The Politics of a Kiss: Islam and Intimate Life in Turkey

Just like their parents did with the market and the democratic nation-state, one way or another young Turkish Muslims of the future will find a way to make their piety work with their love lives. It may not be in a subway, but they are not going to stop kissing.
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It is one thing for the AKP to ban alcohol or close down gay clubs. It is another to try to cordon off kissing. A kiss is a verb in the language of love. For a conservative regime that seeks to make Islam the basis of public morality and the faith-bound patriarchal family the foundation of the nation-state, this gesture of intimacy is also a political act, particularly when done in public by unmarried young people.

The conflict between the two recently exploded in an Ankara subway station after the station manager, having espied a smooching couple on a security camera, warned commuters on the loudspeakers not to nuzzle on the tracks out of respect for public morality. A hundred couples locked lips in a public kiss-in to protest. From those opposing the protesting kissers, there were shouts that "Allah is great." Other counter-protesters chanted: "Even if we bleed, victory is Islam's." The AKP youth leader who mobilized Erdogan supporters against the kissers complained that freedom should not be confused with immorality. One kisser was stabbed with a knife.

The protest was more than a rear-guard action by secular republicans who fear the growing regulation of private vices, from alcohol to adultery. It expresses not just a conflict between the regime and its Westernized enemies, the so-called "white" Turks. It also exposes an internal contradiction in the mechanisms of AKP hegemony, a conflict between love and the very liberalism upon which the Islamic nationalist regime depends.

Young Turks are lovers. We know this from our anonymous web-based Facebook survey conducted in 2012 to which over a thousand Turks -- most between 18 years and the low 30s -- responded, answering about their intimate lives. Almost 80 percent of the single respondents said they intended to marry for love.

Marrying for love has nothing to do with being a secularist. Those who want sharia to be the basis of Turkish law -- either in part or in full -- are just as likely to make love the basis of their mate choices as those who want religion to have no place in Turkish political life.

Love requires the very liberty that has made Islamic hegemony possible in Turkey. Love is based on choice, on the ability for each woman and man to say no. It demands, in other words, the very same value that has powered the explosion of Muslim entrepreneurship, displacing secular industrialists protected by the Kemalist state. And it rides on the very same value that has made democracy inviolable, enabling a series of Islamic parties to reach for and ultimately secure state power. Young people who love want to choose their partners. And indeed they already do: About half of them are involved in relationships right now. There is no appreciable difference between Islamists and secularists.

To make love the basis of marriage, one must have occasion to meet and socialize with members of the opposite sex. It is here that the culture war is clear. Islamists overwhelmingly think it is morally wrong for unmarried young women and men to even meet each other unaccompanied in a public place, let alone to kiss. Eighty percent of those who want no trace of Islam in the nation-state think there is nothing wrong with unmarried people meeting each other unaccompanied, whereas only 18 percent who want Turkey to be an Islamic state can accept such meetings. The Gulen community understands this and provides mechanisms for chaste dating to take place. Pious coffee houses have popped up in neighborhoods like Fatih to serve young Muslims who want to meet each other in a non-scandalous setting.

But when it comes to the morality of unmarried kissing - and here we are talking about the act itself, not whether it takes place in public -- the moral objections are even greater. Islamists are much more likely to think it is wrong, but so are seculars. Only half of the pure secularists think there is nothing wrong with unmarried kissing. The issue of public kissing is unresolved even among secularists.

Kissing strikes at the heart of the Islamists' notion of modesty. A woman's right to dress modestly has been an Islamist demand for decades. Those who believe that a Muslim woman is religiously obliged to cover her hair are also much more likely to think it is wrong for young unmarried women and men to kiss each other.

A Muslim Woman Should Wear the Hijab

For Unmarrieds to Kiss Is... Yes No
Always Wrong 43% 7%
Almost Always Wrong 6% 3%
Only Wrong Sometimes 21% 12%
Almost Never Wrong 5% 14%
Not Wrong At All 19% 64%
Numbers of Cases 207 139

Statistical significancep.=000

But just because you are pious, and you think female modesty is important, and you even think that it is morally wrong for unmarried couples to kiss does not mean you do not do it yourself. As you can see in the second table, single Turks who believe that women should cover their hair in public are much less likely to have ever kissed somebody. But they do do it: 44 percent of those who believe that veiling is religiously obligatory have kissed somebody. That's a lot of kissing. We get more or less the same results when we look at Islamists. Young single supporters of an Islamic state are kissing their partners as well.

Female Modesty and Kissing: A Muslim Women Should Wear the Hijab?

Ever Engaged in Kissing? Yes No Don't Know
No 56% 32% 43%
Yes 44% 68% 57%
Number of Cases 149 84 122

Statistical significancep = .000

Love flourishes where people feel free to make choices -- with their capital, their votes and their hearts. The AKP must live in the freer world it helped create. It is fooling itself if it believes it can control the consequences of that individual freedom by banishing kissing. The conduct of its own supporters suggests otherwise.

Turkey will not become an American Gomorrah just because its young people push for greater rights in matters related to love and intimacy. Just like their parents did with the market and the democratic nation-state, one way or another young Turkish Muslims of the future will find a way to make their piety work with their love lives. It may not be in a subway or tram, but they are not going to stop kissing.

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