Queering conservative democracy
MEHMET SİNAN BİRDALThe Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) leaders have always been eager to dispel any affiliation with Islamism. Instead, they promoted themselves as “conservative democrats.” Party adviser Yalçın Akdoğan defined modern conservatism as almost inseparable from liberalism in its opposition to socialism and defense of the free market. However, in distinction to liberalism, conservatism also defends the restoration of authority in the social field. According to Akdoğan, whether certain groups’ demands for recognition warrant the protection of law depends on their compatibility to a vaguely defined “general consensus and domestic peace.”
LGBT issues significantly challenge the AKP’s conservative-liberal synthesis. LGBTs’ demands for equality and justice can easily be subjugated to their conformity with a politically constructed national identity. Conservative discourse on the LGBT illustrates how a majoritarian conception of human rights and democracy provide a basis for discrimination, misrecognition and humiliation.
Conservative recognition of LGBT rights is fairly restricted to the right to live, while public visibility can be a legitimate cause of discrimination. Hayrettin Karaman asserts that in a democratic society, one should not expect people of different faiths and moral values to like each other. These people have to bear each other; however, that does not mean tolerating each other. Bearing one’s existence means not resorting to violence against different people. Nevertheless, in Karaman’s view, tolerance attributes normalcy to homosexuality, which he is unwilling to do. Thus, Karaman distinguishes between bearing (tahammül) a homosexual’s being and tolerating (hoşgörü) homosexuality. Tahammül implies guaranteeing the life of homosexuals, whereas hoşgörü refers to affirming their equality.
Other conservative opinion leaders also resort to explicit demonization and call for the criminalization of homosexuality. Zaman columnist Ali Bulaç argues that there is a positive correlation between the spread of homosexuality and mass killings of civilians during wartime. Another Zaman columnist, Ali Ünal, argues that homosexuals are more aggressive than heterosexuals due to the former’s introverted nature. Nevzat Tarhan, a professor of psychiatry, argues that the most common form of homosexuality is pedophilia.
In 2010, Selma Aliye Kavaf, then the minister of state responsible for women and family affairs, depicted homosexuality as a sickness. Several Islamist NGOs formed the Call for Life Platform (Hayata Çağrı Platformu) to support Kavaf and declared homosexuality as a threat to humanity. Not all conservatives agreed with the platform. Minister of Health Recep Akdağ admitted that being a homosexual in Turkey was hard and could be a cause of discrimination. Thus, Akdağ called society to be “conscientious” (insaflı). Özlem Albayrak, in a column for the conservative newspaper Yeni Safak, argued that there is no point in disseminating hatred. But she reserved her right to condemn homosexuality as a sin.
Turkish conservative discourse depicts LGBT demands for recognition as threats to national values. The disrespect for LGBTs and the social harms they endure are legitimized by a narrative that construes conservatives as the true victims of an imposing Western and Kemalist discourse. A closer look at the conservative democratic arguments, however, reveals an undeniable fault line between a particularizing narrative, which constructs the national identity based on an invented tradition, and a universal narrative, which legitimizes conservative democracy in terms of liberal democracy.
Homophobia in Turkey is not limited to conservative circles. However, the AKP and its conservative democratic identity dominate contemporary Turkish politics. The depiction of LGBTs as the “other” of an imagined Muslim Turkish identity significantly challenges the LGBT movement in its pursuit for recognition. Imagining and articulating a political community that includes LGBTs as equal citizens should be the starting point of the movement’s political strategy. In becoming a proactive agent in drafting the new Constitution, the LGBT movement has already taken important steps in this direction.
*Mehmet Sinan Birdal is an assistant professor at the Department of International Relations at Işık University in Istanbul. This abridged article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).