Turkey: The search for meaning by children of religious families

30.04.2020 medyascope.tv
Translated by: Gizem Ünsalan /
Orjinal Metin (tr-4/30/2020)

Hello, good day. Today, we had a chat with theologian Professor Mustafa Öztürk. He had previously visited the Medyascope studio; this time, we spoke remotely, from our respective homes. Once again, it was a great discussion. Mustafa Öztürk is a truly authentic and brave theologian. We got into ominous subjects, and since we got into ominous subjects, of course, it seems like Mustafa Öztürk will, above all else, annoy many segments of society; I won’t be surprised at all. But I believe the views he expressed will contribute somewhat to the unproductive debate scene in Turkey. While asking a question regarding the LGBTI community, I tried to communicate something, but I might not have been able to fully get my point across, so I wanted to expand on that here.
This is a broadcast that’s actually been on my mind for some time. After what happened today—I mean the debate during our discussion—I concluded that now is the time to do it. This was actually mentioned in broadcasts I did at different times—in the Deism and Atheism broadcasts—there are certain observations that, within conservative families in Turkey—among youth in general, but especially among the kids of conservative families—there is an increased tendency to ask questions. There’s information, and there are complaints.
Of course, where do these complaints come from? There’s discomfort at the government level as well as among educators—or rather, not educators but those at the head of educational institutions, particularly individuals involved with religious education. There were also complaints, reports, etc. that young people ask too many questions and gravitate toward Deist tendencies, even Atheist tendencies. I had shared my observations on the subject, as well. It doesn’t seem like this issue will go away easily, as it’s quite a dynamic issue. And I could say that a short e-mail I recently received further opened my mind regarding the subject.
A contact who claimed to also be from those circles—a man whose name I won’t share; it might not be his real name, anyway—said: “Although the traumas we experienced and continue to experience as a society might have deepened the hypnosis of adults, some of the kids from conservative families are asking questions in a major way. I would like to state that I have personally witnessed much of this as someone who grew up in that neighborhood. Although this situation is referred to as Deism, it is actually a sort of Nihilism, or, in other words, ‘nothingness.’ One of these young people said exactly this to their family: ‘I don’t believe in any of these clichés you’ve been forced to memorize. I also don’t think your thoughts will create a positive impact on society.’ This is sort of like a ‘Let it get messy’ situation.”
What’s said and witnessed here matters. There might be those who believe it’s wrong to make such grand statements based on a single email. This is actually just the latest example. Because I have some impressions gathered from different testimonies at different times. Some of these are people I know intimately who are from within the Islamic movement—people who are still close friends. In discussions with them, it’s particularly about their own kids—and their kids are either college-aged or older—I’m talking about young people who actively participated in the Islamic movement in Turkey during the ’80s, who were, let’s say, students in university at the time. Now, their children are the age they were, and a new generation was added to the mix. Many of them say [their kids] don’t resemble them. Of course, there are those who do; of course, there are those who follow in their family’s footsteps. Perhaps those who follow in their family’s footsteps are the majority, that could be the case, too; this is nothing surprising. But the foremost issue is that this group of people who are questioning, objecting, and curious—regardless of their numbers—they are, in any case, the true catalysts of change.
To give an example from my own life, we became leftists when studying at Galatasaray High School in the 1970s. And here, many friends joined different groups within the leftist movement along with us. There were very few kids from working-class families among them—not that there weren’t any, but there were very few of them. A significant portion of the other kids were from middle-class, perhaps lower-middle class, middle-class, and upper-middle class families. Particularly at that time, there was quite a large segment invariably referred to within the left as “bourgeois kids” or “petit bourgeois kids”—those attending universities and high schools… And the fact that a very significant group among them were involved in the leftist movement when, in reality, their families were well-off and didn’t really have issues with the system was a sort of revolt and objection to this status-quoism.
Later, in the ’80s, I noticed that this objection to the status-quoism was more prevalent in the Islamic movement. In a way, the Islamists largely replaced the left, which had suffered a defeat in the ’80s, or the late ’70s and early ’80s—this happened not just in Turkey but around the world, as well. But what I observed as a journalist is that a significant portion of the young people who took part in the Islamic movement within Turkey in the ’80s—the mid-’80s and early ’90s—would have probably been leftist had they been around in the ’70s. In other words, there’s actually continuity here, but the areas of expression for that continuity differ. Yet the key point in all this is to complain about the existing circumstances. Young people who believe that some things aren’t going well and that there is inequality, injustice, and exploitation in society—even with the status of their milieu and the opportunities they have—can experience a disengagement and express an objection despite their families.
Now, the ’80s were a decade when, in actuality, the conservative middle classes in Turkey were gradually brought to the center. This process was one that started in the past, with the National Salvation Party, but somehow got accelerated with the Justice Party and, later, ANAP. Yet due to the struggles in this period, many young people adopted an anti-establishment, anti-system position. And later—whether they knew it or not—they significantly contributed to the Justice and Development Party coming to power via either active participation or indirect support. And a large segment benefited and continues to benefit in some way from this new system of power.
There are those who are directly involved; there are members of parliament, ministers, or high-level executives; or there are those who do a lot of work with the government, who have a reciprocal relationship with the government as self-employed individuals, industrialists, or tradesmen. Meanwhile, a “new”—or, rather, “renewed”—conservative middle class, even upper-middle class was formed with increased opportunities and influence as well as better economic conditions, who could offer better opportunities for their kids. And these kids in an environment of ample opportunities—while some are quite happy with their circumstances and choose to live their lives in the best way possible, others have started to say, “Some things are going wrong here.” They grew bothered by their families’ positions because the approach to and interpretation of Islam given to them—imposed on them—by their families is one that actually prioritizes submission to the government, an interpretation of Islam that emphasizes the status-quo instead of change. And, in this sense, I see young people asking questions.
Of course, this doesn’t occur on its own here; these young people were born in the midst of globalization; they are the children of globalization. They are people who can now access information—everything—instantly. I remember during the ’80s; it happened at that time, too. But even at a time when the internet wasn’t around, when the internet and similar global technologies didn’t exist, the kids of conservative families had endless curiosity, and the heads of families did whatever they could to eliminate or prevent this curiosity. For instance, I’ll share an anecdote: In those days, prior to the internet, there was “Alo Bilgi”—an endeavor that would later on lay the foundations of Bilgi University—which provided some services via telephone. These services were the precursor to the internet, offered over the phone. I know very well that an intellectual from the Islamic sphere known for their anti-consumer society views was quite seriously bothered by their kids’ relationship with these “Alo hotlines”—they knew this because it appeared in the phone bill.
Or, another acquaintance—and in those days, things like Netflix, cable television, etc., did not exist; the internet certainly didn’t exist; but there were a lot of channels on television, and some of these channels sometimes featured obscene images, etc.—things that could disturb a conservative family. A friend, I’ll never forget—a friend who was greatly disturbed by this—suggested a solution: “I’m in charge of the remote control at home. When something happens, I immediately change the channel.” I said to that friend, jokingly: “Okay, but how do you know what will appear, and on what channel? Something could happen to you at any minute.” And that friend, I’ll never forget it—I forgot the channel, but TRT had a documentary channel in those days—told me that was the safest place, and in an emergency, they immediately switched to that channel.
Many things have changed between then and now, but the curiosity, inquisitiveness, and objections of kids and young people, as well as their discomfort with their families, has not changed at all. We are now in a global setting; when a kid asks his family something and isn’t satisfied with the answer, he can go on Google, enter his query, and instantly come across multiple response alternatives. So, at this moment, it was already difficult for conservative families, particularly those who have reached a certain level—both economically and socially—to raise their children as they saw fit and guide them into a specific status-quoist approach to Islam; now, I believe it’s becoming rather impossible.
And here, of course, it sometimes makes things easier that a party and leader with Islamic claims is in power, but in many instances, it also makes things more difficult. Because if young people are content with Turkey, and they truly believe that there is equality and justice in Turkey, and they constantly hear stories of happiness when they look around them and talk to their friends, they will of course want to protect that government and that party in power. But when the complaints and objections coming in from all sides and observed within themselves [force them to] ask questions, and you factor in the claims to Islamism of the party in power, it consequently leads to some questioning in the religious sense, as well. This is a reality. Something like Deism doesn’t necessarily have to flow from this, and Atheism especially doesn’t have to flow from this at all—although we do know that things like this happen—but there is a strong chance that the type of Nihilism in that email I mentioned earlier will grow out of it.
Now, if we are to consider the latest statement made by the President of Religious Affairs Ali Erbaş regarding the LGBTI community and the support he received from the highest level of government, they may resonate with young people in a certain segment of society. Yet for young people attending universities in big cities, who spend hours each day in front of the screen and smartphones, who watch YouTube instead of television or follow other outlets… And then think about how the outspoken self-expression and visibility of LGBTI individuals has really increased recently in conjunction with all this globalization… We now know they have organizations in universities and many other places; we know they openly and proudly declare their positions and sexual orientations without hiding their identities, and they appear in public spaces, and the kids of conservative families are also in these spaces. I mean, of course there are some who are bothered by this, but there are a significant number of kids and young people who consider this to be very natural, who aren’t at all bothered by this. Above all, consider this: Conservative families in a certain income bracket are sending their kids to study abroad. This applies to many families, including the Erdoğan family. The first places that come to mind are the U.S., U.K., and Canada, and in these places, there is no such thing as an LGBTI problem. Of course, there certainly are some debates, but these groups have become mainstream in those countries and on those campuses. Nowadays, nobody sees them as anomalies or perverts, and those who do see them as such are marginalized. When you offer such arguments that marginalize people who aren’t like them to young people who have grown and are growing in such an atmosphere, who are fully open to the world, and who ask questions, there will of course be people who accept these arguments, but there will also be a not-insignificant number of them who don’t accept. And we shouldn’t forget that those who don’t accept such arguments have greater influence, social status, and decisive force within their spheres.
Societies always—in every country and every place—make progress with such curious people who ask questions. It may seem as though people who don’t make objections or ask questions form the majority, but suddenly we may see that the dents made by those people who do ask questions help society make incremental progress. Therefore, right now, it may seem as though the views expressed by the government or from the Directorate of Religious Affairs or from the leader of this religious order or that community—regarding the LGBTI issue or another subject—these views may seem like the key determining factor. But that’s not how it is at all; to the contrary, despite all their claims to dominance, the individuals who ask questions, however few they are in number—and I don’t think they are few in number—will always blaze a trail, pave the way.
And this is what is happening right now: The government is going against the tide; the Directorate of Religious Affairs is going against the tide. Perhaps these young people who ask questions will themselves grow into status-quoists in the future, but the questions they ask now—sometimes openly, sometimes veiled, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly—will change many things step by step. We saw the first instance of this during Gezi. There were kids from conservative families who took part in the Gezi protests, however timidly or shyly, and it was quite valuable—it made Gezi more meaningful. And it also caused hate from the party in power to grow exponentially.
I believe the events that transpired there—even though it might not really attract attention because there are no such social movements at the moment—involved quite serious dynamics. Because the youth’s search for meaning will not end. No matter how much you want to force things onto them, no matter how much you want to offer certain opportunities that will satisfy them, it will continue. Because, after all, you haven’t been able to form an egalitarian society, and you aren’t concerned with doing so, either. Right now, the system in Turkey is a copy of the old one, where the things that Islamists once objected to—and perhaps even more—are being put into practice by the government. Therefore, it’s inevitable that the objections raised by former youths via Islamism will find expression in different ways today. That’s what I think.
Yes, that is all I have to say. Have a good day.

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