Growing polarization threatens the very fabric of Turkish society

Growing polarization threatens the very fabric of Turkish society

 Growing polarization threatens the very fabric of Turkish society
Women demonstrators clash with Turkish police as they protest against Turkey's decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. (File/AFP)
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Some level of polarization is perhaps inevitable in any country these days. However, the divisions have become particularly pronounced in Turkey in recent years. It is not only politicians and their leaders that are sharply split along ideological and political lines, but also the wider Turkish society.
When it comes to the thoughts of the Turkish people on certain issues, whether domestic or foreign, it is not hard to predict their views based on their political affiliations and religious/ideological preferences.
In such a polarized society, the facts regarding an issue become of secondary importance because other factors related to people’s perceived identities drive their positions. Rather than a rational and fact-based debate, therefore, a deeply polarized and threatening clash increasingly dominates the national agenda.
This societal polarization is particularly evident in the way in which partisan identities are reflected in people’s rhetoric about everyday issues such as women and migrants.
As a result of the widening gap between secularists and conservatives in Turkish society in the past decade, women have come under constant pressure. Women’s rights, including their role and participation in political and public life, has therefore become one of the increasingly polarizing issues. The latest example of this has been seen at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Turkish women’s volleyball team, dubbed the “Sultans of the Net,” defeated China 3-0 on July 25. It was a victory to be celebrated and be proud of, as the Chinese are the defending Olympic champions. While many in Turkey did indeed praise the victory, which lifted the national spirit, there were those who ignored the incredible result and instead lectured the team members about “decency.”
A message posted on Twitter by a conservative figure that criticized the players over their uniforms went viral, attracting thousands of likes from fellow conservatives. Pro-secular users condemned him for overshadowing an impressive victory and polarizing public opinion. Since then, the media and the political arena have been preoccupied with clashes between staunch conservatives and secularists over how women should dress.
This is not the first time the volleyball team has been targeted by predominantly male conservatives in Turkey. Last year, an MP from the National People’s Party attracted widespread criticism after posting a message in which he accused the players of being immodest. He was subsequently expelled from his party.
It is such a pity that in this day and age there is still a debate in Turkey about what women should wear.

This societal polarization is particularly evident in the way in which partisan identities are reflected in people’s rhetoric about everyday issues such as women and migrants.

Sinem Cengiz

Turkey’s socioeconomic development should be the issue up for debate, not women’s decency. If one wants to discuss women, then the first subject should be how to reduce the high femicide rate in the country.
Another topic that has become one of the top items on Turkey’s paradoxical agenda is irregular migration, defined as the movement of people outside the laws, regulations and international agreements governing migration. It is a pressing global issue.
As nationwide concerns about a potential new influx of irregular migrants have grown in recent weeks, controversial proposals by a Turkish mayor and new statements about refugees in general have sparked a fresh debate in the country. There has been a deliberate policy to fuel anti-migrant rhetoric in the country and widen the divide in society between those who want migrants in Turkey and those who do not.
Tanju Ozcan, the mayor of the northwestern province of Bolu, announced he would propose to the province’s assembly a motion to charge foreigners — in other words, Syrian refugees — 10 times as much for water and sewage bills in an attempt to force them to leave the country.
His plan sparked outrage among human rights organizations, which criticized him for attempting to cut off aid to migrants and refugees. While many people supported his policy on refugees, many spoke out against it and he came under fire on social media, which of course helped to fuel the polarization in Turkey.
First and foremost, it is important to understand that neither the migrants and refugees nor the Turkish people are to blame for the issues related to refugees in Turkey. The blame lies firstly with Western nations that ignore the plight of people fleeing war zones, and secondly with Turkish policymakers, who have turned the issue into a political weapon that is to blame for the current polarization caused by it.
Amid all these debates, the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture has come under fire on social media for a promotional video designed to attract foreign tourists. The footage, which shows tourist attractions in Istanbul, and people eating and drinking in street cafes, having fun and dancing was mocked by critics, mostly pro-secular, for representing “the old Turkey” that existed before the conservative ruling party came to power.
There is no development, therefore, that cannot become a source of division among conservatives and secularists. As the preceding examples show, this increasingly polarized environment reveals itself in every facet of day-to-day life.
This exhausting, “us-versus-them” climate does not serve the Turkish people and is likely to have dire consequences for the country’s society. The values that help to hold Turkish society together should not be held hostage by polarization that threatens to undermine societal cohesion.

  • Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz
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