Discussions of the polarization and Islamization of Turkey under the AK Party rule – especially under Erdoğan – are quite popular in recent years: how Turkey has never been this deeply polarized, how it was fuelled by Erdoğan’s “divisive speeches” and agenda, and how this Islamization and polarization have now become so dangerous that we need to change the government or at least get rid of Erdoğan… Although polarization is considred to be a problem in Turkish politics, the most recent complaints, particularly in relation to Islamization, can be traced back to the 2011 elections, later peaking with the Gezi protests in 2013. I want to provide a personal account that challenges these discussions of Islamization and polarization under the AK Party rule, bookended by my six years of experience in university as a Turkish hijabi student.
In my very first week of university as an undergraduate, the second half of 2009, and AK Party’s seventh year in government: I was sitting in the back of the lecture theatre with a friend, waiting for one of the orientation week lectures to start on a topic such as cinema, art, literature etc., which aimed to familiarize new students with university culture. The lecturer appeared at the door, cast an eye over the class and beckoned me outside: you cannot stay in the class like this, you must either remove your hat or leave. Due to the hijab ban, I was wearing a hat to cover my hair and due to the hijab ban, he claimed that he could not allow me to stay like this.
The last semester that I took lectures in a Turkish university – this time as a Master’s student – it was the first half of 2015, and AK Party’s 13th year in government: I was sitting next to the professor at a table with five or six other students. While he was talking with another student, one of my friends asked me about something we had discussed before. When the professor noticed that I was interacting with her, he turned to me open-mouthed and said: “What are you talking about, what kind of a common point could you two have to speak about?” He then asserted that a hijabi and a modern woman can have nothing to share with each other. He called her modern by listing and pointing out her long-blow-dried hair, midi short, and makeup (while she had a quite shocked and sad expression on her face). Then, he followed with the other students in the same way: about how modern, open-minded, original, rational and enlightened they all were. He ended up telling me: And, look at yourself! I politely stated that I could leave the class if he wanted. He looked bewildered again – interacting with a hijabi for the second time! – and said that of course, I could stay, as they were democratic, open-minded, liberal, peaceful people, unlike the Islamists in power. Indeed, he normally devoted at least a quarter of each class to disparaging the AK Party, inferring that I was representative of them simply by wearing my hijab.
This is a very short personal account of the Islamization of Turkey under Islamist rule: a Muslim has levelled up from the out-side to the in-side of the public – that public has sometimes been a university, sometimes a court or a military office, sometimes a street or a café and sometimes even the parliament. To be honest, not all of our *Muslim* experiences in this process of so-called Islamization have been as bad or good as these two. Sometimes we had people who stood by us, sometimes those who tolerated our existence, and sometimes others who had to content themselves with openly declaring their hatred. Yet, the very idea of toleration, or even needing someone to stand by you, is a manifestation of de facto inequality. When you stay outside, you are uncounted. When you step inside, your un/countability is in the hands of the already counted. The status of your public existence is never equal to the status of the one who has the power over you that you lack over her/him, regardless of whether s/he would use it in the form of toleration or standing by.
Indeed, all the discussions of polarization in recent years have been dependent on the false presumption of equality. To be able to polarize, firstly you need to have poles – not a single pole – and, in the abovementioned cases, these poles did not emerge out of a split or a division stemming from the harsh rhetoric or policies of Erdoğan, but rather out of a demand by the uncounted to be counted as equals. You cannot polarize in a class or a parliament where you have been silenced or expelled from, as you do not really exist there . When Merve Kavakçı – the first hijabi deputy of Turkey – was expelled from the parliament in 1999, the reason for why Turkey was not polarized then, as it is now, is the impossibility of secular polarization. So, it was not because of the polite language of then PM Ecevit using “please” when expelling her from the public: “Here (the parliament) is not a place to challenge the state. Please bring this lady into line.”
The hijab has become a metonym for uncounted Muslims; it represents their demand and struggle for existence and equality. Thus, when a hijabi appears in a secular temple – especially an interacting one – she should either be expelled or at least reminded that she is condescendingly tolerated by the secular (male) guardians of the re/public. So, according to this logic, maybe the secularists are right in their claim that Turkey has never been as polarized as in this era, since this has probably been the first time that the secularists could neither be in the government nor see the purely secular light at the end of the tunnel for such a long period: the biggest uncounted part of the society has succeeded in their struggling, even if not yet substantially, at least metonymically.