Conferences, Workshops Content
|“Civic Culture in ‘Secular’ Turkey”|
The Institute of Ismaili Studies May 2001
The Turkish state has acquired historically the image of a massive, omnipotent mechanism – not necessarily a Leviathan that harasses society, but a fearsome tool in the hands of the centre that ordinary citizens would do well to avoid at most times. Yet, it is also assumed to have infinite resources and means that can be distributed to the subjects of the state through benign largesse. This is an ambivalent image, by turns punishing and rewarding. Under the circumstances, it is small wonder that the Turkish state is popularly referred to as the Baba Devlet or “Papa State”.
However, it is not the image of the state alone that results in a style of rule that has been detrimental to the development of civil society in Turkey. It is also the attitude of the bureaucrats serving within the state mechanism and dealing with the periphery, which bodes ill for civic culture. The bureaucrats are both patronising and humiliating in their treatment of the periphery, making it impossible to develop a “public interest” and thence civil society
“Civil society” here implies the freedom from intervention by the state or centralised national power in the affairs of private citizens: it is the autonomous, consenting, and self-initiated actions of each individual that is of the essence of civil society. The number, vigour and effectiveness of citizens’ associations constitute the gist of civil society, and this analysis will therefore look at associability and the associational life of voluntary groups.
In terms of the number of voluntary associations in Turkey – where there seems to be one voluntary association per 540 people – the country does not appear to have a weak civil society. However, to establish how active and effective the civil society is in Turkey, we need to know how active are the rank-and-file members of those associations, and how large is their membership.
The overall rate of membership in voluntary associations seems to be quite low, hovering around 7 per cent of the population for all associations, except for co-operatives. Co-operatives seem to have more active members, who constitute around 11 per cent of the population. There should be some overlap between those two figures, for there must be some multiple memberships. However, the extent of multiple memberships is impossible to determine. An informed guess is that one out of every 7 or 8 citizens belongs to some kind of voluntary association in Turkey. Membership in various types of associations in Turkey, except for political parties, is relatively low.
The lack of enthusiasm in joining voluntary associations may partly be explained by a culture that is deeply distrustful in interpersonal terms. Indeed, field surveys indicate that more than 90 per cent of the Turkish voting age population declares that their fellow citizens cannot be trusted. When compared with the findings of the World Values Surveys, Turkish interpersonal trust rates rank at the bottom of a list of 43 countries, with Brazil. Lack of interpersonal trust undermines any effort at establishing and sustaining partnerships, whether they are economic, political or cultural. A milieu deeply penetrated by interpersonal distrust forestalls the development of associability and mass membership in associations.
What we find is a fragmented civil society, with only a small minority of the population taking part. No matter how few they may be, active participants of voluntary associations might be effective in their interactions with the state. Values’ surveys show that feelings of political efficacy are rather strong and widely distributed in Turkey. Feelings of political efficacy are based on perceptions, which can be true or false. The effectiveness of the participants is dependent on the extent of their control over political resources, their capability to co-operate, co-ordinate and form coalitions with other associations in dealing with the state. There is hardly any evidence that most voluntary associations have much control over such political resources as votes, wealth or information. The few that have some control over such resources lack the capability, interest, and/or the will to cooperate with others to influence the state.
But it is neither awe of the state nor the frailty of civil society that creates such a picture. First, the Turkish state does not seem to be particularly robust. On the contrary, it is the relative weakness of the state that impedes the full development of civic culture. The regulatory and distributive capacities of the state are weak, which renders the central elite fearful about the lack of satisfaction of the masses (i.e. the periphery). Moreover, there is a long history of mutual suspicion between centre and periphery in Turkey, which further complicates and corroborates such a perspective of the political elite.
Secondly, the Turkish state is of a “passive exclusive” nature: it “resists the entry of disadvantaged groups in the official domain of the state regime, but neither combats nor promotes civil society.” Under those circumstances the passive-exclusive state does not have the same attitude toward all groups in civil society. For instance, the state allows the organization of economic groups such as business and labour, or associations based on gender; but it is watchful of religious (that is Muslim) associations, and it actively resists associability on the basis of cultural ethnicity.
Consequently, the relationship of the state with civil society in Turkey is one of aloofness and disinterest – so long as civic activism avoids regime-contesting protestations, and contestation of the raison d’etre of the Republican system. The latter is deemed a conspiracy against the state, prompting the security forces and the judiciary to control, regulate and even suppress such actions. More specifically, ethnic and religious associations, which have been organised to challenge Republican principles and laws, are considered the most threatening – and therefore most vehemently resisted, prosecuted and suppressed. Other solidarity, economic, patronage, self-help, charity and recreational associations are neither supported nor discouraged. A strategy of secular human rights-based activism by religious groups in the long term would likely be a more acceptable, non-threatening strategy for religious groups to become an integral part of Turkish civil society – based on the recent experience of women's groups in the country. Meanwhile, a rather complicated image of a benevolent versus malevolent state emerges in the relationship between the state and voluntary associations.