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Turkey’s Flirtation With Stricter Islamic Practices Finds Resistance


Max Lindenman - published on 01/12/15 - updated on 06/07/17

If the AK Party is pulling Turkey away from an official — and officious — secularism, the federal government, along the governments of various states, seems to be pulling the US toward one.  No sooner did the Supreme Court rule that for-profit organizations can object on religious grounds to providing their employees with contraceptive coverage than an executive order barred federal contractors from discriminating against gays or transgendered people.  To boot, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that Masterpiece Cake Shop owner Jack Philips had violated the civil rights of a gay couple by refusing to bake a cake for their wedding.

It is tempting, then, to view Turkey’s political landscape as a nightmare, bizarro version of America’s – or a ghost of dilemmas yet to come.  In 2012, Patrick Deneen pronounced doom on American liberalism.  By making its goal the protection of the individual will from all restraining forces, it effectively creates an authoritarian state that puts all of civil society in handcuffs.    The following year, Michael Baxter wrote that John Courtney Murray had been wrong – as long as Catholics voters remained split between two parties, they couldn’t ensure victory for Natural Law.  It is becoming conventional wisdom that something — either the liberal, democratic American polity or the Catholic relationship to it – needs a drastic overhaul. 

As a bracing alternative, Vladimir Putin has already found his cheering section.  After the Russian president attacked “the destruction of traditional values from above” in his 2013 state of the nation address, Pat Buchanan praised his vision of the future: “as one in which conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent west.”  When Christians get seriously to work on a “post-liberal polity,” Putin’s authoritarian style will definitely get a seat at the table.

While they’re at it, they might as well invite Erdoğan.  Paynim or not, he’s taken up the cause of religious freedom against a hostile judiciary and won – though he had to serve a few months in jail on his way to victory.  He’s used the presidency as a bully pulpit to denounce abortion as murder, and even has exhorted Turkish families to have at least three children apiece.  He’s appointed himself Sunni Islam’s protector and mouthpiece – Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal recently attended an AK Party regional caucus. 

Of course, it’s crucial not to overstate the similarities between Turkey’s situation and America’s.  The Turkish Republic once put a man to death for refusing to wear a Western-style hat.  It never countenanced the growth of anything comparable to homeschooling or the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  At any point in the republic’s history, gays emerging from the closet would have gotten a chilly reception.  Among American Christians, there is no act of public witness comparable to wearing hijab in that it is practiced by an absolute majority and could be prohibited or, on the flip side, compelled.

But it’s still fascinating to observe a country where the powers that be are striving to bring about, in Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s favorite word, a restoration.  Hijab-counting requires no mastery of Turkish, so it’s my way of conducting a very unscientific poll of who’s on board.  I admit it – I remain a liberal at heart.  My sympathies have always been with Yonca and everyone who shares her horror of being made to cover herself against her will.  (After being rebuked by campus security for running without a shirt, I felt my sympathy turn to empathy.)     

On the street, I see girls in hijab walking arm-in-arm with friends who let their hair blow free.  Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a more touching allegory of mutual tolerance.  But friends have warned me that some of the girls are draping themselves to please their parents, who are dependent in some way on the AK Party for their livings.  Some advertise this reluctance by setting off their hijabs with tight jeans and – in one memorable case – cleavage like the Royal Gorge.    

The director of the first foreign languages 
kurs where I taught confided that some female students saw the place as a modesty-free zone, where they could drop their hijabs and meet up with their boyfriends.  Naturally, this function did not endear the school to their parents.  But maybe that’s a reliable sign that a society is headed back toward tradition – enrolling in a self-improvement class is the most fun a young adult can hope to have.

Max Lindenman
writes from Turkey.
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