Having lived in the US, Egypt Germany, and Turkey during the last seventeen years, my research and teaching careers have been shaped by diversity primarily as a lived reality. Although I gradually came to realize how Turkey’s once diverse ethnic, religious, and ideological diversity was crushed during the nation-building process, it took me much longer to comprehend and face up to my own privileges. Growing up in an economically disadvantaged single-parent family had obliterated my own advantageous position in most other settings. Being a man with a majority Muslim-Sunni-Turk background, I had a very hard time understanding how only a certain group’s language, culture, and religion shaped the whole curriculum. It was as if only we Turks existed in Turkish society. Our Arabic-speaking neighbor’s daughter could not speak Turkish when she first began school, and my Kurdish classmate had a very hard time with Turkish and Social Studies, despite his evident brilliance in Math. But none of this registered with me as an indication of structural inequality because we did not have the vocabulary to express that – everybody was considered a “Turk.” These memories stuck with me as vivid examples of a society that accommodated little diversity. Over time I would recall those to unlearn the remnants of that curriculum and its violent failures of recognition.
In college, my support for Kurdish and women’s rights activism were the first crucial steps in my effort to lessen the effects of my privileges I was formerly unaware of. My learning experience in the US was far more than just earning a PhD in politics, for I was also learning how people from different backgrounds could study together under a curriculum that sought to accommodate that diversity. In addition, I was beginning to comprehend the dynamics of all the more similar inequalities across borders. Meanwhile, some of my international colleagues experienced certain exclusionary practices in the US academia and society and often complained about it. Agreeing with them, I would then bring up how very similar exclusionary practices existed in our own contexts as well, which we had failed to even acknowledge, let alone try to correct.
All in all, being a minority in the US helped me gain a clearer perspective of what my own country’s minorities experienced. This realization encouraged me to support those local struggles that sought to rectify past injustices. How these issues were addressed here, from the legal system to institutional culture, from curricula to media, was quite instructive in this respect. Accordingly, after my return I sought to tailor some of those principles and solutions to the Turkish context.
By that time, my research and teaching in comparative political theory had already covered significant ground on some of the cultural diversity issues, as it is based on the premise that political theory should be truly globalized. But for many, including non-Western perspectives causes all of the other diversity issues to be for granted. In other words, other hierarchies, inequalities, and injustices within the newly included cultures often escape one’s attention when the conditions of an inclusive or globalizing curriculum seem to have been met. For instance, I was rather appalled last year when a male scholar on Islamic intellectual history dismissed a question about the non-existence of women in his research as a non-issue because he did not know if any significant woman thinker could actually make the list. I had taught on the same subject for many years, and it was my women students in Turkey who pushed me to find out more about these suppressed voices and their little-known works so that we could develop a much more gender-balanced syllabus. I gladly put in the extra time to locate and then include such material, because by first silencing their voices and then erasing their works, their ensuing absence could be used to justify their non-existence in the syllabi, thereby perpetuating their ongoing suppression in a vicious circle.
In my Middle East courses, I made it part of my agenda to address what I call “Ottoman Orientalism” – rendering the Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Christians, Jews, and other minorities in the region invisible in our curriculum’s Turkish-centric narrative and disregarding their contributions even in the Ottoman capital: Istanbul. For instance, I raised provocative questions as to why Ottoman slavery and its abolition are never mentioned at any grade school level, except military slaves or eunuchs, or why the students never learned anything about what happened between the Ottoman conquests of the Arab lands and the Turkish withdrawal from the region.
Even though the internationalized student body in the US does not exist in Turkey, there are some students from Africa, Asia, and parts of the Middle East. Given my own failure to address these issues early on, I was taking special care to give examples from their history, culture, and intellectual figures to help my Turkish students accord recognition to their fellow classmates. Most of the international students were quite glad that I knew about their particular histories and cultures and thus felt at home.
My generation of Turkish scholars include a significant number of critical scholars who studied abroad and returned home with rather critical perspectives on Turkish history and with a clear agenda to globalize Turkey’s curriculum and face up to their country’s past. What disturbed the state-sponsored scholarship most was our vocal support for the survivors of the Armenian genocide, daring to call it what it was. Along with our solidarity for Kurdish rights and equality at all levels of our scholarship and teaching, our group Academics for Peace in Turkey emerged as an embodiment of these shared sensibilities. I believe that one of the reasons for the wholesale persecution of these academics is the disruptive nature of this critical discourse, which only sought diversity and to include the marginalized.
I hope that I continue to learn about diversity through its many successes and failures in the American context from my students and colleagues alike. I also hope to bring in my own experience and perspective on how to accord recognition to each and every fellow human being’s diverse legacy in our shared humanity, while being able to articulate each legacy’s various layers of exclusion.