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The Queer Other

Queerness under the sign of conservative Islam

Queer in Translation: Sexual Politics under Neoliberal Islam by Evren Savcı. Duke University Press, 248 pages.

The West likes to fancy itself uniquely tolerant of queer people. Murderous violence against trans people may be on the rise in the United States and hate crimes against LGBT individuals in Germany may have increased 36 percent last year, but, we’re assured, it’s really Muslim countries that, by their very nature, present a singular threat to queer people. In recent years, conservative politicians across the West have deployed pinkwashing strategies, playing on such fears to assert mendaciously that their Islamophobia makes them the truly queer-friendly candidates. Such rhetoric has also made queer people complicit in neo-imperialist “civilizing” projects in which they get to play the heroes who, in the words of queer scholar Sara Ahmed, are “saving brown queers from brown straights.” Conversely, Islam often appears in the role of victim in academic queer studies, as a foil to western foibles.

Yet describing Islam as merely a victim of western neo-imperialism flattens relationships within Muslim-majority countries and between their citizens and governments, while continuing to privilege western perspectives. Such a framework, “which critiques Islamophobia as an outcome of neoliberal securitization and rescue regimes,” according to Yale University women, gender, and sexuality studies scholar Evren Savcı, “turns into a paradox in a context where Muslims are not embodied in the minority, the immigrant, or the victim of Islamophobia.”

This paradox is the focus of Savcı’s first book, Queer in Translation: Sexual Politics under Neoliberal Islam, published by Duke University Press earlier this year. Part ethnography, part history, part entreaty for a new queer politics, it delves into contemporary Turkey to understand the place of modern queerness under an Islamist regime that has pursued economic neoliberalization. Queer in Translation offers a textured portrait of sexual minorities in a part of the world most Americans remain woefully unfamiliar with, rethinking the relationship of queerness to both Islam and neoliberalism as a way of critiquing contemporary queer studies. Ultimately, Savcı uses her study to plead for a new progressive political imaginary, a kind of queer politics that focuses a little less on caustic critique and a little more on empathy, generosity, and commonality. 

Savcı’s basic contention is that Turkish queerness is intimately wrapped up in the political and economic changes that the country has experienced over the last forty years, and she suggests that we in the United States and Europe cannot hope to comprehend those changes without an on-the-ground appreciation of them. Although focused on the present, Queer in Translation picks up in 1980 when chief of the general staff Kenan Evren replaced the democratically elected government in Ankara in a coup d’état, establishing a military junta that would rule the country for three years until a conservative constitution restored limited democracy. In those years, military leaders introduced a slew of neoliberal economic reforms with the support of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The government also moved to crush the left, banning labor unions and imprisoning their leaders. At the same time, the military introduced Islam in more public ways to the republic, which had been deeply secular since Kemal Atatürk founded it in 1922. In so doing, a novel Türk-İslam sentezi (Turkish-Islamic synthesis) emerged.

Just as in the United States and Europe, Muslim societies are characterized by complex, idiosyncratic views of sexual acts and identities.

This synthesis, Savcı asserts, was a “social glue, a remedy to political rifts in the country,” one designed to generate support for the junta and its economic policies. At the time, Turkish leaders and their American allies were particularly worried about left-leaning Islam, such as that which in 1979 had swept the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran out of power. In the decades since, Turkey’s particular amalgamation of conservative Islam and neoliberalization, a formation Savcı denotes as “neoliberal Islam,” flourished while support for traditional center-right, secular parties waned. In 2001 Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the former mayor of Istanbul, formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which went on to win the 2002 parliamentary elections. Although Erdoğan today is best known for his authoritarian style of rule, in the early 2000s the AKP campaigned as a pro-democratic, pro-European Union, pro-business, and pro-Islam party.

In his first years in office, Erdoğan continued to implement neoliberal economic policies while bringing the country into conformity with the EU’s Copenhagen criteria, which govern accession to the bloc. This goal led to a series of “democratic openings”—essentially social justice and pro-democratic reforms. Savcı describes how the government allowed the first official Kurdish television station and pushed to redraft the 1980 military constitution. These changes gave LGBT activists hope that there might also be “an LGBT opening,” and in the early 2000s, pride marches began taking place in Turkish cities, with the 2013 pride parade in Istanbul bringing around one hundred thousand people into the streets. At the same time, some groups openly campaigned to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in any new constitution. The first decade of the AKP’s rule thus witnessed the success of both LGBT activism and the rise of an Islamist party, something that “many liberal democracies might view,” Savcı notes, “as contradictory forms of social change.”

Queer in Translation explores a number of case studies that offer windows into this unusual conjunction of queerness, Islam, and neoliberalism in twenty-first-century Turkey. For instance, Savcı analyzes the case of Ahmet Yıldız, a gay Kurdish man shot to death outside of a cafe in 2008. He had recently come out to his family, something that is still a relative rarity in Turkey, and many assumed they murdered him in response. The international press and LGBT activists held up Ahmet’s death—what they described as so-called “honor killing”—as evidence of the hatred that queer people face in Muslim countries. Videos and articles circulated online, blaming Turkey’s conservative, Muslim culture for the death of this young, gay man. But such discourses, Savcı notes, interpret violence in developing countries “as an Oriental pathology.” That is, the term “honor killing” obscures more than it explains, scapegoating foreign cultures for violence against women (and queer people), while at the same time casting such violence as foreign to western cultures. “Islam,” Savcı continues, “is of course imagined not only as the root cause of gay honor killings but also of homophobia in general.”

Curious to know more about the case, Savcı dug into the evidence around the shooting. She interviewed Ümmühan Darama, the owner of the cafe outside which Ahmet was killed, who explained that she may have been the killers’ intended target, troubling the assumption that Ahmet’s death was an honor killing. She had married her recently deceased husband “via Islamic matrimony,” which is not recognized in secular Turkey, and had been fighting with her husband’s siblings to receive her son’s share of the inheritance. After she initiated legal proceedings, her cafe began to be attacked, including several times after Ahmet’s death.

At the same time, Savcı questioned Darama about her views on homosexuality. The cafe owner noted that homosexuality is haram—a sin. But, Savcı continues, “she added, ‘homosexuality is haram, but so is smoking’ while chain-smoking throughout our three-and-a-half-hour conversation, which involved a brief interruption so that she could run to the store to buy another pack.” Homosexuality, Savcı maintains, might be haram in the view of many Muslims, but that does not mean they consider it any more unacceptable than smoking, drinking, or any number of other sinful activities. Just as in the United States and Europe, Muslim societies are characterized by complex, idiosyncratic views of sexual acts and identities.

Darama reveals, Savcı insists, “what we have to gain from moving beyond the possibilities of identitarian politics and from adopting an expansive vision of what forms of violence are being perpetrated on all kinds of citizen-subjects because their sexualities, intimacies, and kinship formations are left outside of the legitimizing institutions of, in this case, the neoliberal Islamist nation-state.” Savcı’s contextualized case studies of specific intersections of Islam and queerness in Turkey point to a much more convoluted set of interactions among different forms and interpretations of Islam and LGBT demands for rights and recognition under a neoliberal government. It is not enough, she argues, for queer scholars to attend to Islam and neoliberalism separately or in generalities: they must think locally about their intersections and the ways that they shape and are shaped by queer kinship and identities.

Savcı also turns to queer activists’ confrontations with the neoliberal state under Erdoğan, which after his reelection in 2011, changed dramatically. Erdoğan began framing his politics in yet more religious terms, while inventing enemy others “that were presented as both mystical entities and real threats to the republic.” For all of the AKP’s talk of social liberalization and human rights in its early years in power, it turned to the strategy of scapegoating to keep its hold on power, coupling conservative identity politics with continued neoliberal reforms and increased securitization.

Savcı identifies trans women as particular victims of this shift, especially trans female sex workers who are both stigmatized for their gender identities and forced into increasingly precarious forms of life. She describes how trans female sex workers were victims of gentrification schemes to clear space for “ordinary” inhabitants at the expense of undesired groups. In 1996, for instance, trans women living in central Istanbul “were besieged, their windows and doors broken, . . . threatened and ultimately physically assaulted.” This incident, Savcı comments, was “one of the early moments of collective displacement of an undesired minority for the purpose . . . of urban renewal.”

Such dispossession only gained force under the AKP. In a neighborhood of Ankara, trans women were attacked by civilians in 2006 and forced to flee to new neighborhoods or leave the city entirely. These women suspected that the mayor’s office helped coordinate the attacks, using them to clear the way for the construction of luxury condos. One of these women indicated, “It is a very organized cleansing operation.” Trans women thus exemplify precisely how neoliberalism in Turkey has targeted certain queer populations as part of its strategies of rule. Of course, in many other countries—the United States included—trans women continue to face harassment, precarity, and murderous violence. But Savcı’s careful analysis reveals how neoliberalism, which preaches a gospel of economic and personal liberties, so often turns to the violent oppression of outsider groups to realize its aims. In Turkey, this othering has taken place under the sign of conservative Islam.

These threads all intersected in the summer of 2013 during the Taksim Gezi Park protests, which began in opposition to the demolition of the park. One of the few remaining green spaces in the area, it was to be demolished to make way for the reconstruction of Ottoman-era barracks, which would house a large mall. But the protests quickly metamorphosized into a broader indictment of the government’s policies. The protests brought all manner of people together—from “queers” to “pious Muslims” to “soccer fans”—in opposition to the dispossession and othering they had experienced under the AKP. “It was in this context of authoritarian morality politics of neoliberal Islam,” Savcı writes, “that the Gezi protests of 2013 took place, when so many average citizens felt marginalized in ways they had not experienced before.”

The Gezi Park protests, although not specifically queer, included many LGBT activists, as well as queer Turks who had previously considered themselves apolitical. Whereas the jargon-laden terms of queer discourse had turned many young LGBT Turks away from political engagement, Savcı asserts the uprisings were visceral and joyful in a way that clarified the stakes of political activism to them. “With the characteristic rainbow flag,” Savcı writes, they “distributed food, water, and medical supplies to thousands.” Trans female sex workers who lived near the park “opened their homes to demonstrators escaping police violence.”

It seemed like an incontrovertibly historical moment that wed fury and joy into something that expanded the horizon of the political.

In analyzing the Gezi Park protests, Savcı makes the most profound contribution to her dual critique of neoliberal Islam and queer studies. Noting both that neoliberalism has “disenchanted politics” and that most progressive politics have become “overtly reliant on critique, on the spirit of anti-ness,” Savcı asks “what do progressive movements have to offer in its stead?” To answer that question, she turns to the generosity and joy that animated the diverse coalition of the 2013 protests. That transcendent “queer joy,” she suggests, might be powerful enough to confront both the artless technocracy of neoliberalism and the vituperative charm of the populist right. “What was critical to Gezi commons,” Savcı argues, “was the conjuring of a dreamlike space and forming social solidarities that overcame social distinctions historically introduced and fostered by nationalism, neoliberal capitalism, and, most recently, by neoliberal Islam, thus redefining what was possible.” 

That dreamlike social unity is, I think, something many of us experienced last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, as tens of millions poured onto the streets around the globe in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Of course, I can only speak for myself—a privileged, white, cisgender, gay man—but it felt like a moment of action, a coming together that surpassed the divisions into which we are so easily sorted. In the words of one London protester, “the pain is transcendent.” It seemed like an incontrovertibly historical moment that wed fury and joy into something that expanded the horizon of the political.

If those two moments—the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the Gezi Park protests of 2013—do share a similar transcendence, though, it should lead us to wonder whether such transcendence provides a sustainable foundation for a progressive politics. After all, the urgency that characterized last summer’s marches have curdled into right-wing fear campaigns against Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory (which, for most muddle-headed conservatives, simply denotes anything that acknowledges the existence of racism). And while the Gezi Park protests were widely seen as a turning point in Erdoğan’s rule, they did not succeed in dislodging him from power—and the country has not become a more hospitable place for queer minorities in the intervening years. Just this February, Erdoğan excoriated the country’s “LGBT youth” as those who “commit acts of vandalism.”

Perhaps this should not surprise us. The far right has often found it easier to consolidate its political base. It stands for what is familiar, even if it is horrifyingly violent: better the devil you know. The left, on the other hand, has often had the more difficult challenge—the challenge at the base of Savcı’s concern with critique—of uniting an unwieldy and disparate coalition that wants to change the world but can’t always agree on how or in what order. While I am not sure that joy or hope or even rage will be sufficient to build a progressive politics equal to the challenges that those living under securitized neoliberal regimes face, Savcı’s pathbreaking work reveals how necessary they are. The point, she argues, is not for Turkey’s progressive politics to abandon the faculty of critique, but rather to find new ways for those marginalized by neoliberal Islam to band together in resistance to the authoritarian rule of the AKP. Gezi Park was a place where the dispossessed could imagine “a new language of anger and revolt that did not need to demean the already marginalized subjects of the system.” Only by starting from such a place of generosity and empathy, only by learning, as Savcı suggests, to “listen differently,” will Turkey’s citizens start to find a path away from the privations of neoliberal Islam.