Young Turks: a question of identity

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.


“Up until a few decades ago, wearing a headscarf was usually a sign of religious faith. These days it's more of a political statement,” said Duygu Gokbudak, a young Turkish engineer. “Whether you're wearing a mini skirt or a headscarf, depending on the neighborhood you're in, you either fit in with everyone else or you can see the disapproval in their faces.”

But Turkey has also matured since its inception. The sleek young professionals who fill Istanbul’s central avenues and cafes are only a few generations away from the time when Turkey became a state, yet far enough away from the secular revolution of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder, to start to question it. And as educational and professional opportunities expand, young Islamic women are seizing such prospects, rationalizing their modern activities within the context of an Islamic discourse.

Jenny White, a professor of social anthropology at Boston University who has done extensive ethnographic research in Turkey, believes that the Islamist movement has given women new possibilities; the opportunity of getting an education or work training, to work outside the home and to participate in political activity.

From the clubs to the cafes, the mosques to the mall, one thing is certain: a new dialogue is taking place among Turkish youth and they aren’t coming up with the same answers as their parents.

“In the past, people with unwavering religious beliefs would keep it to themselves and I really think secularism and Islam could go together. These days it's not that simple,” said Gokbudak, expressing a commonly held opinion amongst Turkish secularists.

“Religious belief is starting to tip the scales. I have heard that some companies only hire women who wear headscarves. I hope that that will change and we will be on equal ground.”

Others, like Gul Tuysuz, a young reporter for the Turkish Daily News, believe that the future of Turkish society rests on the ability of this generation to initiate “more tolerance of the ‘other.’ ”

For more Dispatches on Turkish youth and culture:

A modern wandering on the Silk Road

Istanbul revelers revive a Greek bacchanalia

Gay in Istanbul