The popular notion that Turkey is a model democracy is incorrect, Nukhet Sandal, postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, argued in a research presentation Wednesday
Sandal presented her research — concerning differential treatment of religious minorities in Turkey — to about 30 scholars and students at the institute’s Birkelund Boardroom yesterday. The talk was the first in a series of luncheon seminars sponsored by the Middle East Studies department and filled the room over capacity.
Sandal, who was raised in Turkey, spent 20 minutes giving her presentation, titled “Public Theologies of Citizenship in the Middle East: Revisiting the Turkish Model.” She began by describing some of the religious rifts that exist today in Turkey, from ethno-religious conflicts between the Muslim majority and Christian minority to the dissemination of pamphlets by religious institutions offering commentary on the question “Who is a Turkish citizen?” She framed her presentation by arguing that, even in a purportedly secular state like Turkey, “public theologies” — religiously animated attempts at addressing broader societal questions — arise and define boundaries between “citizens” and “non-citizens,” leading to conflict.
In her analysis, Sandal explained four “dimensions” that make up public theologies — the substantive, spiritual, spatial and temporal — and acknowledged her potential for bias, having grown up in a mostly secular family. Religious minorities — mainly different sects of Christians — do not receive equal treatment, she said, highlighting the tacit conviction that despite Turkey’s facade of pluralism, Muslims can legitimately claim to be “the highest category” of citizens. Under the Ottoman millet system, which was supposed to protect religious minority subjects of the Ottoman Empire, political leadership only dealt with religious leaders instead of with full civil societies.
“That system cannot work anymore,” Sandal said. “These (minority) populations do not get along with each other now.”
Touching on contemporary politics, she argued that issues like Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union and the rise of Kurdish nationalism have displaced attention from these longstanding issues of citizenship and nationhood. “Christians are happier now,” she said, but this sentiment belies rifts that persist and result in sporadic hate crimes.
“There is an embedded public theology,” she said, citing “textbooks, laws, the practices of people through their lives,” as contributing factors in this phenomenon. When pressed on this issue during a question-and-answer period following the presentation, she identified “the Ottoman understanding of nationhood” and the “Neo-Ottoman dream of governance and foreign policy” — a reference to the expansive Ottoman empire once centered in Turkey — as reasons the public theology has persisted.
The talk prompted many questions from professors, probing Sandal’s research and offering comparative cases that might be illustrative. Professor of Political Science Ashutosh Varshney proposed Sandal’s research could be distilled into the question “Who owns the nation?”, a question he said played out in conflicts like the Sri Lankan civil war.
The formality of the talk receded during the questions period — Sandal joked about “doing field research” while going to the salon, and a professor prodding Sandal for clarity added that she did so “because we’re friends and I care.”
Despite her findings, Sandal said she was optimistic about Turkey’s future. “I don’t know how the process will be, but things have to change.”
“How can we create the most inclusive societies in the shortest time?” she asked. “It may require some sacrifices, but change will come.”