Queer in Translation: Sexual Politics Under Neoliberal Islam, by Evren Savcı (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021)

Queer in Translation: Sexual Politics Under Neoliberal Islam, by Evren Savcı (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021)

Reviewed by: Oğuz Alyanak, Technical University of Berlin

Can there be a queer alla turca? If the answer to this question, as Evren Savcı argues in Queer in Translation, is yes, then where do we locate queer politics vis-à-vis conversations on two signifiers that scholars refer to explain social, political and cultural dynamics in Turkey today: neoliberalism, and Islam? To find out, Savcı takes us on an epistemological journey, and using mixed methods (“ethnography, interviews, and content analysis of news and social media” p. 155), meticulously weaves an argument across four case studies: the grounding of the headscarf as a human right; the killing of a young gay man in Istanbul; the increasing intolerance for trans communities; and the Gezi uprisings of 2013. The book underlines the need for a more grounded reading of these events in light of neoliberal Islam—“a marriage of neoliberalism and Islam” (p. 16) that dates back to the 1980 coup d’etat, but was particularly instrumentalized since the 2000s by the AKP, which has incorporated its radical (anti-West, anti-EU, anti-IMF) Islamist predecessors into a neoliberal mold (p. 20). “I am interested,” argues Savcı, “in the productive paradox that neoliberal Islam posits to queer studies as the field has taken significantly different critical and epistemological positions vis-à-vis the disparate aspects of this political-economic-religious order” (p. 2). Savcı cautions against taking what Western liberal discourse on gay rights has to offer; for queer politics in Turkey cannot be captured through “the perpetual unspoken equation of language = culture = difference = decolonial” (p. 4). Rather her argument underlines the need to understand queer politics in light of historical and geopolitical realities: “as a lived reality grounded in political economy and government rule” (p. 3).

Savcı, proposes translation as a method to move beyond the binaries that color our language, and shape the ways we talk about Islam and queer politics in Turkey. “I trace the travel and translation of modern political languages around gendered and sexual minorities […] within the context of contemporary Turkey and analyze how they enter public political discussions in order to understand the contours and the effects of neoliberal Islam as well as its internal contradictions and unexpected outcomes that make room for resistance.” (p. 4). This method follows an epistemological tradition advanced by scholars such as Talal Asad and Joseph Massad who have argued that Western liberal discourse fails to capture, and often intentionally distorts and erases, the complexity of the cultures where it operates. However, Savcı reminds us that power does not work solely on a dominating (Western/European/first world) versus dominated (Eastern/Turkish/third world) binary. If we continue to rely on the conviction that epistemic violence causes erasures of cultural formations in the third world, we only reaffirm the binaries through which they operate: “Epistemic and other forms of violence are not exclusive domains of the historical fantasy called the West […] Islam today does not occupy a pure place of indigeneity or local culture that is simply outside of the political economy” (p. 149). Thus, Savcı asks for attentiveness to the political histories of Islam in Turkey in order to unravel the ways where developments in Turkey’s recent history in parts enabled, and in others, silenced, a queer epistemology.

Tracing the evolution of queer politics in light of developments in Turkey’s Islamic movement (and its transformation into neoliberal Islam) helps us see not only moments of “disjuncture”, but also the moments of solidarity where the two movements have come together to converse on a common epistemological ground. This was what we have indeed witnessed during the first two terms under the AKP. Back in 2008, I was a student at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University—a place touted to be one of Turkey’s most liberal institutions of higher education (today, chaired by a government pawn who dispatches police to Boğaziçi’s very own students to suppress and even detain them)—and the conversations we had in and outside of the classroom revolved around envisioning a more inclusive and democratic future based on reforms enacted by the AKP. While some critics, including some of our professors and public intellectuals, continued questioning the AKP’s “sincerity” in enacting the reforms, many others in academia, media, and the business world, were drawn by the AKP’s potential to advance a language on queer and minority rights. Savcı highlights cases that spell out that potential—Pride parades, grand initiatives to construct dialogue with the Kurds and Armenians, policies to empower women and children, and others. The field that Savcı entered and observed had the prospect to produce a language of its own, which had exceeded the binaries (colonial/authentic, modern/traditional, global/local) and was attuned to the lived realities on the ground.

In 2013, Gezi was where this language was put in practice. This hope for a new language must have excited Savcı and led her to trace the effects “newly emerging vocabularies [could have] on the articulation of political imaginaries and desires” (p. 24). After Gezi, and the attempted coup in 2016, these imaginaries and desires came to a halt. Symbols and words lost their multivocality; language turned once again homo-lingual—not by way of a lingua-franca imposed by the West, but a new discursive regime (neoliberal Islam), with its strict moral boundaries

Perhaps, it is the fate of any book that takes a decade to research and write that its very roots start to speak less to the new soil it grows in. The hope for making sense of words used to explain sexual politics, such as “gender identity,” “sexual orientation,” “hate crimes,” “homophobia,” and “LGBT rights,” and the wish for translating these words to reflect the “messy” realities of the social (p. 6) are now curbed. The hope to strip Western/Euro-centric meanings, and to replace them with those that reflect words used by different factions in Turkey, and especially the minority groups, is, simply put, no more, as these words are now replaced with a new lexicon whose idioms are shaped by the ruling neoliberal Islamist elite. And this lexicon, though different due to its Islamist underpinnings, is as oppressive as its Western/Euro-centric predecessor that Savcı writes against, for it leaves little room for a language that is inclusive of peoples and cultures that fall outside its nationalist, capitalist, hetero-normative worldview. Minority and marginalized groups still gather, but their voices are muted as they are barred entry into mainstream discussions, primarily through violence enacted by the state apparatus such as the police.

Savcı’s work on translation of queer terminology in Turkey applies to a Turkey of a past where there was hope for new vocabularies to flourish. It is true that a queer language (perhaps in plural, languages) needs to be grounded in places where they form. Translation is necessary to envision a new politics of sexuality that speaks to the realities where it grows. Yet, these languages need to take into consideration the muting effect of neoliberal Islam, where the very utterance of new symbols, idioms, or words, suffices to put one into jail. The hope for a hetero-lingual mode of meaning-making, and a hetero-lingual Turkey today is sadly in shambles. But, power, even in instances where it is overwhelmingly authoritarian, can never be absolute. It has a tendency to generate critical spaces of hope. And when that time comes, Savcı’s work on translation will surely serve as a guide to future activists and academics.

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