“The Figure of the White Muslim”
During a debate on immigration at CNN Turk, Enes Bayrakli, the co-editor of the European Islamophobia Report, supported the influx of refugees to Turkey, which is home to more than 3.5 million refugees only from Syria alone. Unlike in Europe, where the welcoming of refugees is supported by leftists rather than people from the political right, in Turkey, it is the nationalist as well as the socialists, who strongly condemn the welcoming and naturalization of immigrants.
The critics of Mr. Bayrakli’s position did not stop with the TV debate. One of the respondents was Yusuf Halaçoğlu, an eminent historian and former president of the Turkish Historical Society, a research society studying the history of Turkey and the Turkish people, which was founded in 1931 by the initiative of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey. More recently, he has been a member of parliament since 2011, first for the nationalist MHP and today for the ultra-nationalist ‘Good Party’. He tweeted that Mr. Bayraklı called it ignorance to put people from Syria and the Caucasus in the same category, claiming that former immigrants to Turkey from the Balkans and the Caucasus were originally Turkish. Obviously, there seems to be a very specific racial ideology behind this understanding of immigrants from the Caucasus, the Balkans, and many other parts of the world being 99 % Turkish, as Mr. Halaçoğlu claims. But the factual validity of his argument is not what interests me here. I would rather like to turn to another aspect here.
While Mr. Bayrakli argued for an inclusion of immigrants into Turkish society also by referring to their cultural closeness, Mr. Halaçoğlu asserted that they would be completely different. But what exactly constitutes this difference, given the closeness in terms of language, kitchen and religion, especially to Turkish people living at the borders of Syria? A hidden script here is the question of color. For him, it seems, Arabs, as most Syrians and Iraqis are considered to be, seem to be worth less. ‘Arab’ in Turkish carries two meanings, one is dark, and one is dog. One only must watch Turkish TV to get a sense of the inferiority that is ascribed to people of color. Similar to Arab TV channels, beauty is connected to whiteness most of the time and the inferiority complex vis-a-vis hegemonic whiteness is reproduced in many aspects of life. It seems that Balkan Muslims, since sharing a white phenotype, fit much better into the picture of immigrants that are welcome.
The welcoming of white Muslims is also true for Europe, where only minorities of Muslims live. While it is not necessarily true for European converts, who embrace Islam as their new religion, it is true for the discourse on European white Muslims that are seen as autochthonous, native people. Often, they are portrayed as being the most liberal, most open and thus most ‘European’ amongst the Muslims of Europe, while Muslim people of color are regarded as backward and closed. It happens frequently that immigrated Muslims from the Balkans, be it Bosnia or Albania, or ‘native’ Muslim minorities such as the Tartars within their homelands from Finland to Ukraine, are positioned against recent immigrant Muslims. The ‘white Muslims’ are often referred to as the loyal, part of the society, the ‘good ones’ versus the ‘bad ones’ that have just arrived and change the ‘visible landscape’ of the population.
Even within the radical right political camp, this discourse is of relevance. Let’s just take the Austrian Freedom Party, which is now governing Austria together with the conservative party. Back in 2008, the party declared in one its declaration on Islam that the legal recognition of Islam that happened back in 1912 during the times of the Habsburg Monarchy and was then focusing on the new Bosnian Muslim minority within the empire, should be again reduced to only this ethnic group. According to the party, the recognition of Islam was not intended for other ethnic groups, in other words to Muslim people of color. While this is not a one way street and also ‘white’ Muslims are frequently racialized and excluded based on their religion alone, it seems that white color holds the potential to include these ‘European’ Muslims as the invisible ones amongst dominant white societies.
The figure of the ‘white Muslim’, it seems, offers a possibility for white power structures to not feel uncomfortable in the presence of Muslims that is irreversible, while still holding on to the notion of white superiority. And it allows, as the example of Turkey reveals, to exclude other Muslims based on their skin color, while not openly rejecting the Muslimness of Arab people that endanger the notion of Turkish secularity.
Farid Hafez is a political scientist and senior research scholar at Georgetown University’s The Bridge Initiative at the School of Foreign Service.