President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey is known for his strong pro-natalist sentiments. In 2012 his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, by the Turkish acronym) passed a law to constrain women’s choice to give birth by Caesarean section — “nothing more than a procedure to restrict and square a nation’s population,” says the AKP leader, since a woman who undergoes it usually cannot have another baby. Erdoğan exhorts every Turkish family to have three children, just like he does. Last week he compared birth control to treason. And he repeatedly equates abortion with murder, once going so far as to declare that “every abortion is an Uludere,” a reference to a Turkish airstrike that (mistakenly, the government claims) killed 34 Kurdish villagers. Despite such bombast, and AKP attempts at a ban, abortion is still legal in Turkey up to ten weeks after conception, as it has been since 1983. But the president’s denunciations have resulted in unofficial social controls: Numerous hospitals are reported to have turned away patients seeking abortions, variously claiming the procedure to be illegal or allowable only with spousal consent.
Turkey has now been under one form or another of Erdoğan’s rule for a long decade — he was prime minister from 2003-2014 before stepping down to become president. Some critics suggest that Erdoğan’s proclamations on gender and sexuality-related issues are mere diversions to shift the public eye away from the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian style of governance, economic liberalization program and corruption scandals, as well as the hunger strikes of imprisoned Kurds and other manifestations of growing dissent in the country. In fact, the AKP government’s pronouncements on public morality (ahlak) are central to a larger project of social engineering. This project, as the abortion example shows, relies not on ordinary politics but on biopolitics — the process by which people are understood and governed as populations measurable by birth rates, death rates, longevity and so forth, all of which makes regulation of sexuality central to governance.
Erdoğan’s pro-natalist statements draw on a long-standing narrative of aspirations for national growth in the face of those who supposedly seek Turkey’s “erasure from the world stage.” The desire to forestall that dystopian scenario helps to explain the AKP’s gestures at other bans — on alcohol, cigarettes, tattoos — in the name of a nation whose citizens (assuming they are not targets of anti-terror campaigns) are to lead healthy, reproductive lives. The government’s rhetoric of ahlak effectively divides the citizenry into respectable and unrespectable subjects. The Family Ministry has even sought to label unmarried people who live on their own as self-absorbed drains on national resources.
The interconnected nature of the AKP’s political, economic and moral projects became visible during the Gezi protests of May-June 2013. These protests started with objections to plans to replace a park in the heart of Istanbul with a shopping mall. But, as the police crackdown intensified, the demonstrations grew, attracting opponents of not only neoliberal restructuring, but also the ethno-sectarian violence and the sexual and moral conservatism of the government. The protesters themselves made the connections between the various forms of AKP authoritarianism.
Erdoğan disparaged the Gezi protesters in moral terms, as a handful of drunken plunderers, and threatened to unleash his “50 percent” voter base upon them in addition to the police. He did so not necessarily because AKP voters want a new shopping mall to be erected at Taksim Square but in order to cast the masses in the streets as dangerous to the moral uprightness that the AKP government believes it represents. Indeed, the AKP government’s biggest success has been to craft moral conservatism as a national quality, allowing the ruling party to position itself as simply expressing what the people want.
Thus the AKP’s gender and sexuality politics is neither a coincidence nor a cloak for other, more important agendas. When the AKP government’s talk turns to abortion, C-sections and co-ed student housing, it is not to distract Turkish citizens from real matters, but it is because these are the very real matters of the nation today.
Turkey needs to build social movements that can counter the AKP’s public morality campaigns. It is a major undertaking, one that cannot be achieved merely by drawing different borders around what is acceptable when it comes to gender and sexuality. Such a redrawing would paint the AKP as extreme and instead propose more “reasonable” moral perimeters that would nonetheless be part of a system of biopolitical control. What is necessary is criticism of the concept of ahlak itself as a social ill. In this regard, Turkish citizens have the LGBT and feminist movements’ slogans questioning the very notion of public morality to look to as models. “If oppression and violence are morality,” one of them goes, “then we have none.”