Evren Savcı, Queer in Translation: Sexual Politics under Neoliberal Islam (Duke University Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Evren Savcı (ES): I think my initial desire was for there to be a book, any book on queer politics in Turkey. I was also not satisfied with the ways in which queer activism in the Middle East was addressed by existing literature, which portrayed activists as pawns of Western imperialism. Neither did I find the frameworks of Islamophobia and homonationalism adequate for the Turkish context where the AKP (Justice and Development Party) had been mobilizing neoliberalism and Islam simultaneously for its governance—a regime I refer to as neoliberal Islam. I wanted to capture the complex relationship between the political economy and religion in a way that did not rely on and perpetuate the binaries of liberal/illiberal, religious/secular, economic/cultural, and modern/traditional. And I wanted to show how central sexual and queer politics was to this regime—to its operations and therefore to understanding it.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ES: The book captures queer and feminist politics that unfolded during the AKP regime in Turkey, with a particular emphasis on the period between 2008 and 2016. I would say that Queer in Translation, perhaps a bit ambitiously, addresses political economy, contemporary religion, sexuality and sexual politics, and language and epistemology all at once. Language and translation come into play because the book’s methodology relies on ethnographically tracing the travel of the contemporary vocabulary of gender and sexual episteme and politics to Turkey: terms such as gender identity, sexual orientation, hate crimes, outness, and LGBT rights. I was curious to do this both because from the beginning it was clear to me that the vocabulary queer activists employed very much shaped the kinds of politics they practiced, and also because I was not satisfied with the ways in which language was assumed to represent culture and thus authenticity when it came to the “non-Western” sexual formations. In other words, especially the travel of terms that mark modern sexual identities, such as gay or lesbian, have been excessively discussed as effects of cultural imperialism or global capitalism. In response, a number of scholars then have studied the “pre-gay” and therefore presumably authentic categories of gender and sexual nonconformity. In the book I critique this presumed language=culture=local=decolonial equation. I also find that focusing on sexual subjectivity is a bit of a trap, and it is near impossible not to get into the “authentic versus colonial” debates. I chose to center the political economy and its entanglements with religion as markers of modernity in Turkey instead of discussing sexual subjectivity as a marker of modernity. The vocabulary I trace is indeed new, but it does not allow a discussion of whether certain subjects are authentic or not—a discussion I find tired and unproductive.
The tracing of this vocabulary’s translation to the Turkish context helps me show that such travel never happens in a homogenous and hegemonic way. When I say this, I am not so much interested in establishing the existence of individual agency against structural determinism by showing, for instance, that people reconfigure these words in playful ways. Rather, I am interested in showing that structures themselves are inevitably fragile and unstable. Meanings are always fractured and multiple and addresses sometimes arrive in the most unexpected ways and sometimes they do not arrive at all. I have found translation studies extremely helpful in this regard, because scholars who work in this field both understand translation as producing social disjunctures and problematize the naturalness of national languages and authenticity of alleged “mother tongues.”
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ES: Since Queer in Translation is my first book, it is very much in line with my previous articles based on this research. Some of my publications are not covered in the book, but they all come from the same research.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ES: I really hope that the book will speak to scholars of queer studies who have been thinking about neoliberalism, scholars of neoliberalism at large, and also to anyone interested in queer and feminist activism in the Middle East. I think scholars interested in recent debates on religion and secularity will also find that Queer in Translation adds to that conversation. I hope that the book will be translated to Turkish soon and that queer and trans activists and other friends in Turkey will be able to read it. Distribution issues and the price point of English-language publications makes this pretty difficult at the moment.
The intellectual impact I would like Queer in Translation to have is two-fold: For one, I really would like the discussion on queerness and modern sexual subjectivities in the so-called “non-West” to finally shift away from being stuck in the binaries of traditional/modern, authentic/colonial, local/global. I take issue with these most explicitly in the Conclusion of the book, where I suggest that taking Foucault’s proposal that sexual subjectivity is the marker of modernity to heart has led queer studies to leave aside other markers of modernity in the “non-West” and has overburdened gender and sexual minorities who identify with modern vocabularies of subjectivity. This excess burden on queer and trans minorities is not only epistemic but also political, since colonial modernity has been an important target of queer critique. Positioning queers as important analysts and critics of neoliberal capitalism, who nevertheless do not stand outside of these structures, helps me get out of these binds.
Secondly, I really would like queer studies to turn a bit more transnational—not simply in extending its geographic coverage but also in shifting its understanding of “cultural difference.” I try to transnationalize the question of language, which is widely taken to be constitutive of the “real” in the field. However, this language has always been presumed to be English, and language as a category has been treated ahistorically. I bring insights from translation studies to bear on queer studies’ homolingual address and hope that this will change the ways in which we think about language in the field. Finally, I also would like the book to have a political impact of having documented a particularly dark and authoritarian time in Turkey and having laid out the important political work sexual and gender minorities have been doing in resisting and pushing to transform this regime.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ES: I am starting my second book project, which is interested in the establishment of a “civilized sexual morality” in the early Turkish Republic with monogamy at its center. While homosexuality or various forms of gender nonconformity have never been criminalized or legally regulated in Turkey, polygamy, relative marriages, and Islamic matrimony have been openly targeted either legally, or by medical and cultural/civilizational discourses. This is mostly because they were understood to belong to a backward, Islamic, and imperial era, unfit for a modern, secular, and national Republic that sought to belong to “contemporary civilizations.” I am interested in the production of these “formal,” sexual Others of the Turkish Republic. However, I suspect that the project will not be limited to Turkey’s history and today, because I am also largely interested in monogamy’s centrality to the private family and therefore to capitalist modernity. There is a seemingly radical separation today between “backward polygamists,” often understood to be traditional and religious and “progressive polyamorists” who modern (and often secular). Nevertheless, the contemporary polyamory discourse, or polyamory as a twenty-first-century strategic unity, is often devoid of any signs of understanding that polyamory as an individual lifestyle choice very much perpetuates the monogamous logic of private family and capitalist distribution of resources. The only “resource” that is ever referenced is time, which I also find very interesting. So, we will see where all this leads me.
I am also working on a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly with Rana Jaleel on “Queer of Color Transits and the Imaginaries of Racial Capitalism,” where we ask: What do the transnational travels of queer of color critique look like and what kind of reconfigurations of racial capitalism are necessitated and enacted by such travel? I am very excited to think alongside great scholars about the potential of “queer of color” and racial capitalism as frameworks when they leave the US context.
J: What did you learn from writing your first book?
ES: That it takes a long time to think and rethink the project after a dissertation—no matter how done you think your project is, it is not (at all) for quite some time—and that the only thing to do is to embrace the timeline of the book (which might not overlap with your fantasy timeline) and enjoy the surprises along the way. I also learned the importance of thinking with others whenever I can—at conferences, workshops, writing or reading groups. The ability to think collectively is one of the real beauties of our job.
Excerpt from the book (from Introduction, pp. 1-5)
During the 2000s Turkey experienced both the rise of robust and varied LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans) movements across the country as well as the rise to power of the so-called moderate Islamist party, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP; Justice and Development Party). While many liberal democracies might view these developments as contradictory forms of social change, a sizable portion of Turkey’s Left-leaning liberals initially welcomed both as signs of the increasing cultural liberalization of a nation with a patriarchal, heteronormative, militarist, and strictly secular history — a history that had rendered unimaginable both strong LGBT movements and robust parliamentary representation for the Muslim voter base. Also strikingly new in the Turkey of the early 2000s: The AKP clearly departed from previous Islamist parties with its pro-West, pro-globalization, and pro – big business stance. Soon after being elected to office in 2002, the party went to work trying to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria for membership in the European Union, in the process being especially attentive to ethnic and religious rights. It was in this climate, and under the AKP regime, that the annual LGBT pride march, the first of which took place in 2001, grew significantly. Queer activists had been forming formal and informal associations since the early 1990s, and that visibility and organizing activity increased in the 2000s as the nation’s “sexual others” became loud and clear in their demands for social justice.
In late June 2015, however, thirteen years after the AKP’s rise to power, police attacked people gathering for the LGBT pride march, using tear gas and water cannons to prevent crowds from gathering in Taksim Square or entering the adjacent İstiklal Street. The following year, both the trans and LGBT marches and related press releases were banned for alleged security reasons, and those who tried to gather, chant slogans, or even clap and whistle were again met with police violence and detentions. While such police repression of dissent was no longer considered out of the ordinary after the infamous Gezi Park riots of 2013, where tens of thousands protesting the proposed redevelopment of the public park into a shopping mall were attacked for days with water cannons, tear gas, and plastic bullets, the police had nevertheless not interfered with the pride march of 2013 or 2014.7 By 2015, however, the exception made for pride seemed to be over, and LGBT marches were now considered to be security concerns alongside other protests and demonstrations.
How does one make sense of these stark shifts, from exciting democratization to the authoritarian crushing of any and all dissent, all within less than a decade? Queer in Translation argues that the answers to this question lie in the marriage between neoliberalism and Islam as devised by the AKP regime. The party has not only embraced a neoliberal order, which has resulted in increasing levels of precarity as well as securitization, but also conjured a particular regime of morality that cannot be reduced to the logic of neoliberalism or to that of Islam alone. This regime of morality is precisely what makes sexual politics and discussions about sexual minorities in Turkey a fruitful place from which to draw the contours of what I call, following other scholars of Turkey, neoliberal Islam. LGBT politics in particular emerges as a site where the effects of the existing regime of morality, as well as resistance to it, crystallize. In the following chapters I discuss the various ways in which neoliberal Islam at times foreclosed and, at other times, produced dialogues about justice in Turkey, and how at times it made solidarities unimaginable and, at others, produced a set of conditions that made them unavoidable. Yet the key intellectual contribution of Queer in Translation is not establishing the truth or detailing the mechanisms of neoliberal Islam. Rather, I am interested 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: On the one hand, queer studies has been deeply critical of neoliberalism and its taming effects on sexual dissent. On the other, Islam in queer studies is often analyzed as the target of Western imperialism, and discussions about Islam are located in contexts of Muslim-minority populations, Muslim immigrants, Islamophobia deployed in homonationalist justifications of the US war on terror, or the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine. This tendency results in most discussions of neoliberalism being confined to US and Western European contexts and in situating Islam, whenever it is addressed, as the subjugated other of Western modernity. These diametrically opposed treatments of neoliberalism and Islam in queer studies are symptomatic of a key epistemic problem in the field — that of reading nonnormatively gendered and sexualized subjects elsewhere through the paradigm of anthropological difference. This results in positioning queers in the non-West either as authentic local subjects or as modernized, globalized, and therefore inauthentic. Sexual liberation movements that organize in the so-called Third World under any variation of the moniker LGBT have been rendered particularly suspect in queer studies, as the sexual identities they embrace and the liberation politics they practice are often imagined to shore up Western imperial claims about non-Western cultures as backward, nondemocratic, and homophobic. This is especially true of the Muslim world, since recent imperial wars waged against the Middle East have been justified among conservative and liberal queer organizations alike with arguments about state homophobia and violence in these societies. The significance of queer critique aimed at the deployment of liberal LGBT rights to justify imperial wars and Islamophobia notwithstanding, the authentic/colonial binary that underlies this scholarship has made it difficult to theorize the complexities of both what circulates under the signifier Islam and of sexual political movements in Muslim-majority countries.
I offer a way out of the epistemological bind that neoliberal Islam poses to queer studies through two interrelated arguments. First, I make a historical/geopolitical one: A historically situated ethnographic study of the contemporary Turkish Republic offers a way out of this queer bind by helping contextualize Islam as a lived reality grounded in political economy and government rule. Second, I make a methodological proposition of translation as a way to counter and move past the binaries of colonial/authentic, modern/traditional, and global/local, building on my emphasis on grounded fieldwork. Turkey throws a particular wrench in the ongoing reproduction of the colonized East/colonial West divide as the descendant of an empire as well as thanks to its current imperial aspirations as exemplified in its military invasion of Syria. With its history of repressive secularism and its present of repressive Sunni Islamism, the republic interrupts the representation of Islam as the victim other of the imperial West. Neoliberal Islam in particular intervenes in the divides of traditional/modern, cultural/economic, and public/private but also in authentic/colonial and East/West — binaries that I suggest continue to haunt sexualities and queer studies scholarships in geographies that are considered to lie outside the West. Further, the positioning of Muslims as victims of colonial modernity and of Islam as the current alternative to Western liberal cultural and political economies continues to reproduce Islam not only as homogenous but also as radical alterity to Western modernity. This has not only intellectual but also political implications that we need to confront: The framework of Islam as a victim of Western imperialism is not only a reproduction of the timeless image of Islam as culture, but it also corresponds to the rhetoric used, for instance, by the Islamic State in its imperial war against non-Muslims as well as non-Sunni Muslims, most prominently in Iraq and Syria. While the main goal of this book is to illustrate the complexities of sexual politics under neoliberal Islam, it also recounts stories that, perhaps inevitably, will demonstrate the multiplicity of Islam among those who live it and speak on its behalf, despite the Turkish government’s increasing efforts to homogenize and monopolize its meaning.
The methodological solution I offer to this epistemological problem is that of translation. I trace the travel and translation of modern political languages around gendered and sexual minorities, such as “gender identity,” “sexual orientation,” “hate crimes,” “homophobia,” and “LGBT rights,” 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. Critical translation studies is helpful in moving away from the colonial/authentic binary because the field deeply historicizes and denaturalizes the link between language and culture and opens up a way to rethink what seems to be the perpetual unspoken equation of language = culture = difference = decolonial. My goal here is not to vacate discussions of linguistic travel out of power but to insist that we understand both language and power historically and in ways that do justice to differences that can get subsumed under the sign of postcolonial and decolonial localities, which are increasingly burdened by decolonial expectations of the Global South. In so doing, I hope to further the queer studies project of analyzing regimes of normativity and respectability in light of imperialism and the global political economy on two fronts: First, by grounding religion, and in my case (Sunni) Islam, in its political economic context, I aim to unburden it from its assigned role as an alternative to political modernity and the imperial West in discussions of sexual orders. And second, by introducing translation studies to queer studies, I hope to interrupt the unspoken English norm in a field where language and discourse have been central to understanding the workings of normativity and power and also to rethink the implications of queer theory’s homolingual address for our theories about universality and particularity.