope it doesn't get into the government.” Why? Because the CHP – a party that still lives in the corporatist and statist mindset of the 1930s – will simply ruin the Turkish economy. The only attraction the party has is its blend of militant secularism and xenophobic nationalism. And you have to be a real die-hard secularist Turk to be impressed by that. Thank God we also have the “Islamists,” who seem to be the best hope for modernizing Turkey. Some of them might wear headscarves, but their minds may be more open than of those who hate them.
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