Conservative debates in Turkey and Germany
“The times they are-a changin’” sang Bob Dylan in the 1960s. That got to me sometimes. Aren’t they always “a-changin’?” Isn’t that what time is? Not necessarily. The course of human events can slow down and speed up. There is a good argument to be made that today, urbanization and technological innovation are accelerating things faster than at any point in human history. For people who think of themselves as being “conservative,” it makes things complicated. That is why I find debates among conservatives more interesting and more important these days.
I have two news items from just last week. One is from Turkey, and the other from Germany. Both signify the nature of the hot debate within conservative communities in our two respective countries. Both telling in terms of what concerns conservatives most in this age of rapid change in different countries.
Just last week, an evangelical news agency asked Ralph Brinkhaus, the chief of the parliamentary group of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the largest party of German conservatives, whether a Muslim could be the CDU Chancellor of Germany by 2030. The question of course, gets to the heart of the whole debate: Us versus them. Human rights versus birth rights. At this level, religion isn’t a personal relationship to the divine, it is a mega tribe, a “civilization.” And the questioner wants to know whether top conservatives in Germany take that tribal identity as the country’s basis. It’s not a simple question.
In Istanbul last week, the Woman and Democracy Association of Turkey (Kadem), a women’s rights organization that was established in 2013, had its first Gender “Justice” Conference. Kadem is a powerful organization, not least because President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambitious daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan-Bayraktar, is its vice-president. This recent meeting was supported by Istanbul municipality, and quite a number of universities in Istanbul. It was also the subject of fierce debate. Ms. Erdoğan-Bayraktar is an influential woman, but she made no secret of the fact that things weren’t going her way. “I don’t want to hurt anyone,” she said, “but I’d like to speak candidly. Women’s day is not a time to compare women to flowers and bugs. It isn’t a day to praise women to the skies. We all know that women are simply human. With their weaknesses and strengths, their sins and their virtues, they are merely human. They cannot be squeezed into molds, their qualities are all unique to themselves.” These aren’t the words of an incumbent, but of an activist.
Conservative women’s political struggle in Turkey has its roots in the 1990s debate about banning headscarved women from universities. Of course the most conservative families did not (and still don’t) want formal education for their daughters, much less send them to faraway cities, and have them attend mixed-gender classes. But there were some families who were progressive enough to do that, while also defending their daughters’ right to dress as they wanted. So conservative families decided that their daughters were to participate in life outside the home. Now in their late 30’s to early 40’s, those same women, want more justice. Makes sense, right? They feel the need to establish powerful organizations to support education for women, boost women’s careers, and put them in leadership positions. They want men to see past their gender, and recognize that they are, as Ms. Erdoğan-Bayraktar so rightly points out, simply people.
You can be sure that not everybody among Turkish conservatives agrees with that point of view, not at all. Every day the conservative press rails against the Western-imposed “dissolution of the family,” how women are far too precious to be thrown into the workforce. These men are hesitant to attack the daughter of the most powerful man in the country, but their ideas are on a collision course with hers, there is no doubt about that.
But let’s get back to Germany for a second. How did Mr. Brinkhaus answer the question posed to him? Could a Muslim be the head of the CDU, the most powerful conservative institution in the country? “Why not?” he said, “if he’s a good politician and represents our values and political views.” Politically correct, you may say. Yet, it is political incorrectness that sells in conservative circles nowadays. Look at the AfD, which has eaten into the CDU’s voter base by channeling that sentiment. The cowardly answer for Mr. Brinkhaus might have been to dodge the question, or to simply say no. Yet he stood his ground.
These, as well as many other examples, make me think that the governing conservative movements in both Germany and (more controversially) Turkey have progressive engines in them. Despite the doom and gloom about them, they both bolster the individual, atomize their societies, and in the long run, even go up against us-against-them tribalism. They are, dare I say, liberal.