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This article appeared in the writer's regular column in the Radikal newspaper on 26 July 2008. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.

Arabs, Turks and social change

Haluk Žahin

I am given to understand that Arab countries are engrossed in a curious debate about Turkey: Is Turkish society really like that?

They ask this question based on what they see in the Turkish television serials which are hugely popular in these countries. For example, in one such serial, a father restricts himself to scolding his unmarried daughter when he hears that she has got pregnant. A Saudi Arabian writer, expecting the father to behave very differently, cannot control his anger:

“Tut tut, have the Turks really changed this much to get into the European Union!”

On the other hand, we know that, with so many emigrants from Turkey falling victim to honour killings under similar circumstances, quite a few people in northern European countries say:

“Europe or not, these Turks never change!”

Which of these is true? Which is Turkey?

Clearly it is both of them. Turkey, which is undergoing very rapid and fundamental social change, in spite of her conservative hinterland, has many clusters within her society where different value systems hold sway. There are those who make do with scolding their unmarried daughters who get pregnant; there are also those who immediately convene the family assembly with a view to preserving their good name.

This is especially true of the large metropolitan areas. For example, in Istanbul there are districts in which feudal value systems, remnants of the Middle-Ages, exist side by side, or even cheek by jowl, with Californian value systems in which individualism is venerated. These are both Turkey.

Turkey in the past 50 years, as a product of her ‘social development’, has moved a long way in the direction of cultural pluralism.

Village society is monotonous and colourless. Developed ‘modern’ society that results from industrialisation and urbanisation, by contrast, is a multi-coloured mosaic. This is because the need has arisen for people with skills. Bourgeoisification has set in. A habitat has been created for differentiation, individualism and even eccentricity.

We can say that postmodernism is the very ideology of such differentiation.

In saying that Turkey is no longer as fertile a ground as she used to be for authoritarian systems, whether Islamic or otherwise, and in expressing confidence in our society on the matter of secularism, what I have in mind is the resistance exhibited by differentiated societies to the totalitarian yoke. Such societies will not succumb to this yoke.

The nature of Turkish society, in that it brings into close proximity two essentially mutually contradictory value systems, gives rise to as many problems as it engenders richness. This is also the reason for the great amount of discord and the great amount of unhappiness in human relationships in our social life. The basic theme underlying our disputes is: Which system of values shall predominate? When talking of ‘life style’, this is what we mean.

We have seen where it takes us when politics becomes embroiled in all of this.

The Arabian writer thinks that it would be better for Turkey to abandon her European ambitions, if what he sees in the serials is anything to go by. Turkey has yet to make her final decision.

However, since colour television serials do not emanate from monotonous societies, we can say that Turks will suffer and Saudis will spectate for some time to come.

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton