A new fashion has arrived to accompany the alcohol-soaked beach resort hedonism of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Alongside bare-breasted Scandinavian tourists, women sporting the latest designer burqinis splash in the waves and build sandcastles with their children. A burqini is the crossover between a burqa, the traditionally modest Islamic dress, and a bikini. The innovative combination of these two seemingly irreconcilable articles of clothing represents the interwoven contradictions that comprise modern Turkey.
In recent years, Turkish politics has taken a culturally Islamic and economically neoliberal direction. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which came to power in 2002 espouses a brand of Islam that embraces Western-style capitalism. This represents a stark departure from the Turkish Republic’s strictly secularist roots.
For decades, commentators have discounted Islam’s compatibility with capitalism and democracy. Certainly the Muslim value system promotes a more communitarian approach to economics. Take the example of a Turkish restaurant in Istanbul. If you order something that is not on the menu, the waiter would happily bring it to you from the competitor restaurant across the street.
Turkey is fundamentally a patronage society. Success in any field from business to academia depends on personal connections that individuals either inherit or build for themselves. Therefore the acquisition of political power quickly translates into economic power. With an Islamic political party in control, many socially conservative Turks are getting a chance to experience wealth for the first time.
The mention of financial success and Islam usually conjures images of opulent Gulf states featuring palm-tree shaped artificial islands and indoor ski mountains in the desert. However, in Turkey, the shift of wealth is more gradual and evenly distributed, leading to the rise of an Islamic middle class. This group seeks to use its newly acquired disposable income for Western luxuries and amenities without sacrificing traditional culture and values. Among the most obvious luxury items in this hot summer climate is of course a trip to the beach, where mothers and daughters can show off their burqinis.
Of course not everyone in Turkey is thrilled with the rise of the “burqinied class.” When Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father, established the country, he enshrined laïcité, roughly translated as secularism, in the constitution. At its foundation, Turkey is a secular republic. For many ardent Turkish nationalists, the increasing power of political Islam is a threat to the country’s core values. Perhaps more fundamental however, is the changing distribution of economic resources. Financial gains made by the Islamists must come at the expense of the favored position of secular elites.
These secular elites are also the best educated and aligned with Western interests and values. They are concerned about the encroachment of Islam into not only their government, but more importantly, their soccer stadiums, movie theaters and beach resorts. In public, the most visible manifestation of Islam is the hijab, or headscarf. For decades, the headscarf was officially banned everywhere, from government offices to universities. With the AKP’s rise to power, its leaders pushed for an end to the ban.
At a Sufi Muslim cultural event I attended in the city of Konya, the wife of the Turkish president was present. When I recounted the event to a handful of university students later on, they expressed an intense revulsion for their first lady. They disliked her more than the president himself, and I couldn’t understand why at first. The students explained that the office of the president, which in Turkey is largely symbolic, is supposed to serve as a representation of the secular state. By wearing the hijab, the president’s wife was overtly expressing Islamist power.
In the short term, the Justice and Development Party’s economic liberalization program seems to be working. Everywhere in Turkey massive apartment complexes are under construction and imported European cars flood the streets. Whether this development comes with a secret or not-so-secret Islamist agenda continues to be a hotly debated question in the coffee houses of Istanbul and Ankara. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether a new distribution of wealth will make Turkish society more equitable, or simply shift economic power from a secular elite to an Islamic elite. Whatever the answer is, it certainly merits my doing more Georgetown-sponsored anthropological study of women’s bathing suit fashion on Mediterranean beaches.