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(Post-)Kemalism as a lived experience in public making-meydan

Nilüfer Göle


In this article, I explore debates on Kemalism and Post-Kemalism, not just as a nexus of ideas, but primarily as lived experiences. Lived experience (Erlebnis) intertwines biography and history, connecting personal subjectivities with collective experiences. Treating Kemalism and Post-Kemalism as lived experiences implies interconnections between personal and collective encounters, represented through language. After introducing Atatürkism and Kemalism, I discuss the Post-Kemalist moment in Turkey. While refraining from strictly labeling my work as "post-Kemalist," my involvement, as the author of "Modern Mahrem," becomes imperative. I defend the thesis that critiques of Kemalism, by challenging taboos and advocating dialogical voices, shape an inclusive public space in contemporary Turkey. This essay highlights blind spots in the Post-Kemalist debate, focusing on Muslim-secular dynamics, underrepresented voices, and Turkey's EU membership repercussions.

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Author’s notes

The word meydan has Arabic and Persian origins, is used to denote the squares in cities, like in Cairo and in Istanbul. "Midan Tahrir”, was the emblematic place of the Arab Spring, occupied by thousands of Egyptian protesters in 2011. Likewise, “Taksim Meydanı” in Istanbul, became the central square for Gezi demonstrations in 2013. It is widely referred to as “Tahrir square” and “Gezi Park” to report the protests; the word meydan is lost in its translation to “square” and “park”. It only came to use by the media coverage of the demonstrations in Ukraine as the central square in Kiev, Maïdan Nézalejnosti, has become a place of gatherings and protests since November 2013. The word meydan, despite its widespread local usage as in Turkey and in Egypt, came to attention with the Ukrainian protest movements. I use public space and meydan interchangeably to open up a definition of an alternative public space, a public space that is actively appropriated by inhabitants, in which actors become visible, assemble together, interact with each other, and practice new ways of making society.

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  • 1 The notion of lived experience, Erlebnis, is used by German philosophers to link experience and sel (...)
  • 2 In this paper, “Muslim” has two distinct meanings. Firstly, what one would call Islamicate, that is (...)

1In this article, I approach the debates on Kemalism and Post-Kemalism not only as a nexus of ideas and political convictions but foremost as a lived experience. The notion of lived experience (Erlebnis) brings together biography and history, linking personal subjectivities and collective experiences.1 Kemalism and Post-Kemalism as a lived experience implies interconnections between personal and collective experiences, and the representation of those experiences by means of language and communication. I argue that Kemalism and its critiques cannot be fully assessed if not understood as a lived experience, enabled by intersubjective communication and transformative expressions in public. After briefly introducing the notions of Atatürkism and Kemalism, I will discuss the Post-Kemalist moment in Turkey. It is worth noting that I refrain from labeling my own work as strictly "post-Kemalist" and my alignment doesn't necessarily coincide with that of many individuals who are associated with this categorization. However, as the author of Modern Mahrem, a work on Islamic veiling and on public visibility of Muslim2 women confronting the values of Kemalist secularism, I am compelled to engage in this debate. I defend the thesis that Post-Kemalist critiques, by challenging secular and national taboos and promoting dialogical voices, have contributed significantly to the shaping of an inclusionary public space in modern-day Turkey. In this short essay I’ll highlight some of the blind spots of the prevailing Post-Kemalist debate, in particular in regards to Muslim-secular encounters, underrepresented minority voices, and the repercussions of Turkey's failed EU membership.

2Kemalism has an evolving genealogy; its meaning and interpretation change in time, subject to contested debates. Concurrently, there exists another concept, Atatürkism – an allegiance to the principles of nationhood and the secular reforms enacted by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. While its use has faded in academic discourse, it remains embedded in everyday language and public discourse. Despite the diminishing hegemony of Kemalism over state power, Atatürkism (known as Atatürkçülük in Turkish) has not lost its resonance in society. It persists as a rallying force for cultural and political opposition to the ruling AKP, an Islamist party in power since 2002.

3Some simple yet significant questions come to mind: Does Kemalism stand for Atatürkism? Can we distinguish between the two? If we refer to Kemalism as an ideological formation of the Republic, what does the figure of Atatürk stand for? The revolutions claim to create new paradigms, however they carry continuities from the past. The creation of taboos helps to deny and repress the dreadful events of the past, forbid the transmission of memories, and legitimize the new order. It is difficult to differentiate between the new order, the creation of a young Republic, and the repercussions of the past. Intellectuals face this dilemma and are divided. For those who celebrate the new order, they often become spokespersons of the State power and participate in the reproduction of the official narrative. Those who challenge the hegemonic rhetoric and participate in taboo-breaking are accused of undermining the very foundations of the Republic. The debates on Kemalism and its life span encompasse the issues of the heritage of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of the secular Republic, and the advent of Islamic power. We should also consider that the debates on Kemalism and/or Atatürkism are not held in a social void, but generated in an organized space of knowledge-power relations. The actors who become visible and the language that is audible depend on the positionality of the actors in that field, a field of knowledge that goes beyond the national boundaries.

4Social scientists working in non-Western contexts often adopt social scientific language from the West and dismiss the everyday language, sacrifice the cultural particularities, and thereby flatten social realities. Intellectuals from “non-Western modernities” share a common feature in reading their own histories in the shadow of Western realities and language and measuring the distances, discrepancies that separate them from the centers of modernity. Rather than insisting on the deficiency of modernity, I have struggled from my early work onwards to understand the particular forms and cultural habitations of modernity. I traced the notions such as positivism, secularism, gender equality and public sphere as they were circulated, adopted, and reinvented in non-Western contexts. I have studied the notion of Turkish secularism, laiklik, from a woman’s perspective, and private-public formations as mahrem and meydan, in order to open our social scientific knowledge to cultural particularities and different interpretations of modernity (Göle 2024). My work has always been about making lived experience talk to macrosociology. Turkey, as a non-colonized country, seemed to me favorable to study the voluntary aspirations and reappropriations of the modern norms and forms. In that respect Atatürkism defines – with all its limitations – Turkish modernity, its habitations in a Muslim context, a form of Muslim secularity. (Secularism that is implemented in Christian countries acquires different features, as the term catho-laïcité indicates). The establishment of the secular Turkish Republic is not only a bookcase of nation-building, but it also inspired many reformist political leaders of non-Western countries.

  • 3 In a similar vein, Esra Özyürek depicts the symbolic ways in which ordinary Turkish citizens remini (...)

5Although there are intricate connections between the founding principles of Republicanism and political authoritarianism, we cannot conflate Atatürkism and Kemalism, and ignore the impact of Atatürk in shaping Turkish ethos of modernity. During the post-1980 period the rising popularity of the figure of Atatürk among ordinary citizens, “Atatürk lovers”, demonstrates the emotional and personal commitment to the leader (Göle 1996). The reproduction of the photographs of Atatürk depicting him in civic clothing and postures signaled the reappropriation of Atatürk from the bottom, from civil society, and signified an alternative to the official pictures in offices and statues that have occupied the public squares in every single city. In the present, the attachment to the figure of Atatürk became more salient and significant for the secular segments of society to express their resistance to the AKP government and to the omnipresence of President Erdoğan, but also displayed their attachment to individual freedoms and the secular way of life. Despite the imposition of the rhetoric for New Turkey, the legacy of Atatürk continues to evoke strong ties and feelings, manifesting in contemporary expressions of resistance. This enduring bond is observable in various forms, including public gatherings like concerts and sporting events.3

6Such occasions provide a platform where the enduring influence of Atatürk becomes evident, underscoring the lasting impact of his ideals and the role he plays in shaping the collective identity and ethos of modern-day Turkey.

7I have believed in the potential of “Turkish modernity” and the possibilities of reformation of the Republic. However, the 1960 coup was a dramatic experience and a disruptive event in that regard. The alliance between the secular “progressive intellectuals” and the army marked a profound shift and sealed the democratic potential of the Republic. Thereafter Kemalism emerged as the dominant discourse among the Republican elites, with the intention of maintaining control over civil society through State tutelage.

8I was seven years old when the military coup took place on May 27, 1960. The execution of the Prime Minister Menderes and two well-known ministers was lived in my family as a political tragedy and emotional trauma. Later, I was going to realize during my university years at the Middle East University in Ankara and not without surprise that the 1960 military coup was considered among some of the professors, intellectuals and friends somewhat legitimate and necessary to put the Republic back on track. Coming from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) background, I was expected to defend the same line of argument in defense of “progress”. During that period, for young students like me, the METU campus offered to discover revolution and art, poetry and music, Marx and Freud at the same time. The campus life was punctuated with the gatherings, forums and passionate speeches, calls for boycotts etc. The amphitheater of the department of architecture was our meydan where we experienced freedom of speech and assembly. This vibrant and novel experience was brought to a halt by the military coup in 1971, followed by the execution of Deniz Gezmiş and his friends, three young revolutionaries. I remember the moment I heard their execution in the news, the trauma of executions of the Democrat Party leaders resurfaced with force, undermining my allegiance and that of my generation to the State. The critics of Kemalism started to appeal to me in this political and social context. Therefore, I join this current debate on Kemalism knowing very well from lived experience that criticisms of Kemalism have a history, and this is a history of expansions and contractions of freedom.

9Presently, Turkish society is undergoing a radical shift in the field of power-knowledge relations. Under the authoritarian rule of AKP, the public space is shrinking, losing its autonomy and emancipatory power. The voices of the critical intellectuals, journalists, academics have been silenced, if not chased from the public space. The debate on “Post-Kemalism” should therefore be situated historically and should address changing knowledge-power relations.

First meydan: Post-Kemalism as public space making

10İlker Aytürk’s article entitled “Post-Post-Kemalism: Waiting for a new paradigm”, published in Birikim in 2015 (Aytürk 2015), initialized a debate among the academics working on Turkish society and recent history (Aytürk 2019; Turan 2019; Çınar 2020; Köker 2020; Aytürk 2020). In Aytürk’s article, my book on Islamic veiling, Modern Mahrem, is considered as one of the major taboo breaking books of Kemalism. I would like to contribute to the debate and reflect retroactively on Post-Kemalism in the light of the current religious nationalist authoritarianism. I am eager to do so as the article gives a new impulse to intellectual debate, offers an opportunity to recover from an amnesia and aims to restore, even at a very modest scale and within a limited circle, a public debate that came to a halt since the aftermath of the coup attempt in 2016 and the political repression that followed. The main question that needs to be addressed is: to what extent does the academic work called “Post-Kemalism” offer us a hermeneutic tool for understanding Turkey's State and society relations or fails to do so?

11The “prefix” post is commonly used to refer to the overtaking of a long-lasting phenomenon, such as post-communism, or postmodernism. Often the prefix “post” stresses the expiration of the phenomenon, but fails to identify the traits of the emerging one or the passing phenomenon itself. Likely, the term Post-Kemalism indicates the coming to an end of the existence of a phenomenon, the loss of its hegemony, and its aftermath. Implicitly Post-Kemalism refers to the political power changing hands, AKP coming to power in opposition to secular Kemalism. I will try to render the implicit assumption more explicit and therefore address the question: what does Islam have to do with Post-Kemalism?

12In his article, İlker Aytürk uses the term Post-Kemalist to indicate the formation of an academic paradigm that cultivated a radical change in Turkish society and politics. He proposes that a lecture of change should be initiated in academia, rather than implemented by political power. Hence, he defines Post-Kemalism as “a set of ideas introduced by a number of Turkey’s important social scientists at the beginning of the 1980s, which was later internalized and quickly put into circulation by the intellectuals, journalists, think tanks, and publishing houses of the liberal Left” (Aytürk 2015). Secondly, he asserts that the Post-Kemalist paradigm “opened the way for the regime change which occurred thereafter [and] made the current environment of political transition possible” (Aytürk 2015: 35). The author reverses the widely accepted hierarchy of determination between politics and academia and argues that the change in the academic paradigm, namely Post-Kemalism, prepared the pathway for the emergence of the AKP political power. This is a widely shared view among the opponents to AKP power (albeit a tiny group in numbers) who blame the liberal intellectuals of the left, for being responsible in carrying Islamic actors to power. Thirdly, the author argues that Post-Kemalism is an improper diagnosis applied to Turkey’s continuous issue of political tutelage and proposes a new paradigm adding a second prefix, “post Post-Kemalism” (Aytürk 2015: 45).

13The term Post-Kemalism in the article is constructed as an ideal type on a presupposed convergence, rather than singling out each author’s contribution. One should expect that the Post-Kemalism debate would provide an opportunity to revisit the work of authors and engage in a careful reading of academic contributions. However, we observe a dismissive attitude towards the work of authors in the discussions, oversimplifications, if not flawed interpretations. In the absence of such necessary academic engagement, these critiques will not go beyond the expression of self-righteous intellectualism and of politicization of an academic discussion.

14İlker Aytürk’s article has the merit to capture “Post-Kemalism” as a moment of convergence between academic works and a particular political context. I, therefore, am tracing Post-Kemalism as a “moment” of convergence between ideas and the public, as a “turning point” in the self-understanding of Turkish society. I think it is this insight that should be followed as bearing a potential for constructive debate. Aytürk does not aim to provide a genealogy of intellectual critiques to Kemalism, although he acknowledges these traditions, tracing them back to İdris Küçükömer’s work. Rather than adopting a diachronic approach to tease out the formation of a Post-Kemalist paradigm, he explains the synchronicity between the changing paradigm in academics and changing power in politics.

15I would like to introduce a necessary distinction that is often dismissed in the debate, namely the distinction between the public sphere and the political sphere. The ideas germinated in the academic field were transferred to the public at large by journalists, public intellectuals, and publishing houses. The Post-Kemalist paradigm allowed the questioning and debate of the established representations of Turkish self and society in the public sphere. The critiques of Kemalism enabled the expansion of the public sphere. A claim of direct causality between Post-Kemalism and the change in the political regime could not only be considered poor social science, it also misconstrues the relation between the public and the political, and dismisses the constructive contributions of the Post-Kemalist experience. In my terms, it ignores the “emancipatory power of the lived experience”, a moment where the polis, the public sphere, the meydan was in the making. I am referring to a pluralistic experimentation of the public sphere during the period that started in the 1980 and lasted until the authoritarian turn in the 2010s.

16The intellectuals of Post-Kemalism do not share a common ideology, do not come from a similar cultural background, and they do not seek to transcend the differences in the name of an ideal. On the contrary, Post-Kemalism can be read as an attempt to implement a social contract of pluralism not by means of social engineering shaping society from top down, but by means of mutual recognition of denied identities and divided habitus. Post-Kemalism has brought a particular public experience (as the first meydan) that allowed the singular lived experiences to be shared, to transgress the cultural barriers and the political fault lines, bringing a commune experience, conviviality among those who ignored each other. These singular lived experiences were amplified, staged and dramatized. The Post-Kemalist experience reached an emotional intensity and occupied the public stage empowering the denied minority voices at the expense of the hegemonic majority.

17I relate Post-Kemalism to the public making process by means of breaking taboos, including minority voices and establishing a dialogue among those from different convictions and horizons. The denial of Kurdish identity and the military backed secularism have been considered among the chronic issues damaging Turkish democracy, obstructing societal peace, hindering political participation and freedom of expression. The criticisms that were addressed in particular to assimilative nationalism and authoritarian secularism (laiklik), enabled those ethnic and religious social groups who were excluded, repressed or simply not recognized by the Republic to raise their voices and participate in public debates.

18In other words, the stakes of democracy were played out through the expansion of the public space, necessitating the emancipation from the tutelage of Kemalist discourse and power. This is a dialogical process that has expanded the horizontal ties and social recognition among actors and cannot be reduced to an opposition to the State. The walls that had separated different sections of Turkish society were getting thinner, and intellectuals, writers, poets, publishers, those from different convictions and origins who lived in separated spheres of life were becoming aware of each other, investigating the possibility of a common language for a new social contract together.

19During the period spanning from the post-1980s era, gaining momentum through the 2000s with Turkey's European Union membership aspirations, and eventually coming to a halt with the coup attempt in 2016, a notable phenomenon that can be named as a Post-Kemalist era emerged. This era witnessed the pivotal role of "roundtables," "panels," "journals," and "conferences" in the Turkish context. These platforms served as crucial facilitators, bringing together voices from various ideological, cultural, and religious backgrounds. They played a major role in bringing right and left, secular and Muslim, Kurdish and Armenian voices together, providing a space for social interaction and changing the self-understanding of Turkish society.

  • 4 İmparatorluğun Çöküş Döneminde Osmanlı Ermenileri: Bilimsel Sorumluluk ve Demokrasi [Ottoman Armen (...)

20In that respect, the “Armenian conference” held at Istanbul Bilgi University on September 24-25, 2005, was a milestone. This was the first non-official conference organized with the concur of the History Foundation (Tarih Vakfı), scholars from leading universities (in particular Bilgi, Boğaziçi, and Sabancı), and with the presence of a network of scholars from abroad.4 The conference was under heavy attack by Turkish nationalists, legal measures were taken to cancel it, and an aggressive campaign of threat and intimidation was directed against the participants.

21The conference contributed to opening up a new page on Armenian studies, with a jointly-developed perspective for a shared history; accounts of Armenian life in Ottoman Anatolia, reflections on the current social amnesia, and the discovery of Armenian ancestry in the present day were among the themes. The most well-known intellectual figure, Hrant Dink, represented the importance of this shared history. Rather than advocating the official recognition of the genocide, he opted for rectifying social amnesia, allowing his fellow members of society remember the presence-absence of Armenians in homeopathic doses; he considered this a condition for a shared history, healing for Armenians, maturation for Turks (Dink 2011). The Armenians attaining a voice and agency, and a role in shaping the public discourse was not a linear peaceful process, but rather a fragile and precarious task. The tragic assassination of Hrant Dink, in 2007, starkly demonstrated the connections between historical massacres and the current act of assassination, casting us into the role of captivated witnesses. This experience made us recognize that we had underestimated the duress of nationalism and the pervasive forces of intolerance and violence that had become ingrained within the State apparatus.

22The Abant Platform, a well-known intellectual forum for more than a decade, played an important role in debating the controversial issues and carrying them into the public debate. Initiated in 1998 by the Journalists and Writers Foundation (of Gülen movement), the Abant Platform organized annual meetings, with the participation of academics, writers and civil society members to debate divisive issues such as Islam and secularism, Alevi minority and Sunni majority, but also general topics on globalization and Europe. The forum defended pluralism against the forces of homogenization and promoted tolerance and dialogue between seemingly irreconcilable currents of thought, philosophical schools and ideological beliefs. However, the Abant Platform’s ties to the Gülen movement weren't necessarily harmless. The platform lost its credibility as the Gülen organization, then believed to be a religious community for education and dialogue, was later discovered to have hidden agendas and political ambitions, and accused of being behind the failed coup of July 2016.

23Post-Kemalism, if we agree on the fact that it is a set of ideas and practices, is inseparable from the process of taboo breaking and public space making. It is intrinsically related to the establishment of a cultural ecosystem wherein various participants, different actors, encompassing Muslims and Kurds, conservatives and leftists, civil society agents, publishers, columnists and artists have all played a role in shaping its presence.

24A vibrant debate in public space is inseparable from the performative nature of assembly and visibility in public space. The creation of “in-between spaces” enables discursive practices among persons and intellectuals from different social classes, religious affiliations, and political legacies. The microsociological practices of the actors, the exemplary cultural crossings and the proliferation of in-between spaces create a dynamic of assembly between different actors who make themselves familiar to each other, become visible and audible in the public space. The public space, the meydan, ideally provides the creation of horizontal ties, mutual recognition and learning among different social groups. Familiarization with each other’s language, habitus, and convictions are part of societal experimentation, of the exploration of new ways of imagining and making society.

The Gezi meydan movement

25The Gezi movement that took place in May of 2013 is a quintessential example of public agency and collective creativity in imagining alternative ways of making society. The occupation of Gezi Park signaled a new consciousness for the protection of the environment and the defense of liberties in public life. The macro-level urban planning that led to the confiscation of the public domain by private capital and the social engineering of the public order that led to intrusions and limitations of secular ways of life culminated in the rejection of the “pious capitalism” advocated and enacted by the AKP government, both religious and neoliberal. Against the model of compliant consumer citizenship, the occupants of the park created alternative ways of living in collectivity. Unlike the Post-Kemalist generation of intellectuals that remained in the domain of public debate and ideas, the Gezi movement appropriated physical space, transforming the park into a public scene for alternative ways of habitation and connection, and unleashing the creative energy of participants. Gezi transformed “meydan” into a scene for assembly and visibility of those who were not in compliance with the national religious narrative.

26The new generation of activists, mostly from backgrounds with secular habitus, are not representative of the Kemalist generations of their parents, nor in line with the Post-Kemalist ideologies of the secular left. Nonetheless, Gezi incarnates the ecosystem of a pluralistic public culture in which the divides between secular and religious, Turkish and Kurdish people are surpassed. Gezi is the physical incarnation of Post-Kemalist public space making. Gezi is the visual and performative configuration of a pluralistic society enacted on a public square, in the meydan. If Post-Kemalism animated the meydan by discursive practices, Gezi displayed the visual and performative forms of citizenship enacted on the meydan. People with disparate ideas and lifestyles, students and professionals, feminists and traditionalists, football fans and members of LBGTQI assembled, learned from each other, watched their language, called for respect and mutual recognition, and enacted forms of citizenship in co-presence with each other. The square, the meydan, became the stage for the appearance of active minorities (meydana çıkmak in Turkish has a double meaning, coming out in front of the public and taking shape) and the alternative ways of living in collectivity; on the meydan we see libraries, whirling dervishes, yoga classes, and also collective praying and distribution of “kandil simidi” (a religious holiday bagel). The Gezi Park movement was not about the expansion of the boundaries of the public, and inclusive politics of recognition in the abstract sense, but the configuration of a public sphere in the material sense, giving life to singularities and a collective form to pluralities. It was a movement against the grain of authoritarian populism, against the fracture lines between us and them, created by politics of enmity.

27Gezi had a transformative effect on the members of a generation considered apolitical. The words of a young woman, owner of a publishing house illustrated well the impact of the Gezi movement and the effects of its repression on the lives of protestors. In my conversation with this young editor in Istanbul, she told me that during the Gezi occupation, they have discovered themselves in collectivity and solidarity with others. With the repression, they went back to their own homes again, retrieved in personal lives without any hope for the future. When the public space becomes unsafe for assembly and visibility, retreat into the private sphere and back to one’s own social group remains the only option.

28The fierce repression of the Gezi movement signaled the reversal of the political climate and the authoritarian turn in Turkey that put an end to democratic aspirations and closed down the meydan. In the aftermath of the coup attempt of 15th of July 2016, the pluralistic ecosystem of public culture was dismantled; the Gezi activists, including the Post-Kemalists were discredited, repressed, criminalized, and designated as enemies of the regime. It is ironic to note that Post-Kemalism that made possible the public appearance (meydana çıkmak) of historically repressed and ignored actors, ranging from secular left to Muslim democrats, Kurdish spokespersons, Alevis and non-Muslim minorities, are today among the most targeted figures. They are criminalized by the regime and discredited by conservative Kemalist circles. One wonders how the “Post-Post-Kemalist'' proposition will distinguish itself from these conservative voices.

Modern Mahrem

29In my book, titled Modern Mahrem, I engage in a performative endeavor that encompasses both personal acts and linguistic choices. This effort involves traversing cultural boundaries in order to examine the intricate social hierarchies existing between secular and religious formations. The Turkish title, which juxtaposes "modern" and "mahrem" (a term referring to the concept of privacy in Islamic contexts), visually portrays the unforeseen and unwanted coexistence of these two contrasting orientations. The usage of words from Arabic origin, such as mahrem, was subject to criticism among Kemalist circles who believed in the nationalist virtue of holding to the purification of Turkish language from Persian and Arabic influences. The realm of language was a battleground and served as a distinction between conservative social groups and republican elites of Turkey. Modern Mahrem proposed a reading of secularism in the 1920s and Islamism in the 1980s by means of focusing on the agency of women, bodily practices and ways of life. The main approach of the book is to understand the macrohistorical movements, secularism and Islamism, at the level of microsociological practices embedded in daily life.

30The book was meant to be a contribution to the opening of an in-between mental space between the competing secular and Muslim definitions of self and modes of public visibility of women. Rather than asserting a theory of replacement and alternance between the secular and the religious, it drew on continuities, mirrorings and interpenetrations in the ways Muslim women follow their life strategies in public.

31When Modern Mahrem was published, Ali Bulaç, a prominent Muslim intellectual, wrote a critique of the book, arguing for the necessity for Muslims to resist intermingling with modern culture and reminding of the imperative to be either Muslim or modern. Thus, he proposed to insert the word “and” in the title and to separate Modern from Mahrem. This exchange triggered an unprecedented and long-term dialogue. Birikim, the respected journal of the secular left intellectuals, publishing the article of Ali Bulaç, a Muslim thinker, signaled the breakdown of the wall of separation between two very distinct intellectual formations. The binary opposition between laik and Muslim was unsettled and implied a two-way transgression from in-group belongings.

32While the crossing of cultural frontiers between the secular progressive and the religious conservative groups meant engagement in dialogue and mutual recognition for some intellectuals, it was blamed as conducive to impurity of faith, and treason of the foundational ideas of the Republic by others. The meaning of the symbol of Islamic veiling is not stagnant; it changes over time, as the profile of women who either adopt or reject it is changing. Depending on the cultural and political context, public perception is different. In some Muslim countries Islamic veiling is compulsory, whereas in some European countries, it is forbidden under certain circumstances. Women’s religious subjectivities are multiple and can change in relation to different social experiences. Overall, Muslim women have changed the signification of “veiling” from an invisible sign of tradition to a sign of assertive Islamic religiosity in urban life.

33What are the political conclusions that we can draw from the perspective of Post-Kemalism? Several succinct observations: the veiling as the most divisive, non-negotiable issue between religious conservatism and Kemalist secularism (laiklik) has ceased to be an issue. AKP in government put an end to the restrictions, but continued to instrumentalize the headscarf issue to consolidate its power. In turn, the Republican People’s Party under the leadership of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu not only refrains from focusing on religious issues and is engaged in a dialogue for reconciliation with religious, conservative social groups, it also became the leading force for the formation of an unprecedented coalition between different political parties, including conservative ones against the AKP rule. These signal that the established Kemalist paradigm is gradually changing and renewing from within, a dynamic made possible thanks to the taboo breaking Post-Kemalism.

  • 5 The Istanbul Convention is a treaty created by the Council of Europe to combat violence against wom (...)

34Indeed, Post-Kemalism can be interpreted as taboo-breaking especially in regards to Islam, as it has criticized military backed secularism and fostered inclusionary politics. With AKP in power, Muslims are no longer the excluded others, but have become part of the excluding power. Without a buffer between themselves and the State power, they lost their autonomy. The authoritarian turn of the political power thus created new forms of tutelage to the State. In order to consolidate their newly acquired status, Muslim actors, previously opponents of the State, became the new spokespersons of legitimation of the repressive power. Intellectuals, Islamist women journalists, the pious bourgeoisie, associations, etc., their raison d’être depends on State power. I would have expected a process that led to the autonomy of Muslim actors, functioning as a countervailing force against authoritarianism and the hyper-centralization of political power. One cannot but regret the quasi absence of independent voices, including those of women. The lack of reactions among Muslim women to the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention5 is a case in point.

  • 6 A renowned female journalist of Islamist background, Nihal Bengisu Karaca, argues in one article on (...)

35A few Muslim opinion makers, mainly journalists,6 refrain from complacency with power. These few names regret the deviations from the Islamic ideal and in particular resent the embourgeoisement of the pious middle class, the never-ending consumerism and the loss of humility through power. They regret the “good old days” when their faith made them feel like innocent victims. They express a feeling of nostalgia for the past, but only a past of their own, without breaking away from the unifying category of “we the Muslims”. Their naive nostalgia for their faith becomes an enemy of agency and criticism, and serves as the embellishment of the self, and disengagement from the present political responsibility. However, prior to the authoritarian turn, most were actors in the Post-Kemalist cultural ecosystem through dialogue and interactions with secular democrats. Presently, their fellow secular democrats have been silenced and persecuted. The Post-Kemalist ecosystem is repressed and destroyed. One does not find any reference in the writings of Muslim opinion-makers to this common experience, nor solidarity with secular democrats with whom they have shared the public stage. The destruction of meydan does not seem to be on their personal consciousness nor on their political agenda.

Absence-presence of Europe

36It is puzzling to note in the present debate the absence of reference to Europe. The formation of Atatürk’s republic as a political and societal project cannot be separated from its civilizational orientation towards Europe. Not only has Europe played a major role in Turkish modernization, but the Turkish candidacy for the European Union has also mobilized debates on political and institutional reforms. If the Post-Kemalist paradigm had a transformative effect on public debate and political history, one cannot dismiss the existence of the dynamics of reform and the vision of candidacy for the European Union playing a major role. The Post-Kemalist paradigm was structured around the horizon of membership for the European Union. The absence of reference to Europe by the authors of the “Post-Post-Kemalist” debate testifies that Turkey and Europe have drifted apart, and that Europe has never been so distant, and absent from the minds of Turkish intellectuals. Perhaps they have never been pro-European.

37The argument that Post-Kemalism is a total negation of Kemalism does not hold true to the extent that there is continuity in their respective desires and ambivalence in relation to Europe. Post-Kemalism followed up Turkey’s commitment to Europe, by means of democratization and reformation. For Turkish citizens, it was a widely shared feeling that the membership in the EU meant a natural accomplishment of the long historical course of modernization, understood as Europeanization.

38The perspective of the European Union anchored and instigated a series of reforms during the course of 2002-2003 in order to harmonize the Turkish legal and political system with what was called the Copenhagen criteria. The mobilization of civil society, human rights movements, businesspeople organizations, and the formation of a public opinion in favor of these reforms have played a major role in the achievement of these reforms. One major example is the abolition of the death penalty, a widely shared value in European political culture. At the time the death penalty was discussed in Turkey, the leader of the Kurdish movement, Abdullah Öcalan was in prison under the death sentence. In spite of the nationalists’ objections, the law passed in parliament (9 August 2002) with the help of increasing public voices of those who argued in favor of the abolishment of capital punishment. It was meant to be a victory of reformists against nationalists in Turkey. However, the opinion makers in European countries considered these reforms as cosmetic and superficial. The questioning of the legitimacy of Turkish candidacy and the skepticism with which the European politicians and publics rejected the reforms was a moment of great deception for me.

39Many of us who were committed to the candidacy of Turkey for the European Union thought that by following the path of the reformist paradigm, Turkey would deepen the democratic principles of equality and pluralism and would achieve eligibility to join the league of democratic countries. The criticisms directed against assimilative nationalism and authoritarian secularism did not, however, persuade everyone. The army played a major role as a guardian of “laiklik” in Turkish politics and both the secularists and the ethno-nationalists resented the reforms that would disempower the military and weaken national sovereignty. The reformists on the other hand were not converging in a common democratic project, but giving priority either to the rights for Kurds or for Muslims, often in confrontation with each other. Intellectuals, writers, artists contemplated new ways of cohabitation, created interfaces, made translations, and circulated among different communities, forming in-between spaces. However, they became vulnerable after being accused of betraying the fundamental religious and national values of their home country. Only later did I become aware that the loss of the European ideal would result in scapegoating the mediators between Turkey and Europe, who would be targeted as “undesirable public intellectuals” (Göle 2017).

40In sum, the Post-Kemalist paradigm changed the representations of self and society in Turkey, unleashed the emancipatory power of the public sphere, and contributed to the expansion of meydan, opening a discursive and performative space for the enactment of new forms of citizenship. It is crucial to acknowledge the Post-Kemalist moment as a dynamic lived experience bringing together plurality of perspectives and mutual recognition among actors.

41We cannot fully assess the damaging forces of the politics of enmity and polarization prevailing in present-day Turkey, unless we recognize the reformist potential of the Post-Kemalist era.

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Aytürk, İlker (2015). “Post-post-Kemalizm: Yeni Bir Paradigmayı Beklerken,” Birikim 319 (November), pp. 34-48.

Aytürk, İlker (2019). “Post-Kemalizm Nedir? Post-Kemalist Kimdir? Bir Tanım Denemesi,” Varlık 1337 (February), pp. 4-7.

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Göle, Nilüfer (1996). “Authoritarian Secularism and Islamic Participation: The Case of Turkey” in A. Richard Norton (ed.), Civil Society in the Middle East, II, Leiden, Brill, pp. 17-43.

Göle, Nilüfer (2017). “Undesirable Public Intellectuals,” Globalizations 14 (6), pp. 877-883.

Göle, Nilüfer (2024). “The Heuristic Power of Non-Western Notions: Mahrem and Maidan (Private and Public),” in Dufoix, Stéphane; Macé, Éric (eds.), Toward a Non-Hegemonic World Sociology?, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield.

Karaca, Nihal Bengisu (2019), “Bu Feryad Bülbül Sesi Mi?,” Habertürk 3 December.

Köker, Levent (2020). “Post-Kemalizm ya da ‘Eleştirel Olmayan Eleştiri’nin Eleştirisi,” Birikim 371 (March), pp. 15-24.

Özyürek, Esra (2006). Nostalgia for the Modern. State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey, Durham, Duke University Press.

Turan, Ömer (2019). “Yeni Bir Paradigmayı Beklemek ya da Tarihsel Sosyolojinin İlhamı,” Birikim 366 (October), pp. 67-79.

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1 The notion of lived experience, Erlebnis, is used by German philosophers to link experience and self-reflexivity, as a basis of knowing and knowledge production.

2 In this paper, “Muslim” has two distinct meanings. Firstly, what one would call Islamicate, that is, the predominant cultural-religious background of Turkish society, where minority groups are identified as non-Muslims. Secondly, Muslims refer to religion-oriented people as opposed to secular people.

3 In a similar vein, Esra Özyürek depicts the symbolic ways in which ordinary Turkish citizens reminisce about Kemalism and Atatürk in their daily lives after Islam became part of the Turkish political and public sphere in the late 1990s. See Özyürek 2006.

4 İmparatorluğun Çöküş Döneminde Osmanlı Ermenileri: Bilimsel Sorumluluk ve Demokrasi [Ottoman Armenians during the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy]”, 24-25 September 2005, Bilgi University, Istanbul.

5 The Istanbul Convention is a treaty created by the Council of Europe to combat violence against women and domestic violence. It was opened for signature on May 11, 2011, in Istanbul, and entered into force in 2014. Turkey was one of the initial signatories amongst 37 others (46 as of 2021). However, Turkey withdrew from the convention on March 22, 2021, with the Turkish presidency accusing the convention of promoting homosexuality and divorce, and undermining the notion of family.

6 A renowned female journalist of Islamist background, Nihal Bengisu Karaca, argues in one article on Habertürk that Muslims have lost their “innocence” after coming to power. See Karaca 2019. Abdurrahman Dilipak, a well-known Islamist, laments about the corrupting influence of power and wealth in his column on Yeni Akit, stating “In the past, we praised suffering, humility, and giving. Now, we celebrate pleasure, arrogance, and taking. We used to contemplate death and the afterlife, but now we dream only of the joys of life. We once threw stones at the arrogant, but now we have become arrogant ourselves.” See Dilipak 2017.

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Electronic reference

Nilüfer Göle, (Post-)Kemalism as a lived experience in public making-meydanEuropean Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 35 | 2022, Online since 15 February 2024, connection on 15 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nilüfer Göle

Cespra-EHESS, Paris.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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