February 2009 Issue Volume 37 Issue 2

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International Perspectives

The Debate on
"Neighborhood Pressure" in Turkey

by Ates Altinordu, Yale University

In May 2007, a preeminent Turkish sociologist, Serif Mardin, was interviewed by a journalist on the occasion of the publication of a collected volume of his articles, Religion, Society, and Modernity in Turkey (2006). In this interview, Mardin suggested that a major potential threat against the nurturing of a liberal environment in Turkey was "the neighborhood pressure ... which is a mood very hard to delineate by the social sciences." With this term, Mardin sought to capture the unofficial, local, communal pressure on individuals to conform to religious-conservative norms in their everyday lives. Almost immediately, a lively debate began in Turkish newspapers and television programs on the concept of "neighborhood pressure" and on its manifestations in Turkey.

In subsequent interviews and panels, Mardin elucidated the term further: The central element of this unofficial yet remarkably strong pressure was "the gazing collectivity." Beyond a sociological universal referring to the enforcement of communal norms through micro-level interaction, neighborhood pressure was a phenomenon with a specific historical trajectory in Turkey: Neighborhood Islam had been a central source of anxiety among the Young Turks, the nationalist modernizers of late 19th and early 20th century, precisely because it was difficult to pin down and even harder to influence from above. Neighborhood pressure was to be understood against the transformation of the neighborhood as an organizational form and against ideological change since the late Ottoman period.

Sociological Theory and Political Arguments

While Mardin stressed that he did not see the governing Justice and Development Party (JDP)—a political party with Islamic roots—as the driving force behind neighborhood pressure, he warned against the reverse possibility that the party may eventually submit to it. Despite this careful formulation, Turkish secularists quickly began to use the term as a weapon against the JDP. The politicization of the term was perhaps to be expected given that the secularist circles in Turkey typically combine their view of political Islam as a threat to the secular regime with a perception of public Islam as a threat to modern lifestyles. However, this development was highly ironic from the perspective of Mardin’s legacy among political camps in Turkey. Mardin had been one of the earliest Turkish social scientists who sought to understand the meaning worlds and historical trajectories of Islamic currents instead of branding them as reactionary forces. As a result, Kemalists—the contemporary carriers of the secularist founding ideology of the Turkish state—had always looked upon him with suspicion. Reportedly, his nomination to the Turkish Academy of Sciences had failed three times despite his exceptional accomplishments as a social scientist. Now, actors from the same camp repeatedly referred to "Professor Mardin’s term of neighborhood pressure" to claim that the JDP posed a dire threat to democracy in Turkey.

The debate took a new turn when a study on the subject was published in December 2008. Binnaz Toprak, a prominent political scientist, had conducted fieldwork in 12 Anatolian towns and two Istanbul neighborhoods in collaboration with journalists in order to examine empirically whether and to what extent neighborhood pressure existed in these localities. The researchers interviewed individuals with minority and excluded identities (Alevis, Christians, Kurds, Roma, women), non-conservative political orientations (Kemalists, radicals, leftists), and non-traditional lifestyles in order to find out whether they had been subject to discrimination and pressure by religious conservatives. The results of the study were striking: Many Alevis reported that they were regularly excluded from commercial relations, denied employment in both public and private sectors, and subjected to insults by their Sunni neighbors. University students in some towns reported that they were verbally abused and threatened with violence for not fasting during Ramadan; in some Anatolian towns, most restaurants, coffee houses, and dining halls, including those in public institutions, stopped serving food and drinks. Conservative landlords regularly refused to rent apartments to female students who did not wear headscarves, unmarried male students, and Kurdish students.

The findings with the most crucial political implications concerned the relationship between neighborhood pressure and the JDP government. While the researchers emphasized that many of the observed patterns were not new and could not be attributed to the influence of JDP, they nevertheless found that discrimination against individuals with secular identities was often reinforced by local government agencies controlled by the party. They also observed that local institutions and networks of the Gülen community, the most influential religious brotherhood in Turkey, contributed to the exclusion of outsiders.

Debating Research Publicly

Since mid-December 2008, when the findings of this study were made public, a heated debate ensued in newspapers and on TV. An interesting aspect of these debates is the extent to which the methodology of the study has been scrutinized: Members of the JDP and advocates of the Gülen community claimed that the 401 interviewees were not representative of Turkish society and that the study suffered from a strong selection bias. In response, Toprak explained in detail the research design and the methodological approach of the study. Other social scientists further commented on these questions in the media. Regardless of the clearly political motivations of some discussants, this was a rare case in which methodological issues such as sampling, generalizability, selection bias, and differences between surveys and in-depth interviews were extensively debated in the wider public sphere.

This case is a good example of public sociology, or rather public social science. Mardin and Toprak generated a significant public debate by proposing concepts and conducting empirical research that were directly relevant to central public concerns and by discussing their ideas and findings in the public arena. Moreover, it was a positive feature of these debates that the two scholars were not simply presumed experts; their findings and methodology were subject to extensive critical scrutiny in public forums. These series of events also illustrate the pitfalls of public social science, however, as both scholars’ arguments were grossly misrepresented and selectively used as a political weapon in some occasions.

Despite the distortions and confusions that accompany most public debates of this scope, crucial questions have been introduced in the course of these discussions: What sorts of discrimination do minorities face in their everyday lives? What are the limitations of political reform from above? How does one reconcile respect for communal cultures with the rights of individuals? Perhaps most importantly, political liberals who supported religious circles’ struggles against their exclusion in the past now called upon them to defend the rights of religious minorities and non-conservative individuals. While the outcome is difficult to predict, this episode illustrates that social scientists can make a major difference when they tackle socially relevant questions and engage in public debate. log0_small

Ates Altinordu, a native of Turkey, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Yale University.

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globeFootnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, "International Perspectives." Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Lee Herring, Associate Editor (herring@asanet.org), or Johanna Olexy, Managing Editor (olexy@asanet.org).


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