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Religion in the Turkish Context

Religion played an important role in the nation-building process in Turkey too. This role was articulated by the principle of laicism, an integral part of the leading Kemalist ideology. Turkish national identity was built in sharp contrast to the old regime, denying anything Ottoman, including the role of religion. The purpose of laicism was to disestablish Islam, to reduce its social, political and cultural influence, and to limit it to matters of belief and worship (Lewis 2002, 412). Kemalist policy in the sphere of religion was actually aimed at restricting the public authority of the Muslim establishment, as well as the public manifestations of Islam. Religion was to become a strictly private matter. However, state reforms affected the private sphere too, remodelling family relations, lifestyles, behaviour and daily customs (Hann and Beller-Hann 2001, 38). As a matter of fact, Kemalism treated Islam, the dominant religion in Turkey, with some ambiguity—it worked to restrict its social influence, nevertheless it also placed nominal Islam at the core of the unified national culture it aimed to construct (Cagaptay 2006).

In contrast to the immense progress which the Republic made in economic, social and political respects, Ataturk’s project to build a culturally homogenous nation was not so successful (Kasaba 1997, 16-17). The results of the attempts to secularise and modernise Turkey were also somewhat partial (Keyder 1997, 46). The gap or dissonance between the cultures of the modernising elite and the masses remained huge (Ibid, 43; Gole 1997, 86). Yet, a major shift in the way of self-identification had been achieved: for many Turks national identity became more important than religious affiliation.

The liberalisation of market economy and of social relations which started in the 1960s called for a renegotiation of the basic principles of social life, including the role of religion. In the following decades, considerable development in terms of national economic integration, urbanisation and social welfare took place (Keyder 1997, 41). The 1980s started with a coup and a gradual hardening of the rules confining the public manifestations of Islam. New regulations were introduced restricting the presence of veiled women at universities and in public services. At the same time many rural families migrated to the cities, thus exporting their cultural attitudes, including traditional family patterns and religious practice.5 Those who experienced upward social mobility sent their daughters to high schools and universities, where they confronted the restrictive rules and looked for ways to surmount them.

Under the impact of continuing modernisation, urbanisation and budding consumerism a new social group emerged, which spread a new understanding of the public role of Islam (Kejanlioglu and Tas 2009, 429). The proponents of this new public and political Islam were modern and sought to play an important role in the political, economic and cultural life of the modern society. The emerging Islamist movement in Turkey gained momentum in the 1990s and not only reshaped public discourses of religion but introduced also changes in the regulation of public demonstration of religious symbols. This came as a response to the crisis of secular nationalism and suggested a ‘countercultural model of modernization’ (Gole 1997, 82), which was to bridge the gap between the educated and the uneducated. Islamist proponents had been very successful in mobilising religious attachments and in creating not only a political ideology but also a community.

To summarise, by the time the re-settlers from Bulgaria fled to Turkey, there were at least three religious regimes spread out among the Turkish public—traditional Islam, secular Kemalist nationalism and Islamism. These regimes co-existed and intermingled (most visibly and complexly in the big cities), co-constituting each other and shaping “particular subjectivities and communities of affection” (Moors and Salih 2009, 375). At a surface level, re-settlers moved from one secular society to another, however, in practice they experienced quite different religious regimes before and after the exodus. In addition, they came from a society where Islam was only a minority religion and was stigmatised in the dominant national discourses, to a social environment where it was the major religious establishment and most wide-spread religion, despite the fact that it was shaped by various competing discourses. One would expect that the secular nationalist discourses would be the closest to the immediate experience the re-settlers had had in the society of origin. However, the real picture is much more complex.

One of the driving forces of the 1989 exodus was the supposed cultural proximity between the re-settlers and the Turks in Turkey, especially regarding language, religion and customs. Yet one of the biggest shocks the re-settlers experienced was when they realised that they were not sufficiently competent in the majority culture in Turkey. What made their adaptation to the receiving society most problematic was religion. In tackling this issue, one should take into consideration the diversity among the migrants as well as in Turkish society. Upon their arrival, re-settlers varied a lot with respect to education, professional qualifications, urban/rural background, region of origin, generation, and those social and cultural differentiations reflected in their attitudes towards religion. Among them there were people who built their identity around their religious attachment, others who had very limited religious practice and/or considered religion only as part of tradition, and yet others who had grown up in an entirely secular setting with little or no bearing to religion whatsoever.

Within this wide range of influences, quite different subjectivities in regard with religion were shaped. In Turkey, the bulk of the re-settlers chose to settle down in bigger cities—modern, developed, industrialised— where they were immediately engulfed by the whirlpool of competing religious discourses and had to make their choices. The immediate milieu of settling played a decisive role in the processes of accommodation of the newcomers as they negotiated between the existing religious regimes. Re-settlers received help by the state for housing but were re-directed to poorer, underdeveloped urban neighbourhoods, where they lived next door to migrants from the Turkish province or from other Balkan countries (Zhelyazkova 1998; Elchinova 2012). Thus, the majority of them had neighbours with various traditional lifestyles in which religion often played a pivotal role; in other words, they had to cope with more or less non-secular publics.

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