12.19.2007

Social Conflict and the Politicization of Cullture in Turkey

It is no coincidence that current political debate over the Islamist Welfare Party revolves around the term “lifestyle.” The dominant camps in this conflict draw their bases of support from groups with quite different lifestyles. The Islamist Welfare Party, while developing its own bourgeoisie and its new intellectuals, grew by winning broad support from the old and new gecekondu populations with its populist motto of “pure and just order.” Opposed to it is a loose group consisting of the radical bourgeoisie, state bureaucrats, the army, the urban middle classes, Kemalist intellectuals, the “Second Republicans,” and some radical intellectuals. Secularism and the Western–modern way of life are about the only common ground this otherwise incompatible alliance has.

It is clear that class does not correspond “properly” to political culture because class boundaries in Turkey have been increasingly crosscut by contradictory and hybrid cultural constructs of religion, ethnicity, nationalism, lifestyle, and gender. The culture of the popular classes can be opposed as “alienated” or “backward” by their supposedly counterpart intellectuals, as has been the case with arabesk culture. At the same time, regressiveness and racism can become popular among the subordinated, as is epitomized in the Sivas massacre and the rise of a popularized nationalist fervor suppressing the Kurdish issue. It is not just because the official, public political sphere in Turkey is so very restricted that social conflicts have been increasingly expressed in the language of culture since the 1980s; the politicization of culture itself has been a major factor in and consequence of the project and process of Turkish modernity from its inception. In that sense, the contradiction that inheres in the formation and appraisals of arabesk culture continue with Turkish society: the contradiction between a dominant nationalist and paternalist incapacity to live with difference and a deep, unrealized popular capacity to change and accept difference through hybridization.


Meral Özbek, “Arabesk Culture: A case of modernization and Popular Identity,” Sibel Bozdogan and Resat Kasaba, eds., Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997) 228.

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