A Postmodern Turkey?

Published by Today's Zaman, 9 December 2011 

For at least eight years now, Turkey has been likened to either countries with strong inclinations to theopolitics like Iran, or authoritarian ones, like Russia. While the never-ending longing to find a teleological destination for Turkey keeps producing new panic attacks, few analysts have been paying attention to the very “Western” trends that have been changing Turkish society and politics for the past 15 years.

The change began with the reforms under Turgut Özal, but lost political momentum until the creation of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Yet, the effects of increasingly open markets, integration into international structures and flourishing independent media on the depoliticized post-1980 generations continued as an undercurrent. Political apathy, mistrust in and frustration with the political elite and their power games showed itself strongly in the 2002 elections. The Turkish public was demanding a new type of politics and society.

The strong vision of a homogenized nation-state began to weaken its hold. Appetite for military involvement in politics declined sharply. The cultural and economic elite of the three leading cities increasingly lost their hegemony. Religious beliefs and personal quests for meaning became trendy, but in potluck fashion, depending on the desired worldview and needs of the individual. Questions on previously clear-cut identity definitions, such as Turkishness, became points of debate. Cracks in carefully constructed national myths and histories began to appear. Melancholy and a romantic view of the good old days of the “founding fathers” descended like fog. Political activism turned to limited and shallow articulations of sensitivity expressed via changing Facebook profile pictures and leaving “bold” comments on newspaper websites.

Turkish architecture, too, started changing. Housing blocks broke with well-established traditional construction, and design and style were increasingly put first. Advertisers began selling “lifestyles” in “exclusive” compounds. Construction firms are now competing to build eco-friendly buildings. “Holistic” food products, yoga lessons and mild forms of East Asian philosophies are popular.

The days of valuing house decorations or cultural products to the level they are not Turkish are over. Contemporary designs that blend Anatolian colors and styles, as well as TV soap operas that place a rural way of life into contemporary İstanbul settings are meeting the deepening need for “authenticity” for alienated and rootless urban Turks. Thus, Turkish rock, rap and high-brow artists are using previously shunned Turkish beats and learning to cherish the rich heritage of the country. Rather than all-inclusive hotels dominated by hungry tourists, an increasing number of boutique hotels in hidden corners of the country provide ample satisfaction of the authentic experience and the pleasure of finding something not consumed by the mass market.

The careful reader, especially from North America and Europe, will smile upon hearing all this, as this description of Turkey may sound just like “home.” All of these are indeed signs of postmodernity. Postmodernity is a sociopolitical and cultural reality, not to be confused with postmodernism as a philosophical school of thought with a strong anti-realist tone. Derrida or Foucault or even consumption of an Andy Warhol print art are of no value in decoding footprints of postmodernity in today’s Turkey.

In line with the nature of postmodernity, unlike modernism and modernity, which were brought to Turkey through a small European educated or influenced elite and enforced top to bottom, postmodernity is an incoherent grassroots affair. This is alien to the current gatekeepers of Turkish intelligentsia and their comrade publishers, all of whom share the ever so melancholic memories of the days when the words “left” and “right” mattered, and where citing Marx was a sign of intellectual sophistication.

While one does see clinical cases of time capsules frozen in the 1970s in Turkey’s intellectual landscape, an increasing number are becoming today’s liberals with modified paradigms though strongly shaped by memories of the past. Slowly, we are seeing emerging cosmopolitan intellectuals, who can be committed Muslims or staunch atheists or Kurds or Armenians, who are talking of a plural Turkey that cherishes diversity and where equal citizenship based on individual rights is the main vision, not some macro-political narrative.

Political parties that did not realize these deep changes all died out one by one as the AK Party won one victory over another. In fact, even the strongest citadel of modernity, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), has had to come to terms with the new Turkey, albeit slowly and painfully. No surprise then, a leading general who delivered a key speech at the height of the AK Party versus the military match declared “postmodernists,” who did not see a strict nation-state vision as a precursor for being a nation, as a new national threat.

The AK Party saw and seized the changes by providing everything that postmodernity demanded: economic growth to sustain and increase consumerism, pragmatism with a moral language but beyond zero-sum idealism, affirmations of cultural authenticity along side allowing multiple identities, accountability and quality service from state structures, and most importantly a sense that we are a “cool” country.

Just as Turkey managed to formulate a unique blend of modernist ideas and appropriated them to suit itself, such as laïcité, Turkey is now adjusting into its own forms of postmodernity. Some of these developments are vital for Turkey to survive in the 21st century. Yet, experiences of Europe and North America show that postmodernity also has a deep dark side.