What is happening to Turkish society?

What is happening to Turkish society?

In the past decade, it has been repeatedly and alarmingly claimed that Turkey is becoming more “conservative” or outright “Islamic” under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Ultra-secularist Turks, and some of their Western counterparts, have even argued that the country is turning into “another Iran.” The visibility of more headscarves and the rise of a more religious middle class have been seen by them as impeccable evidence of this.

In return, I have argued in these pages that such secularist fears amount to “fact-free paranoia.” And the facts kept on confirming this view, the latest being two notable surveys by two prominent academics: The “Values Survey” headed by Dr. Yılmaz Esmer, and the “Conservatism in Turkey” survey conducted by Dr. Hakan Yılmaz.

Through interviews with hundreds of statistically-representative individuals, both academics found that family-focused moral conservatism is indeed very strong in Turkey and that there has even been a 10 percent increase in the percentage of those who describe themselves as “conservatives.” But they also found that these proudly religious Turks were also gradually becoming more individualistic and more tolerant to difference.

Here are some numbers. The number of those Turks who see “the family” as “the most important institution to preserve” was 45 percent of society some six years ago. It is now 50 percent, while the percentage of those who see “the state” as most important has shown a slight decline.

One key political change is the rising popularity of “freedom” as a political value. In 2006, more Turks saw “solidarity” as key, whereas now the demand for “freedom” overshadows the demand for both “solidarity” and “equality.”

The individualism underlined by this change is also clearly visible in another finding: the number of those who agree with the statement, “The individual shapes his destiny freely,” has significantly increased. This means that the rising conservatism is a modern one, not a fatalist one as was prevalent in pre-modern Islamic (and Christian) culture.

The surveys also show a slight decline in religious observance, in terms of daily prayers or Ramadan fasts. A rise in the visibility of Islamic identity, in other words, does not necessarily translate into a rise in Islamic piety.

The best news is the rise in tolerance to difference. The number of those who find unveiled women “disturbing” has declined 17 percent, while the numbers of those who find alcohol consumers, bar frequenters, or men who use earrings, (which is often found too effeminate in Turkish society), disturbing have similarly declined.

There is also bad news, however: Turkish society’s continued distrust of itself. Only 12 percent of Turks agree with the statement, “Most people can be trusted.” (Those who agree with the same statement is 76 percent in Denmark and 75 percent in Norway.) This, I believe, explains well why Turkey’s public life is so constantly poisoned by suspicion, delusion, paranoia and confrontation. Conspiracy theories remain rampant and every segment of society sees others as enemies in a zero-sum game.
All in all, though, the surveys indicate that Turkey has not by any means regressed in the past decade, when looked at from a liberal democratic perspective. Rather, it has shown considerable progress, even though this progress is still far from being enough.