Evren Savci

Queer in Translation: Sexual Politics under Neoliberal Islam

Duke University Press, 2020

248 pages


Reviewed by Debjyoti Ghosh, PhD

Evren Savci’s Queer in Translation charts the changes in Turkey’s governance and its queer movements (and repression thereof). Savci starts with how the AKP—the current ruling party—came into power and, despite its moderate pro-Islamic stance, provided the right political climate for strong LGBT movements. Yet, a little over a decade later and with the AKP still in power, the tides have turned against LGBT movements, along with rising conservatism within government circles. All public marches, parades, and demonstrations affiliated with LGBT movements were stopped due to State security concerns. The support waned to a point where transgender people, who lived in relative peace, were suddenly relegated to travesti terörü or transvestite terror. The trans population was suddenly rendered the new monster, the new abject, moving the focus away from the Kurdish and Armenian minorities.

Savci highlights the contradictory moves of the government—marrying neoliberalism with Islam—and questions the reading of neoliberalism in queer studies and Islam. The latter is often relegated to discussions in context of Muslim minority populations or in the context of Israel-Palestine. Also, the reading of queerness is often through the lens of ‘anthropological difference:’ authentic indigenous beings versus inauthentic—modernized, globalized—beings.

Turkey is an interesting case in point, especially because of the political precarity it presides over: an Islamic nation with desires of joining the European Union while lambasting them about the treatment of fellow Muslims. Also, Turkey cannot be put in the same bracket with countries coming out of colonization. It is a descendant of and a reaction to the Ottoman Empire, and it has imperial ambitions of its own. Thus, it can’t be viewed from the colonized/colonial, East/West paradigm.

Savci uses the tool of translation to go beyond the binaries mentioned above. She wants to move away from the sway of the English language over queer studies and uses translation as a tool or as “a social practice, thereby undoing the false binary between language and practice.” She problematizes the concepts of the homogenized local versus the global through this and, using translation as a methodology, looks at different terms such as “sexual orientation, gender identity, lgbt rights, hate crimes, homophobia, and outness” through an ethnographic angle.

Savci also suggests moving away from a politics of rights and going towards a politics of cruelty, which “centers opposition to all forms of cruelty” as opposed to working towards liberal recognition. This reframing allows different movements to come together to oppose illiberal stances of the government and cruelty being perpetrated by the government, as opposed to movements and stances posited against the other—secular versus religious, moral versus immoral—which is what the AKP is good at and is increasingly strong-arming the citizens into obeyance.

Throughout Queer in Translation, Savci guides the reader through a short account of events that pushed Islam out of the governmental language after the fall of the Ottoman empire. She uses that as a backdrop for exploring the headscarf ban in educational institutions and the rise of activism against the ban as well as the rise of stronger LGBT movements and the support (or lack thereof) from one movement to the other. Her work showcases the divergent opinions on LGBT issues by different Islamic actors and puts forth the argument that, given the modes of activism in Turkey, it becomes impossible to place things under authentic/inauthentic labels.

Savci creates a narrative of tying together the rise of conservatism within Turkish politics vis a vis the outsider’s gaze at different events within the country. Using a mix of analyses of news, ethnography, and interviews, Savci’s work brings to the forefront the solidarity between the headscarf movement and the LGBTQI+ movement in Turkey. Interestingly, while a human rights framework is deployed by both movements’ activists against state-sponsored violence, the headscarf activists do not necessarily bring in the same framework when looking at LGBT rights. Yet, she believes it is imprudent to put all “Muslim women who are unaware of the plight of LGBT subjects and do not make public statements about homosexuality, Muslims claiming that homosexuality is an illness, and Muslims claiming that homosexuality is normal but also a sin” into one category of homophobic. She says that this sort of an interpretation of rights that are inalienable leaves no room for discussion within the Islamic fabric of Turkish movements.

Savci started her research at a very pivotal time; Ahmet Yildiz, a Kurdish gay activist and a member of the gay bear subculture, had just been assassinated, ostensibly because he had come out to his family. This led to several separate yet related conversations: of the gay other, the Kurdish other, coming out, honor killings, and notions of civilization perpetrated by the Turkish regime as well as the West. Her reading of The Independent’s article on the death of Yildiz was spot on: Turkey is the “Orientalized other” in the eyes of the West—a place where negative traditions such as honor killings are carried out, and social goods considered positive in the West such as coming out is enough to get you killed. One minority aspect was played up over another. Unfortunately, the Turkish media, too, used this narrative. Yet, as Savci examines further, it was the Turkish state’s own reformulation that encouraged the Orientalizing of Islam by bringing forth changes that were to ‘Westernize’ the country, including the headscarf ban in educational institutions.

Savci argues that instead of following a linear westernizing philosophy, AKP brought in an Islamic neoliberalism that attempted to bridge the ambitions of EU accession and dialogues with different minority groups (particularly the Armenians and the Kurds) and Islam. However, as we know, that has changed radically over the last several years.

Savci investigates why the transgender community prefers moving towards a hate crime legislation versus legal recognition—it is important to remember that when these demands were made, it was during a culture of hate. Several people who were speaking up against the government were being thrown into jail at the time. With this, Savci’s deep citizens (e.a.) play a pivotal role in becoming the new guardians of social morality and perpetrating crimes against minorities. Particularly with transgender people, there is little to no recognition—even sex work laws are framed around cis women. Thus, transgender people are seen as miscreants and surplus to the State’s need, but the State is no longer acting directly against them. The citizens are enough for that.

Savci weaves together a highly complex narrative, from the political backdrop to the activist movements to the interaction between them. She successfully brings together multiple issues that allow the reader to understand both how the Turkish State is operating today, with the AKP government at its helm, and sheds light on the queer population in parts of Turkey and their lived realities. Overall, Savci convincingly gives alternative understandings of politics and suggests changes in understanding similarly situated countries—with religion and liberalism going hand in hand, the slightest imbalance can generate shockwaves, and Turkey is a good learning curve. If anything, it leaves the readers wanting more.