The Freedom of Seduction
Nilufer Gole, one of Turkey's most provocative intellectuals,
is professor of sociology at Bogazici University.
Istanbul-Non-Western countries are usually judged
in terms of their distance from "modernity." Modernity appears
in these societies more as an aspiration than as an indigenous reality.
It is something, like a level of consumption, that is to be attained.
The absence of modernity is a gap to be filled. Modernity is not conceived
as an intrinsic part of their historical and social reality, but as something
external and alien to the customary practice of daily life as well as
This opposition between West and non-West is also a mode of connection
between them, constructed historically by asymmetrical desires and indifferences,
by dependence on Western history and thought.
Once Western history from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment to
industrialization to the information revolution becomes the terrain of
innovation and newness, and hence the reference of modernity, the non-Western
experiences fade. They lose their power as world-history makers. They
become defined as residuals, as in "the West and the rest."
They are "peripheral" or "developing" or "newly
industrializing." They are the "Islamic countries" and
"authoritarian regimes." All are said to have a weak capacity
to generate modernity indigenously.
But can these societies labeled by the West as "other" gain
a new visibility, a name of their own, by contrasting their social practices
with each other rather than with the West? By contrasting Hong Kong and
Istanbul, two cities where East meets West and where tradition mixes with
modernity, we can discover some clues that help us understand the nature
of non-Western modernities.
VOLUNTARY MODERNIZATION VS. INVOLUNTARY MODERNITY | Non-Western
histories, whether Communist or nationalist, are marked by voluntary modernization.
In societies where modernity is absent, yet haunts the minds of the elites,
modernization is an expression of political will. Think of Ataturk, Nehru,
Sukarno, Nasser, Mao, Stalin.
As it turns out, modernization did not follow a linear, universal meta-narrative
of causal sequences. Education, urbanization, economic development and
democracy did not turn out to lead one to the other. Instead, modernization
proceeded asymmetrically according to the specific interaction between
the local cultural fabric and the universal concept of modernity.
Today, it is legitimate, even intellectually fashionable, to highlight
this context-bound course of modernization in non-Western societies-a
methodological shift that is not independent of historical change itself
as the universal retreats before the particular.
In both Turkey and China, for example, we are witnessing the shift from
"authoritarian modernization"-state-centered modernization from
above-to a more civil society-centered modernization from below. These
two projects often enter into conflict because modernization depends on
the will of political elites whereas modernity from below does not necessarily
conform to the Westernized ideals of the modernizing elites.
While globalization and the spread of the market economy accelerate the
demise of state-centered forms of modernization, they also open up non-Western
societies in ways that can lead to civil war as fundamentalist movements,
tribalism and ethnic disputes threaten the democratic notion of citizenship.
The liberalization of the economy also easily leads toward pure consumerism,
corruption and pornography. Such distortions reveal the extreme nature
of involuntary modernity in non-Western countries.
HYBRIDS WITHOUT NAMES | As we move toward an understanding of new
hybrids that combine local and global realities, we move onto a terrain
that is not spelled out by social scientific language. The common tendency
is to name all sorts of puzzling paradoxes either as parochial signs of
a "pathology of backwardness" or, in the other extreme, as simply
Trying to name this new reality raises the problem of the conceptualization
of modernity itself. Once we move away from the master narrative of modernity
and it is no longer identified either with Western geography or with the
Western cultural tradition of the Enlightenment-by the values of social
progress, individual emancipation, equality and liberty-then modernity
itself has to be redefined.
Postmodernism has already stressed the divorce of Western modernity from
the Enlightenment. But because post-modernism is a criticism of modernity
from within, it has an almost presumed allegiance to it. Once we accept
that there are many particular alternative modes of modernity, the concept
of modernity itself risks complete erosion.
In order to arrive at new prisms of analysis, we need to further de-center
the West itself and look at what once were considered peripheries as centers
in their own right, with their own capacity for creating history.
DETRADITIONALIZING THE PAST | There is a particular dissonance
between tradition and modernity in the non-Western contexts. Contrary
to what is insinuated by the common label of "traditional societies,"
such societies can be said instead to be "detraditionalized."
Especially where the authoritarian forms of modernization prevailed, the
rupture with the traditional past has been radical. Turkey and China can
be taken as examples of voluntary detraditionalization. Radical rejection
of the past-Confucian and Islamic-was an ideology of both revolutions
in the name of "newness."
The Kemalist modernization which brought the secular nation state to Turkey
in 1923 signified a complete rupture with the Ottoman and Muslim past.
Secular civil law was adapted from Switzerland. The Arabic alphabet was
replaced by the Latin alphabet. The Western calendar was adopted. The
fez (Turkish hat) was outlawed.
At the same time, the public sphere (which has only recently gained some
autonomy from the state) has been tightly monitored by modernizing elites
who have tried to expunge all religious tendencies and practices in order
to institute "the modern way of life." This has involved the
banning of religious orders, regulations on the clothing of public servants,
cleansing of the language of Arabic influences and even the imposition
of Western classical music on state radio stations and television channels.
Much as in the Soviet Union or China, past traditions were considered
to be an obstacle on the way to modernization and thus were to be ignored
if not destroyed.
Consequently, in these places modernity did not have a transformative
effect on tradition. Traditions were not reinterpreted but frozen and
rigidified. If they survived at all, it was only at the edge of the system
as dissonant fragments or in juxtaposition to the new forms of modernity.
This project of modernity as a radical cultural rupture led to a kind
of silent coexistence of the old and the new. What Akbar Abbas has written
about Hong Kong could be said of Istanbul as well: "A space traversed
by different times and speeds, where change has no clear direction...a
weakening of the sense of historical sequentiality so that old and new
are contemporaneous. Continuities and discontinuities exist side by side.
Premodern and postmodern join hands without having to acknowledge each
CONTEMPORARY ISLAM | Contemporary Islam is more a product of modernization
than of the return to traditions. The main Islamic social actors today
are trained by secular institutions among which engineers, social scientists,
intellectuals and journalists constitute the majority. They are the product
of urbanization and modern education. In their writings there are more
references to such Western thinkers as Foucault, Feyerabend, Illich, Gellner
and Baudrillard than to religious Islamic figures.
Their radicalism, labeled as "fundamentalism," stems from a
return to the past of Islam as it is preached in the Koran and was practiced
during the time of the Prophet. But such a return does not mean a continuity
with tradition. On the contrary, the reference to fundamental sources
is used to criticize the traditional practices and interpretations of
Islam that have developed over the centuries since the Prophet. Customary
practices handed down from generation to generation over the years are
considered "heresy." Indeed, today's Islamist militants reject
the heritage of traditions in their endeavor to politicize Islam. Ironically,
they contribute to the process of detraditionalization of society.
The mode of covering of Islamist women is another indicator of the dissonance
between tradition and modernity. Covering oneself is a reminder of the
traditional conception of gender identities and the segregation of the
sexes. Yet, not only does the new Islamist covering-its fabrics, colors
and forms-have nothing to do with the traditional way of covering; it
represents a rupture with the traditional, docile Muslim women of the
interior. Today's covered Islamist women, such as Masoumeh Ebtekar, who
is the minister of environment in Iran, are assertive in their acquired
professional and political identities, educated and visible in public
Dissonant coexistence can also be seen in the local neighborhood and the
home. In Istanbul, the recent explosion of trendy "cafes"-where
men and women socialize over espresso and cappuccino-coexist with the
old coffee houses. These coffee houses remain a purely men's space where
they drink traditional Turkish coffee and play backgammon and chat about
politics. In the common home today, the dining table is still preserved
for guests while the family continues to eat on their knees around the
traditional round copper tray.
These examples all show that the moment we think globalization has taken
over local lifestyles, the newfound interest in traditions, local aesthetics
and past memories appear again in unexpected combinations. These hybrid
ways of life represent not so much a return to traditions and the past
as a paradoxical search for harmony between personal identity and modernity.
Again, what Akbar Abbas has said of Hong Kong is equally true of Istanbul:
"The culture of disappearance is the condition for the invention
of identity." Speaking of the contrived City Walk, a street of shops
and cafes for strolling at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, the Dutch
architect Rem Koolhaas has said that "only when the street (public
space) is dead can it be resurrected."
SELF AND MODERNITY | The tense enmity between self and modernity
is intrinsic to non-Western contexts. On the one hand modernity erodes
local particularisms, on the other hand nationalist and religious identities
assert their difference against Western modernity. It is this "civilizational
discord" with the West that accounts for the totalitarian tendencies
embedded in non-Western politics of identity.
Of course the opposition between homogenization and identity politics
also characterizes Western democracies today. The multiculturalism of
civil society in the West, however, tends not toward totalitarianism but
toward a civil war among fundamentalist and ethnic movements, each struggling
to impose its monistic alternative identity on others who are unwilling
to accept it.
MODERNITY WITHOUT THE INDIVIDUAL | The history of non-Western modernities
is shaped by modernization without the making of the modern individual.
That is why the historical reference for modernization in such societies
is the centralist Jacobin model of republicanism rather than the Anglo-Saxon
model of liberal democracy.
Yet, this state-centered modernization does not limit itself to politics.
On the contrary, it becomes the tool to implement modernity in the realm
of culture, gender, lifestyle and identity. Politics thus become the site
for modernist, nationalist and religious social projects that compete
with each other. Consequently, competing "ways of life" do not
appear as personal preferences but as civilizational stakes. The way of
life of the modernizing elites is positively associated with Western civilization;
the way of life of the ordinary person "alla turca" acquires
a negative sense.
It is telling that Turks themselves use the foreign word "alaturkai"
to label their own habits, as if the European superego is watching over
their daily habits. Wearing neckties, eating with a fork, shaving beards
and mustaches, spouses walking hand in hand on the streets, going to the
theater, shaking hands, dancing, wearing hats in the street, writing from
left to right-all these were among the rituals which defined the ideal
attributes of a progressivist and civilized individual in the early years-the
1920s and 1930s-of the Turkish Republic.
Indeed, Turkish modernization can be interpreted as a civilizational conversion,
from the Ottoman-Islamic one to the Turkish-Western one. This conversion
operates at the primary level of distinctions-taste, body language, eating
habits and dress codes.
When this happens-when the cultural definitions of self and the imperatives
of modernity are separated-we end up both with fragmented individuals
and distorted modernity. In the Turkish case, the civilizational conversion
mutilated the Muslim person who has returned to the historical scene through
radical Islam as a kind of distorted collective identity.
Contemporary Islamic movements (those that have arisen in the past two
decades) mostly define themselves as critiques of Western civilization.
Their definition of self in relation to Western modernity is how they
distinguish themselves from earlier movements. They have ceased to be
apologetic. They no longer try to prove that Islam is compatible with
modernity. Instead they have refused assimilation and present themselves
as the monistic alternative to the monism of Western modernity. Their
slogan "Islam is beautiful" echoes the "black is beautiful"
of the American militant movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
The difference of the Islamic way of life is displayed by Puritan ethics
such as covering of the female body, prohibition of alcohol consumption
and censorship of the arts. Choosing a way of life in their view is not
a matter of individual choice but of communal morality. Defining that
communal morality is determined by a political battle between modernist
liberals and Islamists.
MODERN WOMEN | In contrast with the West where the public sphere
was first formed by the bourgeoisie and excluded the working class and
women, in the Muslim context of modernity women have been the makers of
Kemalist modernism, which sought to make women publicly visible through
the social mixing of the sexes, implied a radical change in the definition
of public and private spheres as well as in the practice of an Islamic
morality based on the control of female sexuality and the separation of
In fact, women's rights and making women public citizens can be considered
the very backbone of Turkish modernism. The removal of the veil, the establishment
of compulsory coeducation for girls and boys, civil rights for women such
as electoral eligibility and voting and, lastly, the abolition of the
Shari'a (the Islamic code) and the 1926 adoption of the Swiss Civil Code
guaranteed the public presence of women.
Within the Kemalist paradigm, women were the bearers of Westernization,
carriers of secularism and actresses in the public realm. They affirmed
the civilizational conversion.
Photographs of women unveiled, women in athletic competitions, women pilots,
women professionals and photographs of men and women in European fashion
depicted the modernist representations of the "prestigious life."
Civilized Republican individuals went to tea salons, mixed-gender dinners
and balls. Yet, against Ottoman cosmopolitanism, Kemalist women were serious,
modest and devoted-accommodating the presumed pre-Islamic Anatolian culture
and thereby embodying the Turkish nationalist project.
Similarly, women played a very crucial role in the making of modernity
in early Republican China. The emergence of an urban lifestyle in Shanghai
in the 1930s and 1940s is best depicted by a new range of sensibilities
in fashion, domestic hygiene and emphasis on children in the lives of
women of the middle and upper classes.
Today, Islamist politics seeks to curb the free public space by limiting
women's visibility through veiling, which is essentially an effort to
control women's sexuality by regulating the social encounter between the
After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, for example, male and female students
were separately seated in university classes. There were separate buses
for men and women, surveillance in public parks and interdiction of women
singers. In short, a woman's body, voice and words were considered provocative
by the revolution.
Hence, in a Muslim context, the existence of a democratic public space
depends on the social encounter between the sexes and on the eroticization
of the public sphere. In short, while in Western societies it is the issue
of abortion and freedom of reproduction that provokes collective passions,
in the non-Western Islamic context the issue is the freedom of seduction.