Liberal individualism and democracy in Turkey

Liberal individualism and democracy in Turkey

William Armstrong -
Liberal individualism and democracy in Turkey ‘Individualism and Democracy in Turkey’ by Nurten Özkoray (Idea Politika Yayınları, 2012, pp 150)

In the World Values Survey of 2007, the two strongest elements that Turkish respondents said defined their identity were “religion” and “nationality,” giving some indication of the difficulty that “liberal individualism” faces in planting deep roots in Turkey. Nurtan Özkoray’s “Individualism & Democracy in Turkey” asks some interesting structural questions related to “how” this is the case, but its failure to satisfactorily question “why” makes for a rather frustrating read. Its essential conclusion that “there is an ideological force exerted on the society by the state which has a negative impact on individualism” is thuddingly obvious, betraying that exhausting tendency in academic sociology to use a sledgehammer when cracking a walnut.

Louis Althusser’s concept of “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs) aimed to describe how various institutions – such as schools, universities, unions, media, political parties, and religious bodies - systematically transmit dominant state ideologies to society. Özkoray applies this to the post-1980 Turkish context, unsurprisingly discovering that the Turkish state in its post-1980 coup form fulfills all the characteristics of “authoritarianism.” Her research goes on to investigate how this affects Turkish social understanding, dividing her samples between a group of elite Boğaziçi University students and the “general population.” The results confirm her presumption that - in contrast with the general population - Boğaziçi students “have had the opportunity to be protected from the impact of ISA” and are “the part of the population where we can see the highest level of individualization [that] society allows.” The general population, on the other hand, is shown to prize “traditional, collectivist values with survival concerns, weak independence and high attachment to nationalistic and religious values.” This, writes Özkoray, “should be a concern for the future of democracy.”

The disappointment of the book is that it doesn’t go much further than these general, uncontroversial truths. Although it’s not really within Özkoray’s remit, the lack of any serious consideration of the historical background to understand how the “high attachment to nationalistic and religious values” came about means that her book always feels rather hollow. As Halil M. Karaveli has written recently: 

There are historical reasons why the fundamental assumption … that state power is legitimate only as far as it safeguards liberty has not sunk roots in Turkey. Turkish political tradition has been haunted by a primordial fear of anarchy; it remains axiomatic that freedom would impair the state, putting its very existence at risk.

That “primordial fear” was certainly justifiable when the European powers had the map of Anatolia spread out on the desk in front of them, ready to carve it up in the Treaty of Sevres. However, its persistence today perhaps proves little more than Marx’s aphorism that “the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Historical memory shapes Turkish illiberalism to a far greater extent than Özkoray suggests.

Many of her interviewees express their profound disengagement from the political process. However, the idea she suggests that there is a nascent liberal constituency ready to be unleashed - if only the state would lift its overbearing hand - is a dubious one. There are good historical reasons why both the left and the right in Turkish politics have been unable to disengage from the tradition that sanctifies the state and the nation at the expense of individual freedom. It’s a shame that these reasons remain underexplored in this book.

Recommended recent release


‘Life’s Good, Brother – A Novel’ by Nazim Hikmet

(W. W. Norton & Co, 25TL, pp 192)

William Armstrong,