The Freedom of Seduction
Nilüfer Göle, 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 to consciousness.
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 postmodern relativism.
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.
DE-TRADITIONALIZING 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 other.”
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 spaces.
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.”
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 public space.
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 the sexes.
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 sexes.
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.