Muslim men in chains in Turkey

Muslim men in chains in Turkey

In life sometimes you cannot help but speak up. I have been reading Burak Bekdil’s column for a while now. He is very witty and wise. I enjoy his sense of humor. I think he is definitely an icon at the Hürriyet Daily News.

But in sometimes reading his column, I fear my native country has been taken over by monsters. The good news is I happen to study Islam, and most of Mr. Bekdil’s arguments are based on this monster called Islamism.

I have some humble reservations about his piece titled “Islamism cannot be pluralistic” (June 13, 2012, Hürriyet Daily News). His piece does not define what his expectations for pluralism are, but rather complains that Islamism aims to enforce blanket bans on all Turks, for example on pork, alcohol and abortion. I disagree. I claim political Islam can and has been pluralistic in history. The literature is abundant on the issue from Morocco to Malaysia. Suffice it to say a quick look at Ottoman Mecelle would reveal pluralism is not possible but greatly desired within political Islam. I must warn you though, Mr. Bekdil, just like Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu’s book, this is a thick one as well.

My other argument is that what Mr. Bekdil describes is not really political Islam, but rather authoritarianism. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but enforcing the rule of the majority or that of the powerful on the minority or the powerless is nothing new. That is what states do; they intervene in the lives of their citizens. Sometimes they enforce a one-child policy as in China and abortion becomes a must, sometimes they ban abortion altogether as Ireland did. When the go extremes unchecked, it is called “authoritarianism.”

My last argument would be that when reading Mr. Bekdil’s piece from a distance, you might think, as I have naïvely, that Turkey is a paradise for Muslims, especially male ones, since political Islam is at war with Eros rather than Demos. So let’s look at the liberties of Muslim men in Turkey and decide how free the majority that Mr. Bekdil claims to dominate the rest of the country is. Are Sunni Muslim men in general free and liberated in Turkey? I think not. I am not even going to dwell on the notorious polygamy ban. Let’s talk about something simpler. How about facial hair? Most Muslims believe growing a beard for adult males is sunnah. Now take a step back and consider how many Turkish police officers have you spotted with a beard? Or other public employees? With a couple of exceptions, for example one of the current ministers in the Cabinet, and one well-known senior advisor to the prime minister, not many men who hold public offices in Turkey have a beard; in most cases, it is because they are NOT allowed to do so. This ban, which I thought had long gone since my childhood, is NOT generated by or for the “ruling elite” Sunni Muslim majority men in Turkey, or is it? Maybe these Islamists are very confused. Also, Islam bans “riba” (interest), but as far as I know, it is very legal in Turkey. I assure you the list does not end here.

Allow me to summarize. First, please call it by its real name, what you are complaining about is not Islamism, but authoritarianism. Yes, political Islam can be authoritarian, and it can be pluralistic. Many shades of green coexist. Authoritarianism was not introduced to Turkey for the first time with the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), neither is it an “ism” that is exclusive to Turkey. If authoritarian tendencies are on the rise in Turkey, this should be explained differently.

Last and foremost, the powerful majority, Sunni Muslim men in Turkey, are indeed in chains. Their personal choices, including things as simple as beards, are regulated by the state. So hopefully, next time you are so willing to talk about the monster of “Islamism,” you might want to question whether political Islam is the monster. After all, monsters are not real.

Pinar K. Tremblay is from the Political Science Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA).