Thinking about Feminism and Islamophobia (2): ‘Traditional’ and ‘Modern’ in Turkey

By Nancy Lindisfarne


Kemal Atatűrk -Founding Father of the Turkish Republic

There is a lot to be learned when a society is changing rapidly and radically. This blog is an excerpt from Thank God, We’re Secular: Gender, Islam and Turkish Republicanism, published in Turkish in 2001.  This is a piece about Turkish Islamophobia, and about the class divide between Turkish elites and the working class.

Understanding how Islamophobia works is difficult because it is both convoluted and overly familiar, like any racist ideology. It rests on notions which we never think to challenge. One such set of ideas hinges on the contrast between ‘tradition’ and ‘modern’.

The notions ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ are used in ways which distract us from thinking about social class, class privilege and gender inequality. This is the case when they are used at home, and even more so when we use them to describe people and places abroad we know less about. But whenever ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ are used, they do the same job, and feed racist prejudice. They do this because of their association with the Enlightenment values and Western imperial expansion, just as the outrage following the Charlie Hebdo killings cannot be separated from the wars in the Middle East.

In Turkey at the end of the 20th century everything was in flux. Women were fighting to enter public spaces and the universities wearing headscarves. The bloody civil war between the Turkish state and Kurds living in Turkey, and the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, was in full swing. In 1997, the Turkish military had forced a democratically elected Islamist party out of office in what was known as the ‘Velvet Coup’.

Thank God, We’re Secular anticipates the swing to Islamism in Turkey. It illustrates how patriotism, ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ are used to support class inequality. It was written as a contribution to the political debate in Turkey at the time.

What was happening in Turkey at the turn of the century was also happening many places elsewhere. This process continues, and the ideas used to justify it are fundamental to understanding how Islamophobia works.

The excerpt from Thank God, We’re Secular begins here.


You can download an English translation of the whole book here: ThankGodcomplete

Elhamdűlillah Laikiz, Cinsiyet, Islâm ve Tűrk Cumhuriyetçiligi (Ankara, İletişim, 2001). Thank God, We’re Secular draws on extended anthropological fieldwork about Islam in the Turkish town of Eğridir in southwest Turkey in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and a year in Istanbul in in 1999-2000. The title was taken from a cartoon in a national newspaper mocking the military junta and General Kenan Evren who had just become President of the TurkishRepublic in a military coup.


Atatűrk, the founding father of the Turkish republic, was utterly committed to ‘modernity’ and European Enlightenment values. These included universal education and equal rights for women.


But his identification with the ruling class was also clear from the start. He said,

If I have sufficient power and authority, I think I will bring about the revolution desired in our society by means of a ‘coup’ … Having spent so many years of my life educating myself, studying society, and enjoying freedom, why should I stoop to the level of the people instead of raising them to my level. They should be like me, not I like them.


Atatűrk in a top hat.

As with all class ideologies, Atatűrk mixed good with bad to make his modernity palatable. The good were the values we usually associate with the Enlightenment. As neoliberalism has taken hold, and since the financial crash of 2008, we are much more aware of the downsides of modernity. But what often still remains quite invisible is how class inequality and racism are conjoined. The best place to begin see the class and racialized biases in the ideas of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ is in the extreme kind of patriotism known as ‘exceptionalism’.

Exceptionalism is a common way of explaining history in many countries. Extreme versions of exceptionalism go together with extreme nationalisms. And because both exceptionalism and nationalism are closely tied to people’s sense of belonging, and a close identification with their country and its rulers, they are emotionally loaded. They are also particular forms of patriotism which benefit some citizens and stigmatize others.

Exceptionalism in all its forms involves writing the country’s history in terms of what is different. It is a way of claiming that the United States, say, or Britain or Japan, are so different from other countries, so odd and special, that they cannot be understood by looking elsewhere. By precluding comparison, exceptionalism makes it hard for ordinary citizens to think clearly, or politically, about their place in national and international affairs. Exceptionalism is also a way of exempting people and governments from taking responsibility for their actions.

Turkish exceptionalism is based on a national identity attached to the new Turkish Republic, founded in 1923. In Kemal Atatűrk’s words, ‘Biz bize benzeriz’: ‘We resemble only ourselves’, while perhaps Atatűrk’s most famous saying is ‘How happy is the one who says “I am a Turk”’.


How happy is one who says ‘I am a Turk’.

The central project of the Turkish republicans was to become ‘modern’, and leave behind ties with Islam and the Ottoman past and the wider politics of the region. But the process of effecting such radical change is always messy and incomplete. And because nation-states are political entities, the people who live within their boundaries never constitute a homogeneous citizenry. To create the illusion of national unity, cultural and regional differences need to be reconfigured. If the group is small and relatively weak, these differences can be reinvented as folkloric traditions – Eccles cakes, Welsh cakes, clog-dancing and Morris dancing all do this job in Britain.

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Primary school class rehearsing for the Children’s Day in folkloric dress, Eğridir, 1981

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Children from the south west performing in folkloric dress from north west Turkey, Eğridir, 1984.

However, an ethnic group like the Kurds who live in Turkey, which is politically daring, large, has its own language, many fellow Kurds in neighbouring countries and seeks independence poses quite other problems for the nationalist aims of the state.

Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters stand at formation in northern Iraq

Kurdish women say they are fighting for their rights. ‘We want a society that revolves around women’.

Then Turkish exceptionalism often appears as a nationalism based on racialized notions of the Turkish people and Turkish culture as superior, and Kurdish and other identities, languages and cultures, as inferior.

And Turkish national identity is also expressed as a commitment to secularism (‘laicism’) which is treated as superior to both past styles of Muslim belief and practice and those of contemporary Islamicists.

I first met Turkish exceptionalism in the small town of Eğridir in the early 1980s. There the tensions between Kemalist republicanism and everyday experience produced a defensive nationalism which targeted Kurds and other migrant workers in the area, an intolerance of ‘unorthodox’ forms of Islam and a helplessness in the face of the military dictatorship.

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Itinerant traders at the weekly market in Eğridir, 1982

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Women praying at a local shrine kept secret from state officials.

In İstanbul, twenty years later, the tensions between Kemalist republicanism and everyday experiences produced deep scepticism about the neoliberal pieties of the Turkish rulers. For some people this was translated into renewed trade union activity and a lively debate about democracy in Turkey. Others were pulled into the civil war, or toward radical Islamic politics, or the neo-fascists of the secular right. For yet others the tensions remained a source of unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, confusion.

Because the Kemalist republican vision is repeated at every turn and backed by force, questioning it can be dangerous.

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School children going to plant trees at the Tree Festival, Eğridir, 1982.

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A Human Flag. A soliders’ tableau of the Turkish Flag, Youth and Sports Day, Eğridir, 1982.

And even when questions are safe,they are often treated as scandalous, incomprehensible, and beyond the limits of what many people are willing to tolerate, or can even hear. Yet people’s daily experiences often contradict the pieties of the Kemalist republican vision and become a source of frustration and pain.

The modernist vision of the Turkish republican leaders has disposed them to European connections, aspiring to enter the European Community, and with popular hopes and parliamentary energy centred on the ideals of liberal democracy. And in Turkey, as elsewhere, behind this vision are a set of hegemonic modernist assumptions and obfuscations.

Democratic political institutions are assumed to go hand in hand with social and technological progress to serve equally the interests of all the citizenry. Modernization is believed to lead automatically to more democracy. And in the dominant discourse, democratic processes are assumed to be ones that invariably favour capitalist values and forms of social organization. The circularity of such an ideological system should warn us of its sacred character, and that pious ideals are often deeply flawed.

These ideals, as they are found in Turkey and throughout the rest of the world today, come from an ‘enlightenment discourse’ via the ideas of the bourgeoisie who overthrew the old feudal orders in the English, American and French revolutions. The leaders of these revolutions had to mobilize peasants, workers, artisans and the petty bourgeoisie to overturn the old order. So they spoke of liberty, equality, brotherhood and the rights of man. But once they had gained power for themselves, they became a conservative force.


Atatűrk dancing.

So the enlightenment discourse came to rely on a series of dichotomies to create and sustain deep inequalities. Those people who claim ‘rationality’, modernity’, ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’ for themselves automatically cast others as their social inferiors as ‘backward’, ‘primitive’. ‘savage’ or ‘traditional’. The enlightenment ideology developed in tandem with mercantile capitalism and industrialization. It is fundamentally a class ideology.

Most if not most of modern history can be understood dialectically in terms of the contradictions and confusions at the heart of the enlightenment discourse. One important set of contradictions is that the enlightenment discourse promises education, material progress and personal freedom while supporting class and other inequalities.


Atatűrk explaining the Roman alphabet introduced to replace the Arabic script.

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School children parade on Children’s Day, Eğridir, 1981, watched with enormous pride by their parents and other townsfolk.

An important confusion comes from a common historical mistake. The side of enlightenment ideals that expresses the struggles from below has inspired many emancipatory movements. In the eighteenth century the emancipatory struggles from below in London, Boston and Paris were led by the new bourgeoisie. People today are still inspired by the same emancipatory ideals of the enlightenment, but they sometimes fail to understand that today they will only win greater social equality and improved standards of living through continuous negotiation and struggle against the bourgeoisie.

In short, ideals are not practices. And a dominant ideology is never politically neutral. Such an ideology always works for the benefit of one group of people to the detriment of others. But particular political interests are always hidden by the dominant discourse itself. That is, after all, what it is actually for.


Traditional’ and ‘Modern’: A Discourse of Social Class

The opposition between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ is fundamental to Kemalist republican ideas. It is the positivist discourse par excellence. Those things that are valued, and rewarded with money, are associated with rationality, education, secularism, science, and particularly technological achievement. Sometimes the unity between the nation and modernity seems perfect: as if Ataturk himself was personally responsible for bringing Turkey electricity and the motor car. The opposite qualities – the irrational, emotions, ignorance, religion and superstition, and primitive technologies – are stigmatized.

The discourse is strongly gendered. Men and masculine styles of public performance are celebrated, while women and domesticity are not. In another familiar opposition, men are ‘cultured’, women are ‘natural’ and thus more backward. (For an important discussion of how and why the nature/culture binary is so pernicious, see Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern, M. eds., Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980).

The culture/nature divide also means men are closer to state power. They are conscripted, subject to clothing reforms and expected to conform to a range of ‘modern’ ideals. Women, by contrast, because they are deemed more primitive, are often below the radar of the state and able to avoid such strictures. Women may become the custodians of cultural memories of difference – by continuing to wear ‘traditional’ older styles of dress, sustaining a range of local customs and keeping older forms of religious practice alive. (For a detailed history of dress reform in Turkey, see John Norton, ‘Faith and Fashion in Turkey’, in Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper and Bruce Ingham, eds., Languages of Dress in the Middle East, London, Curzon, 1997).

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Distributing bread, household by household, as alms, Eğridir, 1981

The discourse is also racialized and racist. White skin and a Sunni Muslim Turkish identity are favoured, while darker skin, and ethnic groups and other sects are despised. Or, to put it slightly differently, those who claim to be ‘modern’ also understand themselves to be both innately and culturally superior to those others – Kurds, Armenians, Alevis, Christians, Jews – who are not.

Most importantly, the discourse is one of social class. The ruling class, that is, the capitalists or haute bourgeoisie, are associated with ‘modernity’, while peasants and members of the working class are ‘traditional’ and backward.

In Eğridir, as in many other Turkish towns in the 1980s, the ‘New Quarter’ of was not without a mosque, but it was also the place where professionals and the wealthiest townspeople lived in big new houses, houses very different from those in the centre of the town.

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New mosque in the New Quarter of Egridir, 1981

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Old houses in the centre of town, Egridir, 1981.

The prejudices associated with these class and other differences are often collapsed into a racialized dichotomy between ‘white Turks’ (beyaz tűrkler) and ‘black Turks’ (kara tűrkler), or between the ‘cream-coloured’ blonds like the former Prime Minister Tansu Çıller, and the citizens with ‘black heads’ or ‘black moustaches’.


Tansu Çiller, Turkey’s first female Prime Minister, 1993-6.

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Working class family, Eğridir, 1994.

The main criteria for judging degrees of modernity in Turkey is a notion of ‘authenticity’. This notion has great discriminatory potential, and can describe a range of nuanced class and other identities. For example, the notion of authenticity can validate snobbish judgements about old-money elite styles and disparage the taste of the new rich. Thus, in a circular, self-fulfilling fashion authenticity is the criterion used to determine what constitutes a ‘good’ education and the intangible qualities such as rationality with which it is associated.

Authenticity is also a metaphor used to naturalize class differences in terms of idealized versions of national identity. The owning class are properly, or authentically Turkish, because of their association with the Ottoman and/or the Kemalist republican state. For others, authentic Turkishness is a more problematic attribute. The loyal peasant, or the honest, industrious worker can be said to be a ‘true’, ‘genuine’, or ‘authentic’ Turk. But such a valued Turkish identity will not be accorded a shifty peasant, a lazy worker or someone who is seen to be unduly religious. In this way, working class habits that conform to bourgeois expectations can be praised as ‘authentically Turkish’, ‘a real Turk’, while habits that are different or dissenting can be discredited as backward, ignorant, vulgar, superstitious or somehow not Turkish at all. Of course, people thus stigmatized may resist such labelling by inverting the terms of the dominant discourse and claim integrity and legitimacy for themselves by placing a high value on ‘tradition’ and their own ‘authentic’ identity, often by making reference to Islamic practices.

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Woman prayer leaders, Eğridir, 1981. The religious gatherings they led were always held in private houses and with a certain concern that they might at anytime be raided by the police as had happened in the past.

In these ways, the real, lived ambiguities and anomalies produced by the simplistic opposition between tradition and modernity can be modulated or masked by the notion of authenticity. The notion of authenticity and the rhetoric of modernity are extraordinarily resonate and versatile. The discourse easily accommodates changing social practices, while continuing to legitimate old privileges and prejudices, and provoking resistance on its own terms. Because everyone can be fitted into such a flexible scheme in categorical ways, arguments that confirm or deny ‘modern’ identities in terms of legitimacy, originality and authenticity have great exclusionary potential. And because modernity is located in an endlessly receding, unreachable future, the project of modernity will never be complete. That is why it serves capitalist and imperial expansion so well.


Atatűrk with Queen Soraya Tarzi, wife of another Middle Eastern modernizer, King Amanullah of Afghanistan.

In Turkey the discourse of modernization has a long history. It was at the centre nineteenth century reforms. It fuelled the Young Turk Revolt of 1908. As Kemalism, or Atatűrkism, it is the foundational discourse of the Turkish Republic.


The discourse is also implicitly comparative. The Turkish state and its citizenry as a whole are judged as more or less ‘civilized’ or ‘backward’ compared with other states and their citizens elsewhere. This focus on the nation occludes class competition among Turks as well as the shared, extra-national class interests of both the ruling class and the workers. (Beverly M. Weber offers an important contemporary example. See her Violence and Gender in the “New Europe”: Islam in German Culture, (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).).

Nowadays, the discourse becomes particularly salient when former left-of-centre politicians and journalists abandon social democratic pretensions in the interests of global capitalism. One of those moments occurred at the end of 1999 when politicians negotiated a new IMF loan for the country. In this shift, the patriotic mission felt by many Turks ‘to save the country’ was redefined in money terms which side-lined questions about profit, the unequal distribution of social benefits and costs, and thus ratified existing relations of power.

In short, modernization is a discourse that instates all the prerogatives of a privileged modernity. In its Kemalist republican guise, and backed by force, it is a compelling discourse which creates social differences and inequalities, and can be fine-tuned as a mechanism of social control. It favours elite men, men of the haute bourgeoisie, while ensuring that most women, peasants and workers, and members of ethnic and sectarian minorities continue to pay a price for their supposedly inherent ‘traditionalism’, and inferiority. It is a discourse that is immensely patronizing to ordinary Turkish people.

This excerpt from Thank God, We’re Secular ends here.

Much has changed since 2000. In 2002 the Islamists have won national and local elections, and Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (the AKP – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) have been in power ever since. The name of the party is relevant: they are a socially conservative, mildly Islamist party who favour a liberal market economy. (For a taste of the right-wing, classist backlash to Erdoğan’s Islamism, see


Prime Minister Erdoğan and his wife, Emine Erdoğan

But politics and the modernist project is never straightforward. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952. However, the Islamist populism of the AKP, was a factor in keeping Turkey out of the American war in Iraq, and in preventing the Americans over-flying Turkey or using Turkey as a staging post in 2003.

Further, because the AKP and Erdoğan were fundamentally opposed to the oligarchic power of the Turkish military, military corruption and the dark state, this also pushed them towards ending the civil war with the Kurds. This project has meant some lessening of the racism and the sharp divide between people as traditional or modern. But these are changes that do not sit easily with the old guard Kemalists and middle-class secularists, and there has been a backlash aimed at derailing the peace process with the PKK, Ocalan and the Kurds.

Pro-Kurdish demonstrators march with pictures of slain Kurdish activists during a protest in Istanbul

Kurdish women mourning the murders of Kurdish activist women, Sakine Cansız, Fidan Doğan and Leyla Sőylemez in Paris, 2013

Kurdish women wave PKK flags as they celebrate Nowruz, the Persian new year.

Kurdish women celebrating the end of fighting and Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Turkey, March 2013.


By the summer of 2013 however, the AKP and Erdoğan’s neoliberal politics, his authoritarianism, and increasingly corrupt rule met were challenged in the occupation of Gezi Park and Taksım Square in İstanbul, and in many large protests throughout the country.


TaksımSquare, İstanbul, 2013

Kurds, women in headscarves, LGBT people and millions of others across Turkey were demonstrating to save the trees of Gezi Park and for a return to the ‘good’ enlightenment values, and for democracy.

Taksim square peaceful protests. Events of June 16, 2013.

Peaceful protests, TaksımSquare, İstanbul, June, 2013


İstanbul, June, 2013. A global slogan, ‘More Trees, Less Assholes’, was also used in Gezi Park.


These were class protests, as were those of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. And, as elsewhere, they have in turn provoked the ruling elite. And the ruling class response uses the rhetoric of the enlightenment, tradition and modernity – and water cannon.

Man is hit by a jet of water as riot police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators during a protest against Turkey's PM Erdogan and his ruling AKP in central Ankara

Water cannon, Ankara, 2013

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