Piety and Secularity Contested: Family and Youth Politics in post-Kemalist “New Turkey”

Turkey was, until the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2010, often regarded as a model for an Islamic country that successfully balanced a conservative religious outlook with a commitment to a liberal Western political order. In recent years, this view has changed considerably. Currently, it is more common to interpret the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/AKP) government as following an authoritarian path framed by Islamism.

This project aims for a more nuanced, empirically grounded analysis of political and social change in Turkey in the wake of the AKP’s rise to power in 2002. We take Turkish family and youth politics, which are of high symbolic significance for the negotiation of the boundaries between religion and the secular in Turkey, as a showcase for the recent transformation. Our project employs a perspective on governance that conceives of state politics and societal developments as part of one intrinsically connected process. We therefore combine analysis of the policies of the AKP government in the domains of family and youth, and the ideals and rationales driving them, with a micro-level investigation of what individuals from various socio-politically and religio-culturally specific milieus experience as the pressing issues in these domains.

The following questions guide our research: How are AKP family and youth politics represented and negotiated in the public sphere? What can be said about the normative rationale behind this politics, and what kind of political subject does it aspire to form? How does AKP family and youth politics translate into policies, laws, and regulations from the national to the municipal level? Conversely, what are, from the perspective of NGOs engaged in the field, and of Turkish citizens of different milieus, central questions and problems concerning the domains of family and youth? How does the AKP slogan of ‘raising a pious generation’ resonate in the imaginations of Turkish citizens of various social and economic backgrounds?

The research is organized into two sub-projects, on the domains of family and youth respectively, which will address our guiding questions drawing on a variety of methods connected by a Grounded Theory framework: (1) analysis of AKP discourses and policies as well as the debates surrounding them in the public sphere, (2) focus group interviews with topic-related NGOs, and (3) milieu-specific group discussions with Turkish citizens in cities and neighborhoods with different socio-political and religio-cultural fabrics. Particular attention will be given throughout to how family and youth politics (such as those regarding gender relations and religious education) are negotiated in public discourse and on the micro-levels of everyday life.

With its focus on the relationship between the top-down AKP politics of normalizing a conservative national subject on the one hand, and the dynamics of subject formation at the micro-level of society on the other, this project follows a line of investigation that pursues the question of secularism and religious revivalism as an empirical one, beyond the confines of both conventional master narratives (of modernization, for example), as well as counter projects invested primarily in unmasking the former (such as post-colonialism). The Turkish experience with governance of religion is too complex to be explained with a binary secularist versus Islamist modelling. Thus, we address how the AKP’s reformism is positioned rhetorically against Kemalist secularism, while at the same time maintaining some of its features, such as a propensity to keep religion integrated in and thus subordinate to the state structure, and to actively use state agencies to propagate its vision of correct religion, effectively turning religion into a means of government. Unlike Kemalism, however, AKP discourse connotes religion in positive terms; enhancing it has become an objective of government, epitomized in the pledge to ‘raise a pious generation’.

Theorizing religion and politics in the Turkish context needs to be adjusted to this new constellation. Inquiring into religion as a factor that is inscribed in AKP governmentality requires moving beyond the debate on secularism, which tends to attribute to religion the role of an object of politics rather than a generic source of motivation. A focus on the governmentality of the AKP needs to ask about the vision of the AKP’s piety project without succumbing to the secularist bias that portrays the anti-secularist and anti-liberal undertones of AKP discourse as merely a revisionist response to Kemalism, instead allowing for an exploration that is open to discovering other genealogies. With these considerations in mind, we approach Turkish family and youth politics as contested arenas that are shaped by secularist legacies and prospective pious futures, without ever being able to be reduced to either.

It is from this vantage point that we aim to inquire into the contours of the religious subject that the AKP aims to establish, the genealogies that it tacks onto, and the means through which it is to be created. The focus on AKP governance is decentered by empirical investigation into the experiences and hopes that ordinary Turkish citizens articulate with regard to the domains of family and youth. We do expect that these articulations by Turkish citizens of various milieus will relate to experiences with AKP governance, and react to the ideal of a pious subject that Turkish society is being confronted with so forcefully, but we do not from the outset conceive of them as merely reactive to AKP politics. In this context, we also ask about points of dialogue, as well as shared spaces between Islamic and secular sensibilities and imaginaries. We thus aspire to establish an analytical framework for studying the politics of Islam and secularism that recognizes the complex entanglements of religious and secular sentiments and worldviews.

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