Seyla Benhabib, Yale University
Dissent Winter 2009
Turkey is unique among contemporary Muslim societies. Modern Turkey emerged as a nation-state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 and has been a republic since 1923. Discarding the theological trappings of the Ottoman state, where the sultan was also the caliph, Turkey opted for the privatization of the Muslim faith, along the lines of liberalism and republican secularism (laiklik). The revolutionary ideology of the founders of the modern Turkish republic, Kemalism, was also a dirigiste ideology, granting the state a great deal of control over religious affairs and, for that matter, over the economy and civil society. Religion became a matter of private faith, and the state removed the theological vocabulary from its own proceedings, all the while acknowledging that Islam was the official religion of this society. The Turkish model of laïcité is unique in that the state continues to direct religious affairs: the thousands of Muslim clerics who serve in mosques are educated in state-sponsored institutions of higher learning. In the last three decades, however, this peculiar Turkish model has become destabilized, and the sociological firewalls that the Turkish republic tried to erect between state and religion have turned out not to be as thick as the Kemalist revolutionaries imagined.
The ensuing difficulties are nicely suggested by a question recently posed by Jürgen Habermas: “How should we see ourselves as members of a post-secular society and what must we reciprocally expect from one another in order to ensure that in firmly entrenched nation states, social relations remain civil despite the growth of a plurality of cultures and religious world views?” Habermas asks this question with an eye to the conflict between European societies and their Muslim residents and citizens. In Turkey, where the majority of the population is Muslim but where a modern constitutional understanding of citizenship and civil rights is institutionalized, the question requires a nuanced response. I will try to respond by reexamining the “headscarf ban” and the legislative struggles surrounding it.
In February of 2008, the ruling Turkish party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), decided to reform the law that banned the wearing of headscarves and turbans in institutions of higher learning in Turkey. In June of 2008, the Turkish Constitutional Court overturned the new legislation, arguing that it was subversive of the secular nature of the Turkish state. 
Civil society in Turkey today shows unprecedented effervescence and self-examination. Atrocities committed against the Ottoman Armenians in 1915; repressive measures directed at the non-Muslims with the passing of the so-called Varlik Vergisi, which redistributed the wealth of Jews, Greeks, and Armenians primarily to the nascent Turkish bourgeoisie; the repressive Kemalist ideology of the ruling elites; and the origins of the Kurdish problem, which goes back to the compromises reached between these very Kemalist elites and Kurdish feudal landlords—all these topics are being examined by the media, by newspapers, by works of art and theater, and in contemporary scholarship. Seen against this background, the headscarf debate essentially centers around the pluralization of identities in a postnationalist and democratic society. It is not about regression to an Islamist republic, as many secularists claim. The Kemalist elites—the army, the civil bureaucracy, teachers, lawyers, engineers, and doctors—look upon these developments as failures of the republican experiment. On the contrary, they are manifestations of its success. Whereas Kemalist republican ideology, despite its Enlightenment pretensions, equates citizenship with ethnic Turkish and religious Muslim identity, today we see not only the proliferation of ethnicities but also the reclaiming of different ways of being Muslim. It is not only the right to wear the headscarf that must be defended but also the right of any Muslim girl or woman not to wear the hijab if she so chooses and, likewise, the right of any Muslim person who so chooses not to observe mandatory fasting during Ramadan that must be asserted. But neither the ruling AKP nor the oppositional Republican People’s Party (CHP) show themselves to be deep democrats in this sense. It is also quite possible that had the Turkish Constitutional Court decided to accept the new legislation as constitutional, the AKP would have seen a green light to ban the public drinking of alcohol, to impose further restrictions on the dress habits of nonobservant Muslim Turkish women, and to demand that all Muslims fast during Ramadan. In other words, the public face of Turkish civil society could have come to resemble that of Saudi Arabia and Malaysia rather than that of Israel or Canada, countries in which religious groups enjoy great freedoms and some degree of self-government in many areas of civil and political life.
In the weeks following the reform of the headscarf ban, a group of nearly eight hundred women wearing the headscarf signed a petition stating, “If freedom of expression is at stake, nothing can be considered a detail. We are not yet free.” These women took aim at what they call “repressive governmentality”; they demanded the abolition of the Turkish Council on Higher Education (YOK); they wanted assurances that the rights of Alevis (a dissident Muslim sect) would be protected, that there would be a solution to the Kurdish problem, and that Article 301 would be abolished. The right to wear the headscarf was seen in the context of broadening civil rights for other groups.
IN ANOTHER Cosmopolitanism, I introduced the term “democratic iterations” to analyze contentious processes of struggle. Democratic iterations are linguistic, legal, cultural, and political repetitions in transformation. They not only change established understandings but also successively transform what once was the valid or established view of an authoritative precedent. Democratic iterations are open ended. Thus, in the Turkish context, the legal reforms, even though they were overturned, could have led to a heightened debate about the illegality as well as the immorality of all forms of discrimination in the public sphere—just as they could have led to increasingly repressive measures against nonobservant Muslims and, maybe, non-Muslims in general.
Democratic iterations can lead to “jurisgenerative politics,” which takes place when a democratic people that considers itself bound by certain guiding norms and principles reappropriates and reinterprets them to expand the arc of equality and freedom, thus showing itself to be not only the subject but also the author of the laws. On the one hand, rights claims such as freedom of conscience and equality before the law, which frame democratic politics, must be viewed as transcending the specific enactments of democratic majorities. On the other hand, such democratic majorities re-iterate these principles and incorporate them into democratic processes through legislation, argument, contestation, revision, and rejection. Jurisgenerative politics results in the augmentation of the meaning of rights claims and in the growth of the political authority of actors who make these rights their own by democratically deploying them.
In some cases, of course, no normative learning may take place at all, but only strategic bargaining among the parties; in other cases, the political process may simply run into the sandbanks of legalism; or a popular majority may trample upon the rights of minorities in the name of some totalizing discourse of fear and war.
In contemporary Turkey, the headscarf debate is only the beginning of a transition heralding the pluralization and flexibility of the repressive Turkish nationalism that has dominated the country since the founding of the republic. In this process not only the confrontation with religious Islam but also the fate of the Armenian, Greek, Jewish, and Assyrian populations in the Turkish republic have been opened for political discussion.
In conclusion then, and in response to Habermas’s question, the most significant development in politics today concerns the unsettling of the identity of the democratic people, the demos, as a result of the rise of deterritorialized religious movements, including but not restricted to political Islam. This development calls into question the relation of the demos to the nation, when understood as an ethnos, and places on the agenda the transformation of repressive understandings of both ethnicity and religion so as to allow for a larger, more inclusive democracy.
Seyla Benhabib is Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University. Her most recent book is Another Cosmopolitanism (Oxford University Press, 2006). This article is a revised version of the opening lecture delivered during the Istanbul Seminars, “Dialogues on Civilizations,” organized by Reset magazine, June 2-8, 2008, at Bilgi University, Italy.