Nilüfer Göle: Islamism and Secularism in Turkey
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Cohen: There's an opportunity before Nilüfer returns to Turkey for us to hear some more about some of the things she has been working on and talking about. One issue is the way your work has been received and some of the debates developing around the reception of your book. And I thought you could talk about your book, and how you read your book, and how others are reading your book. . .
Nilüfer Göle: I was thinking about it as I am leaving Ann Arbor. You made a proposition to Muge, David, that it would be interesting to make a book based on the reactions to the first book itself. And I think Ann Arbor helped me to become more self-reflexive. Your comments now push me really to think about my book as well and my position in Turkey. When I came here, I thought it would liberate me more from the political context and from my location also as a sociologist and now becoming something more than a sociologist and I thought I would be more distanced with respect to the Turkish situation politically. But I didn't think it would be in Ann Arbor that I would be making my work more self-reflexive. So this may well be my second project.
First, I think it will be maybe easier to start with how I have decided to work on this subject. The subject is the Islamic veiling, the Islamic head scarf, which started in 1983-1984; that is, the minority of students who wanted to adopt the veil coming to the university classes, which created a kind of Islamist movement. I use the word ``movement'' because there was a kind of collective movement of these women who made a claim that there was something kind of modern about it, because for the first time they were asking for some political rights. They were expressing it through modern ways of political expression: that is sit-ins, manifestations, which were forbidden in the Turkish case. So I myself thought this was a very interesting subject, because this has been for 10 years the most polarized political issue in Turkey; something that had seemed very trivial or very religious became an important symbol for the political debate. And now we agree it's almost a transnational issue it is not only relevant to Turkey or to Islamic countries, but also to France and Great Britain. In France, it recently became a major political debate on secularism, concerning the French conception of secularism. So I said to myself this is a kind of issue that would lead me to understand some of the major political debates, but in a very transnational context. But it was a kind of intuition. More than that, I said to myself, I am Turkish, I am a woman, I am Muslim you can change the order of the things and what is the commonality between me and these women? This is what C. Wright Mills would call the sociological imagination, that is, the kind of private uneasiness I felt in my life. I didn't know how to relate myself as an individual, as a woman, as a Turk, as a Muslim, to these women. I didn't know how to relate myself as a sociologist, because I didn't have the intellectual tools to understand this phenomenon. Because we are taught that modernization means getting away from all these traditional expressions, that it is a kind of unlinear development from tradition to modernity.
Secondly, from the feminist theorists we learn about the emancipation of the individual and the refusal of patriarchal domination. So how does it fit? I had these two types of reactions related to this public issue as a sociologist and as an individual. So I think that's why my curiosity, I would say, was more dense than my convictions. Because I myself am not a product of the Islamist culture. I myself am a product of a very secular culture in Turkey, which is related to the reforms of Atatürk, with the nation-building process of 1923, and I come from this republican, secular family, and from the generaton of the 70s with secularism, feminism; so normally I have more prejudices than curiosity. So I said I have to interview them. And more precisely I conducted research, a kind of focus group, a sociological intervention with the same group of people, following up for a month, getting together with the same group of university students the only common denominators being the veil and students and working with them on a kind of self-analysis. Not a survey, but how they analyze the movement, and inviting some people to a group discussion that would be relevant to this subject. For example, the first person who was invited was an Islamist intellectual who was writing a book on the rights of women within Islam. This is a very popular subject from Fatima Mernissi and others, especially on the early periods of Islam, saying we in Islamic religion give more rights to women. He was one of the interlocutors of this group. I have also chosen a feminist painter. I thought she was one of the most individualized people. These two interlocutors were very important. It was almost a bodily encounter. For the first time, I myself was sharing a kind of debate, a discussion, in the same room with these veiled women. It was kind of new for them as well. It was an exchange of gaze between us. We started at this conjuncture, with these two types of women coming from two different classes, two different social groups, two different senses of belongings, two different cultural references, which had never met. The first time it was difficult. It was the first time seeing a veiled woman, and for them it was the other way around there was so much suspicion.
Canning: For them, who were you? Were you a professor? Were you a sociologist? What was your place vis-a-vis these women?
Göle: First of all representing the secular, Westernized women, but secondly, just my semiology, my body communication was important, because I wasn't veiled, the way I was dressed. This was for them a very secularized and also, much more in terms of class, a kind of superiority issue, and also education.
Rose: So it wasn't participant observation?
Göle: No, not at all. It was not a natural group I composed the focus group, and I had chosen girls representative of different political orientations of the Islamist movement, but what was important to me was not to understand the differences within the Islamist movement but to understand what was common among these women. This was a diversified group each showing different social locations, political ideologies.
Rose: You said there was a class as well as an ideological difference that you embodied for these girls. I wonder did these girls come from outside Istanbul, from poor peasant families?
Göle: Not peasants, but small towns, Anatolian towns. In terms of class, I mean, there was a difference. They were more recently urbanized and I think they represent a kind of social mobility, as well, that many of the works on Islamist social movements, I think, have dismissed. They were not marginal frustrated masses, but on the contrary, they were experiencing a kind of success, educational success, compared to their family backgrounds, to their parents, compared even to their sisters who were more interested in fashion for example. The intellectuals of the family were adopting the veil. They were coming from a family that was religiously defined, but this was a kind of traditional religiosity. At the beginning, when they were moving towards Islamic religiosity, their parents were fond of these girls, but then this further radicalization disturbed these families. For example, the mother would say: but now you can't be married, nobody will marry you. The veiling meant radicalization so there's not a continuity with tradition but a kind of radicalization of traditions, reinterpretation of tradition, breaking away from their background which created an uneasiness in the families. So the families were happy with the educational success of these girls, but they were very scared of this act of radicalization.
Göçek: Where did you meet?
Göle: First time, I went to a place where Islamist periodicals were published by women. And then I moved to this institute because I wanted a neutral place an Institute of Cultural Studies. We met in a bar. They accepted to come because Cat Stevens [now Yussuf Islam] had agreed to come to this bar in the Institute of Cultural Studies. So he gave it a kind of legitimacy.
Göçek: So, who was this painter?
Göle: This feminist painter reacted, overreacted, instead of engaging in a feminist discourse, she countered the group with all the clichés of Islamic religion like, so you're accepting that a man gets married with four wives. More and more her discourse was that type of secularist discourse that we have in Turkey rather than a feminist one. She didn't try to engage with any sort of commonality between women you know, that's what I would call feminism. That part of my research I didn't really deal with in my book. I was scared. I didn't know what to make of it. I told myself she wasn't very representative of the feminist movement. I thought I had chosen the wrong interlocutor. And then what happened is that after the publication of the book, after some years, I found that this was a very important moment of the research that I missed that wasn't in the book, because that meant secularists were more oppressive, and almost all of the feminists in Turkey went back to Kemalist secularism and lost all autonomy in terms of feminism. Although I saw it in my research, I really wasn't intellectually prepared to analyze it. I thought it was the wrong interlocutor but it wasn't at all.
This head scarf debate has never been taken seriously enough, either for analyzing the Islamist movement or the secularists. The main categories and significant actors of the new Islamist movement are women. That's my first take. And second, sexuality because they always discuss secularism in terms of the state and political philosophy. And my research showed me that now in Turkey it is more a question of lifestyle and a question of sexuality. So that's why I thought a work on the head scarf would lead us to one of the major political public discussions on women. Women not as an auxiliary but as a central political actor. In the Islamist movement, I would say they are the most mobile actors. But for the first time these women act as agents in these movements. In Turkey we have two different types of women, one secularist, one Islamist. Secularism is defended by the association of women, and Islamism is defended by the veiling of women. So women are becoming the speakers of both sides.
Göçek: But organizationally, the state is behind the secularist Kemalists. They have more institutional control; one controls more the state, the other civil society.
Göle: The official ideology of Kemalism becomes more a part of civil society as well so at the level of civil society you have this clash of ideologies.
Rose: Did I just hear you say that Kemalism became articulated through civil society inthe 1980s? Is that in response to the Islamist movement?
Rose: So all this is in a kind of dialectical relationship?
Göle: Exactly. It would be an error to situate Kemalism only at the state level and Islamism only at the societal level. This image (maybe one that we have derived from the Iranian Revolution: that is the Islamic masses against the westernized state) is wrong. On the contrary, like the British case, it is much more complicated because we have intermediate associations, we have political parties, we have civil societal associations, we have movements, within civil society there is differentiation. So Kemalist ideology has a place in civil society as well.
Nilüfer Göle is a Professor of Sociology at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology under Alain Touraine at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In 1991, she published, in Turkish, The Forbidden Modern, which examined the ``head scarf'' debate. Some Turkish university students had chosen to attend the university wearing the Islamic head scarf, an event which became a focal point of the debate on the Islamist movement in Turkey. Göle's book about the head scarf debate received wide attention and became quite controversial in Turkey. In 1993, the book was published in French and an English translation is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. In fall 1994, Göle was a visiting professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. Before leaving, she was invited to participate in an informal roundtable discussion of her book and its reception. Müge Göçek, Kathleen Canning (History), Sonya Rose (Sociology/History), Gunther Rose (Bowdoin College), and David William Cohen (Anthropology/History) participated in the discussion, a partial transcript of which follows.