Presuming innocence, each of us is consistently surprised when we are viewed by other women as agents of oppression. Fellows and Razack, 1994.
Exclusion, silencing, and the constant need for validation make up the reality of being an Arab refugee in Turkey. Speaking one’s mother tongue becomes a secretive act as one endures labels and degradation of one’s culture and heritage. Navigating implicit or explicit criticism and racism at every corner, bus, and elsewhere is a daily task. Desiring invisibility becomes inevitable.
Prior and during the elections, the leftist, feminist, and queer movements in Turkey were not vocal in defending refugee rights. Moreover, most of them allied themselves with fascists who called for the killing of refugees, and supported a candidate promising their deportation. They claimed it was a matter of “priorities.” “We get rid of Erdoğan first, then we see.” Now that the elections are over, and that the attacks on refugees are ongoing in the most disgusting anti-Arab, anti-third world way, it’s time to speak up. This essay is a call to start the discussion on racism in Turkey as well as its meanings, layers, and roots.
This essay also calls for a change in the anti-refugee rhetoric among the “progressive” groups such as the leftist, feminist, and queer movements. Examples of cultural racism from Lebanon, Georgia, and Turkey illustrate how anti-refugee, anti-third world, and anti-Arab discourses intersect with exclusivist, anti-disenfranchised communities lexicon, as well as anti-feminist and queer discourses, even within different contexts.
In so many ways, nationalism is a way to celebrate belonging, pride and the acknowledgment of a certain uniqueness, some unknown genetic exception, which for no known reason stops at national borders that were drawn 100 years ago or less. Both the Lebanese and Turks want to prove they are “different” from Syrians, that they have different cultures and languages and beliefs. The search for uniqueness seems to be the theme of the millenia, probably because deep down we know how bland and unspecial we truly are, as individuals and as communities. As pictures and videos of authorities removing signs written in Arabic from diverse Turkish towns circulated in the news, people and journalists on social media expressed their surprise at a restaurant bill carrying Arabic letters. The incident, if anything, is really funny because it reminds everyone that, just like patriarchy, nationalism is fragile, too.
A sentence detailing the price of a chicken sandwich -not clear yet if it was with or without pickles- had triggered a state of shock among authorities and a significant number of citizens. If letters (on their own, not the meaning they make up) can apparently threaten one’s whole conception of self, history, and identity, what does that say about one’s conception of self, history, and identity? The incident reminded me of Gloria Anzaldúa’s “linguistic terrorism” concept, where the use of language becomes a tool of oppression. A concept familiar to Arabic-speaking people living in Turkey, as our accents, letters and pronunciation are mocked, and our language is weaponized to exclude and dehumanize us, becoming the basis of our “othering.” My mere knowledge of French, for instance, has made people in Turkey look at me in a better light: it felt as if they “forgave” my knowledge of Arabic, as soon as they learnt that I spoke a “more civilized” language.
Another issue is understanding one’s privilege, and how progressive movements and individuals tend to overlook its significance in their political and economic analyses. After the elections, I received a phone call from a male queer Turkish friend. Like the rest of us, he was devastated, trying to imagine how his life will be for the next 5 years. It hit me then that he was unaware of his privileges as a cis man, as a holder of a Turkish passport, as a person who would never be told mean and hurtful things, in the streets, or the metro, or in cafe, for speaking an accent that is not purely Turkish, or worse, for receiving a phone call from his mother, to which he has to answer in Arabic.
“Privilege” appears to be consistently disregarded within progressive movements, time and time again. This goes beyond the aftermath of the elections; it extends to the involvement and acceptance of third-world queer individuals in the Turkish queer movement for instance, who, even when allowed to join, are treated as second-class members, much like how the state treats them.
These are simple and basic examples, to what seems to be a pattern running along so many analysis lines and conceptions of oppression; a pattern which can only show a need to integrate refugees in the progressive movements’ discourse after – and if possible- gaining a deeper understanding of existing dynamics of power.
In addition to that, privilege is not only invisible, in political terms, but cultural differences are perceived as a flaw, while the culture of the privileged communities is proposed as superior. In Tbilisi for instance, an apparently famous restaurant flaunting a huge Ukrainian flag, offers on each of its tables a pamphlet, written in Russian, that attempts to teach the poor young Russian refugees, probably just coming here for food, the conditions needed for them to be accepted in this country. “You come here, you should speak my language, and know my culture,” says the pamphlet, a discourse that echoes all the way from Georgia to Turkey and Lebanon. “Integration and cultural assimilation” they call it, which in fact is an alibi to dismiss the disenfranchised culture, and to force uniformity, a monolithic conception of language, of rights and wrongs, and habits. This actually has deep roots in a colonial perception of culture: one culture being more developed than the other, as the culture of the conquered is also a conquered culture. This reflects on conquered communities, who are in many ways forced to give up their culture – and to adopt a new one. “For me to allow you to live here (almost) peacefully, you have to know my culture, and to speak my language” the pamphlet continues to say, enforcing a conditionality on people to allow them to escape war and being forced to kill others. These are the conditions for finding refuge, for receiving help, for claiming basic human rights, for leading a semi-normal life, because they happen to live in countries led by tyrants.
In Turkey on the other hand, another important layer in the multi-layered racist structure appears to be deriving from the fear of Islamists, thus linking Syrian refugees to Islamists and/or ISIS. This is based on a perception of a plethora of diverse identities and religious positions, as an unwavering uniform horde of conservative backwards humans. This is an unfair generalization and an example of the overall ignorance of how and why Islamism is at work, whether in Syria or here in Turkey. This approach dismisses the large number of leftists, secular and non-Muslim Arabs, as it ignores the histories and current political, social, and religious realities and diversities of the Arab world and its communities. We can find echoes of this in the commotion caused by an old statement by the Turkish President of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Ali Erbaş, where he mentioned that people in Turkey shouldn’t be saying good morning using the usual turkish word “Günaydın”, but what he perceived as the “right” expression, the Arabic expression “Essalamü aleyna ve ala ibadillahissalihin”. To that, MP Cemal Engynurt replied with a very passionate speech: “Ben Arap mıyım ya? Ben Türk oğlu Türk’üm” (Am I Arab? I am Turkish, son of a Turk.) This comes in a linguistic context where a large number of the Turkish lexicon are Arabic, specifically the everyday Turkish “hello”, “merhaba.” Just as the President of the Directorate of Religious Affairs failed to realize that Arabic is not Islam, the MP failed to notice that his problem is with Islam and not the Arabic language. In this sense, the Turkish Islamists’ annexation and appropriation of Arabic, should not be accepted by progressive movements, because it is a fallacy and an uneducated reduction of a whole culture into a set of religious myths and an ignorant worldview.
The examples I used in this text represent a very small fraction of what refugees are experiencing on an everyday basis. Through linguistic and cultural racism, a large number of people are being refused support, refuge, and basic human rights. In many instances, the argument is Islam, that the refugees are conservative, or even uneducated. But do we, as feminists, leftist, and members of a progressive queer community, believe that rights are conditional? Just like the conditional refuge example in Georgia, do we think that a person\community “should prove itself to be something, or not” for it to be worthy of basic human rights? Doesn’t that remind us as women, as people from the Third World communities, of how we have been asked, for so long, to prove ourselves in order to be allowed to access education, work or basic human rights as women in our societies, or as migrants in Europe or the U.S.? It is neither the duty nor the responsibility of any Arab\Syrian\Afghani\Third World person\woman to prove to you that they have been equally oppressed by Islam as you were. Or not. Just as an auntie from a conservative village in Anatolia, they also have the right to be believers, and still have basic human rights. Isn’t connecting basic human rights to a prerequisite simply fascist?
Across all those dimensions of othering, exclusion, and putting requirements on access to basic human rights, we can determine that the state’s as well as the “opposition’s” racist parties and groups’ employment of what Michel Foucault calls biopolitics is a way to control refugees’ lives, movement, and bodies. This is the disciplinary power used to tell refugees how they should speak, what they should wear (specifically women), how many children they should have, and which culture they should base their lives on. This is policing their bodies, tongues and minds. Do the queer and feminist groups not find any echo of this in their own lives, in their reading of the way the state, conservative political parties and groups try to control them and their bodies?
I will borrow a sentence from Barbara Smith,a Black feminist who was once speaking to a full room of white women in 1977, mind you, saying that they have to listen to her, along with other black women, speak about racism, even if they don’t like it, because she still feels it. “This is not a ‘guilt trip.’ It is a fact trip. The assessment of what’s actually going on.” As an intersectional feminist, I cannot think that a fair society can exist and grow, unless all of its members are treated fairly, equitably, with care,support, and solidarity amongst its members, specifically to those who have less, are underprivileged, are disenfranchised, are impoverished and stripped of their rights. Again, I quote Smith, “Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”
As feminists, leftists, and queer people, we cannot not see racism as a primarily feminist, leftist and queer issue. We cannot feel okay living in a society that says that other humans are less, deserve less, and are treated in a less fair way. And if we do, this poses great questions about the kind of liberation theory we are adopting, as it produces an exclusivist, reformist political project that allows and normalizes the oppression of a social group we happen not to belong to.
The point in my essay is not only to “prove” that there is racism in the Turkish society (and laws) but also to acknowledge it, and then to take a stance against it. Leftists, feminists and members of the queer movement in Turkey need to take practical steps towards change, stop believing that Turkish society/individuals is/are superior to other societies, and act accordingly, giving voice to the voiceless and silenced, and giving space to those who are invisible. For us intersectional feminists, for the left, for the queer communities, racism is not a secondary issue; it has never been. Those who think women, the queer, the poor, or anyone of the oppressed could have been saved without the refugees, have to really reconsider their conception of liberation. Salvation is either communal, or it isn’t.