Connect to share and comment

Young Turks: a question of identity

For Turkish youth, it's not what you wear: it's how and why you wear it.

ISTANBUL — Young Turks live in a society undergoing vast and rapid change, moving the issue of identity beyond the kind of music you listen to or school you attend, and touching at the very root of what it means to be young and Muslim in the 21st century.

When Turkey emerged from the dust of revolution in 1923, the opposing forces of the religious and secular, Christian and Muslim, were subdued. Aware of the fragility of the state at the time, the Turkish government was careful to define Turkey as a unified, almost homogeneous state — no easy task, given the multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual nature of the society.

In recent years, however, Turkey has become more democratic and those forces have burst into view, accelerating the country's transformation.

“Turkish society is in the process of coming to terms with its once-small-town conservative elements making the transition to being urban middle class while still covering their heads,” said Hakan Ercan, a professor at the Ankara-based Middle East Technical University.

For Turkey's youth, the issue of identity is more nuanced than simply defining oneself as secular or Islamic. The rising class of well-off, more conservative Muslims has led to increasing interaction between groups whose opposing political ties have, in the past, kept them apart.

“[The concerns of] today’s young people, regardless of their ideological attitudes or regional origins… transcend their differences,” Ercan says. “These concerns are getting a decent education that imparts contemporary skills, and finding a decent job commensurate with these characteristics.”

And then there is the very public issue of headscarves. While youths in many Western secular countries define themselves and align with a particular clique according to what they wear — Converse sneakers or Doc Martens; sports jersey or flannel shirt; flea market or the Gap — Turkish women, particularly, must navigate a different set of identity markers.

Whereas in most Muslim-majority countries it would be a nonevent to wear a headscarf, in Turkey, which has built its modern identity on secularism, headscarves are banned in schools and universities.