Islamic politics and intimate life in Turkey

Islamic politics and intimate life in Turkey

A kiss is a verb in the language of love. The conflict that recently exploded in an Ankara subway station was more than a rear-guard action by secular republicans who fear the growing regulation of private vices. It also exposes an internal contradiction in the mechanisms of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) hegemony, a conflict between love and the very liberalism upon which the Islamic nationalist regime depends.

Young Turks are lovers. We know this from our anonymous web-based Facebook survey conducted in 2012, to which over a thousand Turks - most between the ages of 18 and the low 30s – responded. Almost 80 percent of the single respondents said they intended to marry for love.

Marrying for love has nothing to do with being a secularist. Those who want shariah to be the basis of Turkish law – either in part or in full – are just as likely to make love the basis of their mate choices as those who want religion to have no place in Turkish political life.

Love requires the very liberty that has made Islamic hegemony possible in Turkey. Love is based on choice, on the ability for each woman and man to say no. It demands, in other words, the very same liberty that has empowered Muslim entrepreneurship, displacing secular industrialists protected by the Kemalist state. And it rides on the very same value that has made democracy inviolable, enabling Islamic parties to reach for and ultimately secure state power. Young people who love want to choose their partners, and indeed they already do: About half of them are involved in relationships right now. Islamists and secularists are little different.

To make love the basis of marriage, one must have occasion to meet members of the opposite sex. It is here that there is a “kültür war.” Islamists overwhelmingly disapprove of young unmarried women and men even meeting each other unaccompanied. Only 18 percent who want Turkey to be an Islamic state think there is nothing wrong with such encounters, as opposed to 80 percent of those who want no trace of Islam in the nation-state. Pious coffee houses have popped up in neighborhoods like Fatih to serve young Muslims who want to meet each other in a non-scandalous setting.

When it comes to the morality of unmarried kissing – whether or not it takes place in public – the moral objections are even greater. Islamists are much more likely to think it is wrong. But so are secularists: Only half think there is nothing wrong with unmarried people kissing.

Kissing strikes at the heart of the Islamists’ notion of modesty. Those who believe a Muslim woman is religiously obliged to cover her hair are also much more likely to think it is wrong for young unmarried women and men to kiss each other.

But just because you are pious, and you think female modesty is important, and you even think that it is morally wrong for unmarried couples to kiss does not mean you do not do it yourself. Single Turks who believe that women should cover their hair in public are much less likely to have ever kissed somebody. But they do do it: 44 percent of those who believe that veiling is religiously obligatory have kissed somebody. That’s a lot of kissing. The results are similar for Islamists. Young single supporters of an Islamic state are kissing their partners as well. Love flourishes where people feel free to make choices – with their capital, their votes and their hearts.

The AKP is living in the freer world it helped create. It is fooling itself if it believes it can control the consequences of that individual freedom by banishing kissing. The conduct of its own supporters suggests otherwise. Turkey will not become an American Gomorrah. But just like their parents did with the market and the democratic nation-state, one way or another young Turkish Muslims of the future will find a way to make their piety work with their love lives. It may not be in a subway or tram, but they are not going to stop kissing.

* Roger Friedland and Janet Afary are professors in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where they are studying gender, religion and intimate life.