İzmir is the third biggest city in Turkey. Its natives often believe that it is the most modern, Westernized part of the country. Yet, I have been thinking on this “modernity” aspect of the city for a long time, and have come to the conclusion that it is one of the biggest Turkish myths.
First, let me tell you a story. It happened in İzmir a few weeks ago. A few lawyers, including a friend of mine, went to a pub just to have a friendly chat. Among them was a transsexual person, who was actually a client of one of those lawyers. However, as soon as they sat down to ask for drinks, a waiter approached them and asked them to send away this transsexual person. Seeing surprised faces, he explained the reason: “Transsexuals and woman with headscarves are not allowed in this pub!” My friends, of course, felt deeply insulted and left the pub altogether.
This pub is not an ordinary one. It is one of the well-known meeting points in İzmir. Artists, intellectuals and the elites of the city often meet there. I was one of its regular visitors while I was living in İzmir. Its decoration and ambience are eloquent, and the music is marvelous. In short, it is a quite “modern” pub that represents the “modernity” of the city. This modernity, however, equally excludes transsexuals and conservative Muslim women who wear a veil.
A hub of nationalism
İzmir is the laboratory to understand and analyze this self-styled Turkish “modernity.” Its adherents are homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, non-Muslimophobic, EU-phobic and Kurdophobic. They are zealously nationalist, and believe that the whole world is conspiring against them.
You have to get beyond the looks to discover the fascist within these liberal-looking people. Life-wise, they are indeed liberal: You can see that the boyfriend of the daughter comes to the house to hang out with the girl, and the father is sympathetic to this flirtatious situation. His wife wears a super mini-skirt, and he is quite fine with that. He drinks his gin or rakı on the balcony with great pleasure. Everything looks easygoing, until you speak on some serious matters. Just ask about the Kurds and you can hear this “modern man” saying, “We need a final confrontation with the Kurds, enough is enough; we should make clear who is the owner of this country.” Basically, he offers genocide. (Well, genocide is a very modern phenomenon, is it not?) The same man is ultra secular, but also the strongest enemy of non-Muslims. Surprising?
It was no accident that the marginal Young Party (GP) of Turkey, which is the equivalent of Jörg Haider's neo-Nazi-ish “Freedom Party” in Austria, got the biggest support in İzmir. Neither was it a coincidence that the racist Budun Association was established in İzmir. (“Budun” means “people,” or “volk,” in ancient Turkish.) A leaflet distributed by this organization says the following:
“Dear Turkish woman and man! Make another child for the sake of Turkishness. Because you are being marginalized. Instead of you, betrayers, pickpockets and drug dealers are reproducing. We are the Turkish Socialist Budun People who can give their deserved answer to the Kurdish and Gypsy gangs and bigots.”
I am not saying all people in İzmir are racists. I am from İzmir, too. All I am saying is that this city provides a case study for Turkey's “secular,” “modern,” but fiercely anti-democratic, mindset.
A dark past
This peculiarity makes it extremely difficult for outsiders to understand Turkey. Modernity, to most Westerners, equals democratic values. However, in Turkey, things are different. Our modern elites have no tolerance towards differences. As my friend Mustafa Akyol, who writes columns in another paper, once stated, our modern elites prefer a softer version of the apartheid regime by which they have superiority over the rest of the society.
So, how has this mindset has been construed? I cannot explain this complex phenomenon in one article. But let me give you a clue.
Let's go back to İzmir again. This city once had the largest non-Muslim population in Turkey. Greeks, Jews and Armenians were more populous than Turks. Today, however, you can not find any of these non-Turkish groups. They have all vanished. And guess what happened to their properties…
This may explain why modern Turkish people do not like non-Muslims. Because the latter represent a past that modern Turks do not want to face. They have adopted the lifestyles of these non-Muslims to a great extent, but they do not want to see them around.
But why they do not like Muslims either, then? Maybe Muslims remind them that they are not authentic. They remind them where they are coming from. The roots that they have denied… Theirs is a very difficult identity crisis to deal with.
Modern and militarist
In short, the past explains the present. This country was once a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, heterogeneous empire. We created a republic out of this empire, which denied all differences and aimed to create a homogenous society. This republic created the so-called “modern citizen,” who is extremely intolerant towards differences.
That modern Turk is today sympathetic to the Ergenekon gang, is in favor of military guardianship and does not believe in democracy at all. He is equally allergic to women in headscarves and to non-Muslims.
If you have this background in mind, you can easily understand the mindset of Ferhan Şensoy, the famous Turkish actor, who recently made a call for military intervention during his performance in a theater. “If you will do a military intervention, do it now,” he said. According to him, it is high time for a military intervention in Turkey, which is going away from “modern values.” İzmirians would only be wise to declare him an honorary freeman!
* Published in Turkey's TODAY'S ZAMAN on May 15.