“So do you think Turkey is being Islamized?”
Although my speech was more or less a detailed account of Turkey’s domestic politics, I was expecting this classical and rather shallow question from the audience. Last week at the Bruno Kreisky Forum in Vienna, our topic of the day was the rising authoritarianism in Turkey. Yet again, Islamization is still inevitably the most juicy topic for some European audiences. Not only because it is easier to ask about and almost impossible to answer, but also because their expectations for Eastern European and Middle Eastern democracies are so low that they prefer to stick to the good old horrors of Islamization when talking about Turkey. My answer was “Maybe and maybe not. But that is not the real problem.” I still think that the real problem is not the rising conservatism or Islamization of society, but the “Dubaization” of the country’s landscape, and therefore the shopping malls.
The government in Turkey loves shopping malls. They don’t only love them as glittering indicators of a prosperous economy, but they think opening new shopping malls is a magic solution for the most serious political and social problems of the country. During the last ten years of the AKP governance, all of Anatolia has been filled up with mushrooming shopping malls. With their bling-bling building facades on the outside and constant, loud music in the inside, they are the sacred worshipping places of Capitalism, the beating heart of cities, but not only that. Like the other shopping malls in other parts of the planet, they create a new stereotype. A person floating in between the shops. A breed not necessarily consuming but filling his or her time -their life itself, so to speak- contemplating consumption. Since the majority of society is incapable of consuming the goods available for sale in the shopping malls, they just go there to see people consuming and be “there”, close to the warmth of prosperity. Especially youngsters, boys and girls from poor neighborhoods of the cities, form groups to organize daily touristic visits to the glittering life of the upper class. The malls don’t serve only as a new version of the Agora – in this “modern” version you cannot speak due to the high music volume and endless echo of the sounds – it also provides visitors with a certain feeling of the security of a segregated community. As the streets get more conservative and less secure, the malls seem to feel like a parallel universe where everything is more hygienic and less tense. They allow people to disguise themselves as the rich, including the shopping assistants who mostly get the minimum wage. With the freedom to consume or to live the illusion of consumption, people feel “free”, as I was told once when I conducted interviews with the poor wanderers of the malls. A new human being is being created. Silent in awe of the endless display of commodities and suffering from addiction to bling-bling. Just like in Dubai.
This whole mall-show becomes painfully ironic when the shopping mall is located in the largest Kurdish town of Diyarbakır, which is a symbol for the Kurdish political struggle. Among several shopping malls in town, there is one that hosts a big men’s clothing shop called “The Identity”. Kurdish people who still suffer due to the lack of an “official identity” can freely go to the shop and dress themselves in “Identity” completely according to their personal tastes.
The AKP officials and the Prime Minister prefer to refer to the shopping malls as the sign of a prosperous country. If you are not a visitor to this parallel life, if you are not fine with freedom to consume or the illusion of consumption then there really must be something wrong with you. This automatically means that you are excommunicated from “society” and become an outsider, which, as we are very well taught, means invisibility on a good day and teargas on a not so good day. “Come to our very own Dubai” they say, “What more do you want, for God’s sake!”
Dubaization of society is not a Turkish invention, obviously. The creation of parallel lives in conservative societies is monumental in Gulf countries. Now it is invading Turkey as well. At first sight, the government-supported mall invasion seems to be a product of limited societal projection. But when you take a closer look, it is actually a very well formed social project to reform the individual into a being, who on his shoulders will carry the obedient consumption of a society with conservative values. It is a dream of being the “little Muslim China” for a country once was expected to be “little America”. As the “Turkish model” is ambitiously exported to the Middle East and North Africa, it seems the Dubaziation might go beyond the borders of Turkey.
Syria is still in question. USA officials constantly make statements that it is impossible to “do it” without Turkey. If the unspeakable happens and Turkey eventually becomes the enforced “leader of the region”, the model will become the social and economic project for the entire Sunni world. As the two powers and their rhetoric -one owned by Qatar and Turkey, the other by Iran and Syria- clash in the region, one can not stop but wonder about another big question. It might be horrifyingly limited and apparently not so brilliant, but the Sunni world has an international societal and economic project for the region. What has Iran got?