Turkish youth bridging the political divide. By Selcuk R. Sirin

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Islamic and secular groups in Turkey have long struggled for political control. Since the median age in Turkey is 27, Turkish youth are caught in the middle of this struggle—but they are also redefining it.
Organisations affiliated with Islamic and secular political groups seek to strengthen their presence among youth. Over the past two decades, Islamic organisations in particular have been very successful in their youth outreach and have provided them with educational and cultural services, including after-school activities for high school students and housing for college students across the country. In fact, the current president, prime minister and head of parliament were all recruited as teenagers by the youth arm of a religious-leaning political party.
Secular-leaning organisations, such as the Ataturk Thought Association and the Association in Support of Contemporary Living, have only recently emerged as potentially powerful alternatives to the existing political parties. Growing numbers of youth are loyal to these groups because they provide thousands of scholarships to university students who come from poor families.
I spent the past year at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul conducting a field-based study of more than 1,500 young men and women in Turkey, from the ages of 18 to 25, to document the social, political and psychological effects resulting from this political tension. To ensure proper representation of Turkey's diverse populations, we also interviewed Kurdish, Turkish Alawite and Armenian youth, as well as unemployed young people and those residing in rural areas.
The results demonstrate that despite the divisive political discourse between Islamic and secular political groups, young people in Turkey manage to maintain a balanced hybrid identity.
In fact, when asking youth about their political party affiliations, we found that two-thirds of respondents identify with "Kemalism", the main ideological force behind the secular movement, but only a third were willing to vote for the secular party. Among those who said they voted for the religious-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) currently in power in Turkey, the number of Kemalist youth reached 38 per cent.
We found that youth rejected the "either-or" political paradigm and wanted a more balanced, hyphenated approach to political identification. Respondents were passionate in explaining that their religious beliefs do not necessarily dictate their political views and, alternatively, that upholding a secular political ideology does not mean that they must abandon Islam and its traditions.
At the same time, young people noted in no uncertain terms that they struggle to establish this hybrid identity in a political atmosphere that is becoming increasingly polarised. Specifically, they feel that when they experience discrimination, it is most often based on their political beliefs, rather than their ethnicity or gender. Surprisingly, even Kurdish youth–which among all ethnic groups experience the most discrimination based on ethnicity–felt the same way.
Unfortunately, even though youth do not find the secular-Islamic political division meaningful for their lives, there is not one single major political or youth-focused organisation that is devoted to bridging the gap between secular and Islamic political movements. Given the growing intensity of the division and the demand for a more conciliatory tone to political debate, it is surprising that no such organisation or political party has yet emerged.
At present, it is unclear how this young generation will shape the future of the Turkish political landscape. What is clear from the study's findings, however, is that Turkish youth do not find the secular-Islamic political divide meaningful in their lives; in fact, they find it quite stressful and feel obligated to affirm a hyphenated identity. What we need are youth-focused organisations and political parties that can help the country's youth move beyond the divisive discourse and nurture a new, balanced identity.
With the right kind of help, Turkish youth could truly change the political calculus in Turkey and help us move beyond the "clash of civilisations" framework that pits Islamic values against secular ideals. This generation of Turkish youth may provide hope that there is a third way. This is the generation to watch.

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* Selcuk R. Sirin, PhD (sirins@gmail.com) is Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University and co-author of Muslim American Youth: Understanding Hyphenated Identities Across Multiple Methods. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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