It has been somewhat bemusing to read the varied responses to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's win in the 2018 presidential elections. The politics of propaganda works to portray Turkey as a rogue state. The emphasis in news reports is on the lifting of the hijab ban, the incorporation of Islamic values and ethics into mainstream Turkish society and the expansion of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). These musings about Turkey's "regress" suggests a nostalgia for the very authoritarian Turkey of old – secularist and non-democratic. What the West fails to grasp is that Turkey is a Muslim majority country and that Turks have always honored their Islamic identity, even under the severest forms of repression. But, perhaps the underlying fear sending shivers across Turkey's borders and to the plutocracy, masquerading as a democracy, in Washington, is the unmitigated fact that the Turkish people – a vast majority – have begun to exercise their own understanding of political agency. It is frightening for western powers because these are Muslims peacefully engaging in a democratic space. This mitigates the claim that Muslims do not want democracy and that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
In this regard, President Erdoğan and Turkey, I congratulate you. There will be problems, there will be mistakes and most importantly, take note, there will be efforts to sabotage your stride forward. I say this because these are the tools of the Islamophobic industry – of empire and imperialism. Turkey stands on the brink of significant progress and development and is serving as a role model for other Muslim-majority countries. It is curious then, as Europe and the West moves towards more fascist and anti-humanity rule, where refugees and migrants are dehumanized and discarded as untouchables, where children are separated from their parents despite the West's claim of being beacons of human rights and where vast amounts of citizen's taxes are invested in weapons and militarization at the expense of education and health care, Turkey is verbally ostracized for voting the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Reminds me of the collective punishment imposed on Palestinians when they legitimately, freely and fairly voted for Hamas.
What is obscured is that Turkey's education budget has doubled and Turkey hosts close to 4 million refugees. According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance report 2017, Turkey topped the list of the most generous countries with regards humanitarian support. Additionally, healthcare rose 24 percent. It is also curious that when President Erdoğan and the Turkish people speak the truth about Palestinian oppression and occupation, about the West's manufacturing of wars that contribute to the refugee problem and about the excellence of Islamic banking, then the mainstream media has seizures. But Western lies, for example WMDs in Iraq, and double standards on humanity based on race are normalized.
So what exactly was so wonderful about Turkey's secularist past? I ask, because the narrative is skewed, the story is captured in the white man's rhetoric. As a "black" South African I fully understand how history is distorted and lies shaped into "truths." In bemoaning the lifting of the hijab ban, there has not been a single report that explained the harm of the ban –of how Turkish women were denied education, employment and the potential to contribute to the development of a dynamic, diverse, multicultural, Muslim majority society simply because they exercised Muslim political agency and chose to wear the headscarf. Are rights selective – to be highlighted only when they impinge on the privileged? Privilege is not about wealth, it refers to a right, advantage, or immunity that only a particular person or group get to enjoy. There is to some extent a problem with Turkish identity. Many Turks, like black South Africans aspire to "whiteness." I use "whiteness" here as a racial construct. In the South African context, "whiteness" is how to maintain privilege in a situation in which black people have achieved political power, and in the Turkish context I would say "whiteness" is how to maintain privilege in a situation where Muslims are asserting themselves. "Whiteness" is intertwined with racism. Ramon Grosfoguel explains the markers and definition of racism because without defining racism, the effect of Islamophobia is lost in the obscurity of language. Racism is a "global power hierarchy of superiority and inferiority along the line of the human." Within this global hierarchy, which is politically reinvigorated and regenerated by a Western-centric world system, humans are organised as those who are above the line and thus have a socially recognized humanity (such as Europeans/whites), whilst those below the line (Muslims and blacks) are considered as subhuman. Those below the line have a negated or 'questionable' humanity. When it comes to Muslim political agency and the assertiveness of a Muslim identity, there is a strong push to suggest that politically active Muslims, as opposed to secularists, have a questionable humanity. In many aspects, the suppression of the Turkish (Muslim) identity has made many Turks internalize an inferiority complex in relation to white, Western Europe. There is an aspiring to be "white (European)" and the standard by which success, development and progress is measured, is through an association with that which is "white."
Turkey, like South Africa, will have to re-evaluate its history, curriculum and pedagogy. Most importantly, it will have to work on its own framing of its dynamic identity. For Muslims, the value of education needs no explanation, but it must be relevant and it must be de-romanticized. Turkish pedagogy must include rigorous debate, critical thought and an Islamic ethos. It cannot be an "I teach, you listen" system. This can be understood from one of Islam's most prominent public intellectuals and ethical academics, Imam Shafi. Shafi teaches that one must criticize the speech but respect the speaker.
*Postdoctoral Fellow: University of Pretoria/ Mellon Foundation Public Intellectual Project
PhD Candidate, Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria