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I’ve written a piece for the New York Times to mark President Erdoğan’s visit to Washington on the blockbuster series “Diriliş: Ertuğrul,” broadcast on Turkish state TV channel TRT.

A few years ago at the height of so-called neo-Ottomanism there were loads of articles published about Turkish TV serials being exported all over the world. It became quite a tired cliche but the popularity of various shows is in fact a good bell-weather for the political mood. And audiences take the messages that these serials pump out seriously. On a visit to Polatlı, a small town outside Ankara a couple of years ago, I vividly remember how a local coffee house arranged its seats in rows at night once a week to screen the latest episode of the ultra-macho action serial “Valley of the Wolves.” In a provincial town with little else to do, it was clearly a major weekly event.

Get a flavour of Diriliş: Ertuğrul by watching the intro:

If you’ve got too much time on your hands you can stream every episode on the TRT website 🍿🍿🍿

If you missed it, here’s an article I wrote about another dubious cultural product: The Erdoğan biopic “Reis” (The Chief), which flopped at box offices in March.

I’ve written a piece for Politico about Turkey’s critical general election. Specifically, the article looks at the shift by President Erdoğan and the government in recent months from emphasising economic competence to peddling bombastic conspiracy theories:

“While signs of this paranoiac shift have long been evident, the AKP’s earlier years in power mostly focused on making an economy-based pitch to voters. Economic competence and extending services to the poorer sections of society – along with an appeal to the conservative religious values held by many Turkish citizens – proved a winning combination for a string of crushing election victories. But while the party still pledges to spur development, its rhetoric leading up to Sunday’s election has tilted decisively in favor of a combination of conspiracy theories laced with historic posturing about reconnecting Turkey with the glory of the Ottoman Empire. When you’re on a glorious path, the AKP’s leaders suggest, you will inevitably have enemies.”

Read the whole thing over at Politico.

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Is Turkey’s new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu a pan-Islamist ideologue, with imperialist ambitions to reshape the Middle East into a post-national order based on Turkish and Sunni religious supremacy? That is the blockbuster thesis currently turning heads both inside and outside Turkey, thanks to a series of recent articles by Marmara University Assistant Professor Behlül Özkan.

Özkan, a one-time student of Davutoğlu’s from the latter’s time as an international relations professor, bases his provocative conclusion on close study of 300 articles penned by Davutoğlu in the 1980s and 90s. He first made his case in an essay for the August-September edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ journal“Survival,” before introducing it to a wider English audience with pieces on Al-Monitor and in the New York Times.

In his NYT op-ed “Turkey’s Imperial Fantasy” published last week, Özkan remembered Professor Davutoğlu as a hard-working and “genial figure” who “enjoyed spending hours conversing with his students.” In contrast with his academic peers, however, he believed that Turkey would “soon emerge as the leader of the Islamic world by taking advantage of its proud heritage and geographical potential … encompass[ing] the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and include Albania and Bosnia”:

Mr. Davutoglu’s classroom pronouncements often sounded more like fairy tales than political analysis. He cited the historical precedents of Britain, which created a global empire in the aftermath of its 17th-century civil war, and Germany, a fragmented nation which became a global power following its 19th-century unification. Mr. Davutoglu was confident that his vision could transform what was then an inflation-battered nation, nearly torn apart by a war with Kurdish separatists, into a global power.

He crystallized these ideas in the book ‘Strategic Depth,’ in 2001, a year before the Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., came to power. In the book, he defined Turkey as a nation that does not study history, but writes it — a nation that is not at the periphery of the West, but at the center of Islamic civilization … Mr. Davutoglu saw himself as a grand theorist at the helm of his country as it navigated what he called the ‘river of history.’ He and his country were not mere pawns in world politics, but the players who moved the pieces.

Özkan rejects that Davutoğlu’s ideas amount to “neo-Ottomanism,” as often accused. Instead, he gives Turkey’s new prime minister the even heftier label of “pan-Islamist”:

The movement known as Ottomanism emerged in the 1830s as the empire’s elites decided to replace existing Islamic institutions with modern European-style ones, in fields from education to politics. By contrast, Mr. Davutoglu believes that Turkey should look to the past and embrace Islamic values and institutions.

But, ironically, he bases his pan-Islamist vision on the political theories that were used to legitimize Western imperial expansion prior to 1945. While purporting to offer Turkey a new foreign policy for the 21st century, his magnum opus draws on the outdated concepts of geopolitical thinkers like the American Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Briton Halford Mackinder and the German Karl Haushofer, who popularized the term “Lebensraum,” or living space, a phrase most famously employed by Germany during the 1920s and 1930s to emphasize the need to expand its borders.

According to Mr. Davutoglu, the nation states established after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire are artificial creations and Turkey must now carve out its own Lebensraum — a phrase he uses unapologetically. Doing so would bring about the cultural and economic integration of the Islamic world, which Turkey would eventually lead. Turkey must either establish economic hegemony over the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East, or remain a conflict-riven nation-state that risks falling apart.

After becoming Turkey’s foreign minister from 2009, Davutoğlu had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice – with disastrous results:

As foreign minister, Mr. Davutoglu fervently believed that the Arab Spring had finally provided Turkey with a historic opportunity to put these ideas into practice. He predicted that the overthrown dictatorships would be replaced with Islamic regimes, thus creating a regional ‘Muslim Brotherhood belt’ under Turkey’s leadership.

He sought Western support by packaging his project as a ‘democratic transformation’ of the Middle East. Yet today, instead of the democratic regimes promised three years ago, Turkey shares a border with ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Two months ago, its fighters raided the Turkish consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and is still holding 49 Turkish diplomats hostage. Mr. Davutoglu, who has argued that Turkey should create an Islamic Union by abolishing borders, seems to have no idea how to deal with the jihadis in Syria and Iraq, who have made Turkey’s own borders as porous as Swiss cheese.

To repair this dire situation as prime minister, Özkan says Davutoğlu needs to pragmatically reconnect Turkey’s regional policy with reality:

The new prime minister is mistaken in believing that the clock in the Middle East stopped in 1918 — the year the Ottoman Empire was destroyed — or that Turkey can erase the region’s borders and become the leader of an Islamic Union, ignoring an entire century of Arab nationalism and secularism. What Mr. Davutoglu needs to do, above all, is to accept that his pan-Islamist worldview, based on archaic theories of expansionism, is obsolete.

Turkey's new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Turkey’s new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Özkan’s thesis certainly seems to have struck a chord, with plenty of prominent figures declaring their admiration. Still, the reception has not been universally positive. In Radikal, political scientist Fuat Keyman expressed skepticism about the use of any catch-all term such as “pan-Islamist” to accurately describe Davutoğlu’s worldview:

As someone who has read many – if not all – of Davutoğlu’s works, it’s difficult to understand how Dr. Özkan has drawn the conclusion that Davutoğlu is a pan-Islamist (which is problematic as a term anyway).

It shouldn’t be forgotten that such expressions have only recently started to be used for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. It could be said that irresponsible, anti-Semitic writings and comments made [by others] in Turkey recently have contributed to the increased use of terms like ‘pan-Islamism’ abroad.

Still, I don’t think terms such as ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘sectarian,’ or ‘pan-Islamist’ are useful or appropriate when describing Davutoğlu’s worldview, or his approach to foreign and domestic politics … Criticism of Turkish foreign policy should instead focus on the strategic errors that have been made, the exaggeration of Turkey’s power, and recently its distancing from democracy.

In Zaman, meanwhile, Şahin Alpay similarly questioned the validity of any term that sought to place a rigid label on the often multi-dimensional policies of Davutoğlu and the AKP:

The foreign policies pursued by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu do not fit into the mold of ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘pan-Islamist,’ or ‘Sunni sectarian.’ It’s difficult to apply a single ideological label for a foreign policy that started negotiations to join the EU, gave NATO permission for its Kürecik bases, received prizes from the Israeli lobby, struck up a personal friendship with Bashar al-Assad, recommended secularism to Egypt, and felt Tehran to be its own home. Rather than being based on certain principles, the policies pursued by the AKP, domestically and abroad, can be said to be either pragmatic, populist, opportunistic, or aimed at securing or protecting power. But if an ideological tag is necessary, Islamic Kemalism or religious nationalism could be used.

A deeper and more academic critique of Özkan’s work that has attracted particular attention was posted on the personal website of Ali Balcı, an associate professor at Sakarya University. Balcı doesn’t take issue with Özkan’s use of such a blanket term as “pan-Islamist,” but voices more substantial reservations about the underlying fundamentals of his work:

Özkan argues that the ‘pan-Islamic’ conclusions and analyses made by Davutoğlu as an academic in the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s can be used to understand Davutoğlu’s later foreign policy. This strongly indicates a ‘once an Islamist always an Islamist’ assumption, suggesting that Davutoğlu’s essential core is unchanging in the face of different times and conditions … The work’s fundamental problem is that despite all of the changes in conditions [since Davutoğlu wrote], it still puts forward that a pan-Islamist is always a pan-Islamist – a reductionist and essentialist reading.

Balcı says it isn’t clear why Özkan searches for proof of Davutoğlu’s “pan-Islamism” in his old academic articles, while he supports the “neo-Ottoman” label for former Turkish President Turgut Özal using evidence from the latter’s period in office:

Examples of Özal’s neo-Ottomanism given by the writer can also be given for the AK Parti’s time in power and in Davutoğlu’s period as foreign minister. As stated by the writer, Özal applied for EU membership in 1987, worked to broaden influence in the Caucasus and the Balkans, tried to solve the Kurdish problem through reforms, and worked to establish control in its relations with Iraq. If all of these practical realities have also emerged during the AK Parti and Davutoğlu eras, how can Özal be considered a neo-Ottoman while Davutoğlu is a pan-Islamist? In answer to this question the writer only presents certain criticisms of Özal made by Davutoğlu. But while proving Özal’s neo-Ottomanism with practical examples, [Özkan] doesn’t answer why he looks for examples of Davutoğlu’s pan-Islamism in articles written while he was an academic.

Some of these criticisms are valid, but some are wide of the mark. It may not be true that “once a pan-Islamist is always a pan-Islamist,” but there is plenty of evidence that today’s Davutoğlu still sympathizes with the views expressed in his old academic work. While he certainly has demonstrated a keen sense of pragmatism and adaptability in the past, there’s can be little doubt that he has steadily moved away from this realism and back to a far more dogmatic and ideological approach in recent years. It may be less articulate than Balcı’s blog post, but the government’s hagiographical short film that accompanied Davutoğlu’s recent nomination as prime minister was equally germane to the issue: “He is the awaited spirit of Abdülhamid,” the lyrics say at one point, referencing the 19th century sultan who deployed Islamism to combat the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. “For the nation, for the ummah, for Allah.”

Now that Davutoğlu is in the prime minister’s chair, the question is whether he will continue to be seduced by his ideological convictions and lose touch with his former pragmatism. If he does, then Özkan’s thesis will look even more prescient.

 

[Originally posted at Hürriyet Daily News]

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its key congress on Sunday (Sept. 30), the slogan of which was “Büyük Millet, Büyük Güç, Hedef 2023” (Great Nation, Great Strength, Target 2023). Throughout his emotional two-and-a-half hour speech, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in full neo-Ottoman mode. He told the 10,000 delegates packed into the Ankara arena that the government was following the same path as Sultan Mehmet II (the conqueror of Constantinople) and Selim I (“The Grim,” who expanded Ottoman territories to the east during the 16th century). He even went so far as to declare – tongue only half in cheek – that the AKP’s new target was 2071, linking the party back to the first Turkish Anatolian state-builders of the 11th century, 2071 being the 1,000th anniversary of Seljuk Turkish leader Alp Arslan’s entry into Anatolia.

It was a speech high in stirring rhetoric. The day after, government supporting newspapers fawned over the “renewal” and “refreshing” emphasis of a new “ustalık” (mastership) era. Daily Sabah focused on what it called the embracing, inclusive nature of Erdoğan’s speech and his words on the Kurdish issue: “Let’s draw a new roadmap together.” Zaman’s front page headline enthusiastically quoted a line from Erdoğan’s speech: “Come, let’s open a new page, let’s say ‘no to terror.’”

The contentious presence of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional leader Massoud Barzani at the congress was rather less trumpeted by Sabah and Zaman. He even gave a speech to the delegates, but the announcer in the arena refrained from using the word “Kurdistan” when introducing him. Indeed, rather than Barzani, it was Erdoğan’s words on the Kurds that received most attention in the pro-government press. This reminded me of one of Nuray Mert’s recent columns in the Hürriyet Daily News:

“The idea of the Ottoman Empire has induced a nostalgic longing for the days when Turkish sultans ruled diverse people in vast lands. For Ottomanists, the idea of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic haven for diverse cultures and populations is rather misleading, since the basic idea has always been to recall the times when diverse populations lived under ‘Turkish rule.’”

The conspicuously Islamic nature of the congress was also much discussed in the Turkish press – both by those approving and those dissenting. Beside its headline declaring “Great Strength Manifesto,” Islamist daily Yeni Şafak featured an admiring front page box quoting Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, controversially (or perhaps not) invited to speak at the event: “‘You are not just the leader of Turkey, but also the leader of the Islamic world,’ Meshaal said, receiving extended applause from the crowd.” Indeed, when announced to the audience Mashaal received some of the loudest cheers of the day, (the EU dignitary who was introduced after him didn’t stand a chance!)

Liberal daily Taraf agreed that the congress constituted a Turkish-Islamic “minifesto,” but struck a rather more sceptical tone: “There was a strong Turkish and Muslim emphasis, a mouse with its face turned to the East was born,” (in Turkish, “a mouse was born” means that something underwhelming took place). The paper also noted plaintively that Erdoğan had failed to mention the European Union even once during his speech.

Meanwhile, seven national newspapers were refused accreditation to attend: Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Evrensel, Birgün, Aydınlık, Yeniçağ, and Özgür Gündem. These publications have diverse sympathies: from left to right wing, from Turkish to Kurdish nationalism. The only thing shared by all is antipathy towards the government.

In response, Monday’s Cumhuriyet included a front page editorial titled “From Cumhuriyet to Public Opinion,” which said some unsurprisingly harsh things:

“Established six months after the founding of the Turkish Republic, our newspaper has been published for 88 years. During periods in the past when democracy has been suspended by the ruling powers our newspaper has been closed down, but outside of this we have always published under the principles of freedom of the press, in the name of people’s right to know. In 21st century Turkey, our newspaper is now exposed to censorship by the ruling powers.

“We will not stay quiet in the face of the anti-democratic implementations applied against us that violate both the constitution and the law.”

The piece went on to detail two constitutional and legal articles that it alleges the congress ban violated: Article no. 69 of the Turkish constitution, which states that internal political party activities, arrangements, and workings must not run counter to the principles of democracy; and Article no. 93 of the Law on Political Parties, which states that decisions taken and actions performed by party central administrations and affiliated groups must not run counter to the principles of democracy.

The International Press Institute’s Turkish National Committee issued a statement about the issue on the day of the AKP Congress, on behalf of the Freedom for Journalists Platform, an umbrella group representing local and national media organisations in Turkey:

“The news that reporters and journalists from some press organs are not allowed to enter the AK Party’s Congress is very worrying.

“Monitoring this historical event of the ruling government party on the spot and transferring it to its readers and viewers are primary duties of news media.

“We have previously protested the accreditation limitations at other institutions. But now, it is very disappointing that the same accreditation is being applied by a political party whose existence depends on democracy.”

In May, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced to the Turkish media his desire to see a “giant” mosque built on Istanbul’s Çamlıca Hill. In his latest “crazy plan” for the city, Erdoğan said he wanted it to be a mosque that could “be seen from everywhere,” and declared that construction would begin within two months. Çamlıca is situated on the Asian side of the city, and despite currently being the site of a number of enormous television and radio reception towers, the hill is one of Istanbul’s few remaining green, unpopulated spaces. On June 8 the Environment and City Planning Ministry announced that a 250,000 square metre area on Çamlıca Hill had been identified for the project.

The Turkish press is predictably divided along secular/religious lines on the issue. There are, however, a few voices amongst government-supporting newspapers questioning the necessity of a mosque when there are no residents nearby for it to serve. Such objections miss the point that a new mosque on Çamlıca would undoubtedly afford TOKİ developers a golden opportunity to roll up their sleeves in the area(!)

An appropriately crude impression of how a mosque on Çamlıca Hill might look.

Late in June, liberal daily Radikal featured an interview with Ahmet Turan Köksal, professor of architecture at Gaziantep’s Zirve University, to discuss modern tendencies in mosque-building and his thoughts on the Çamlıca plans. He is skeptical: “A mosque should be for the community, not for show. For me, being a mosque architect means only doing work that has a function for the community …. If they want to make a mosque like an Olympic stadium on Çamlıca Hill and want to show off to their friends and rivals, then I’m against this,” he said.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of July, Milliyet included an interview with architect “Hacı” Mehmet Güler, who said he had been charged by the prime minister to make preparations for the new mosque. Güler said it would be designed in a “classical style,” and – in a fine example of “Muslim modesty” – that plans were being drawn up to have it feature the world’s tallest minarets, even surpassing those of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

Following this interview, the issue seemed to fall off the agenda. It was thus quite a surprise to find a number of Turkey’s religion-friendly newspapers recently carrying advertisements announcing: “Çamlıca is searching for its architect!”  The advertisements appeal to architects to submit their design ideas, in a competition to find an architect for the new mosque.

The competition opened on July 23, and will be accepting submissions until Sept. 3. According to the website of the organization in charge of the project – the rather clumsily named “Association to Build and Maintain Istanbul Mosques and Educational-Cultural Services” – the winning design will be “suitable for Istanbul’s silhouette and texture, reflect the Ottoman-Turkish style, extend traditions to the future, add value to Istanbul, and become one of Istanbul’s symbols.” The winner, the association has announced, will be awarded the honour of designing the ‘Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’ as yet unnamed mosque, as well as 300,000 Turkish Liras in prize money.

As declared in advertisements for the ruling AKP at the last parliamentary elections, alongside a picture of a vatic looking Erdoğan: “It was a dream, it came true!”

As the modern vogue for neo-Ottomanism lurches on in Turkey, the contrasts between the contemporary Turkish and British approaches to national history are for me becoming ever clearer. Neither is particularly encouraging, but both are the understandable result of respective historical inheritances.

Ever since the French Revolution, the British have defined themselves against that chaotic pole across the channel: reform rather than revolution has been the rule. Moments of crisis or turmoil have been home grown, not imposed from outside, and the country has always felt able to define itself on its own terms. For all its trauma, even the Second World War only served to confirm Britain in its sense of historical and moral righteousness; no awkward compromises had to be made, and the good ship sailed confidently on. Over time, however, this serene progression has engendered its own problems. Never having been forced to reflect upon it, the general population of modern Britain has slipped into complacent somnambulism about the past. Despite its importance, a dangerous ignorance surrounds the effect and significance – for better or for worse – of the British Empire, which is barely spoken of in today’s Britain and poorly understood by the general public. I recently took one of the example practice ‘citizenship tests’ on the British foreign office website, and while there are plenty of questions about the role of county council representatives or the frequency of local rubbish collections, there is almost nothing on the most fundamental episodes of national history. Compare this with other, similar western states – many of whose own citizenship tests I also had a look at (an exhilarating couple of hours) – and the contrast is far from flattering. Perhaps the crowning symptom of this malaise was the previous Labour government’s decision to remove history as a compulsory subject for students up to 16: an unforgivable sin.

Turkey’s relationship with its past is a lot more fraught with traumatic ruptures, conscious jolts forward, and moments of forced amnesia. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, state policy has dictated that to look back on Turkey’s Ottoman past is backward and reactionary – somehow a betrayal of the modern Turkish nation state. The recent ‘neo-Ottoman’ challenge to this stultifying official diktat should therefore be welcome, but it’s so hollow and uneven as to be almost as problematic as what went before. Turkey’s newfound obsession with the past – evident in seductively-costumed films and T.V. series’; architecture; foreign policy; even fashion and interior design – shows no serious attempt to consider anything other than the most flattering, least challenging aspects of national history. A recent post on the Tarlabaşı Istanbul blog quotes Prof. Dr. Uğur Tanyeli on the subject, discussing the architectural example of the tawdry wedding cake confection of the “historically recreated” Demirören shopping mall on Istanbul’s İstiklal Caddesi:

“The fewer traces of the past [an object] carries, the more successful a preservation [is believed] to be … there is not only the Demiören shopping centre, but there are hundreds of buildings along the Bosporus like that. There are ‘renovated’ buildings dating back to the 13th century that look like they have been built yesterday and where not a single screw is historically justified … In Turkey, the historical has to be brand-new and squeaky clean. So what is actually wanted is the illusion of history – It has to be historical, but it is not allowed to carry any baggage of the past, or any of history’s patina, there can’t be anything about it that creates unease.”

The ongoing renovation project in Istanbul’s central Tarlabaşı district is also instructive. Having finally been vacated, most of the historical houses have been mercilessly gutted and left pray to looters and rubbish dumpers. As their sinking bay windows morosely cave in on themselves, it’s hard to see how many of these shells even remain standing. It looks depressingly likely that they are simply going to be demolished, to be replaced by historically empty ‘imitation’ replacements. The so-called ‘regeneration’ of Tarlabaşı’s old buildings thus symbolises the modern, neo-Ottoman view of history: a facile attempt to reclaim the past, without the inconvenience of the antiquated plumbing systems of a truly authentic picture. As Prof. Tanyeli says, it’s “an interesting dilemma … they want the historical, but they do not want anything old”.

Oscillating from queasy shame about the past to shallow glorification of it does not indicate a country at particular ease with its history. Freedom from such jolts, however, can result in the complacent amnesia about the past exemplified in modern Britain. It’s difficult to know which is less healthy.

[This is an extended and elaborated version of a piece I posted on here some time ago. It is published in the latest, Winter 2012 edition of Turkish Policy Quarterly, which is available for  purchase now. You can read the piece below or, along with a slightly anaemic abstract, in its original habitat here: http://www.turkishpolicy.com/article/674/turkish-nationalism-and-turkish-islam-a-new-balance/ ]

Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, received wisdom has tended to consider nationalism and Islam as mutually incompatible forces in the Turkish context. Turkish nationalism – so this narrative goes – is defined by the secularizing, modernizing example of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a positivist, military man with an almost religious faith in the ability of science to reshape society. Islam, with its appeals to multinational, multiracial unity, inevitably stood in the way of the “pure”, homogenous nation-state. Such an understanding was propagated by those early secularizing elites within Turkey itself, and largely accepted by observers outside the country for the better part of the past hundred years. However, the fact is that religion has always been a crucial motivating force behind popular expressions of nationalism in Turkey. What makes the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s position unique is its wedding of a popular religious nationalism to real political power. Recent developments – in particular the ongoing recent spat between Turkey and Israel – demonstrate to outsiders what has been observable within Turkey for a long time: that Islam and Turkish nationalism are far from irreconcilable on the political, as well as social, level.

Popular Religion

A singular irony of the founding of the Turkish republic is the fact that for all the talk of institutional secularism, the new nation was, in fact, fundamentally defined on religious grounds. Significant numbers of those resettled on Turkish land during the Greek-Turkish population exchanges, for example, were Greek-speaking Muslims, who, in many cases, could not even speak the Turkish language. The Kurds (and other non-Turkish Muslim minorities) were also included on religious – rather than linguistic – grounds. Whether you spoke a dialect of Laz, Kurdish, Zazaki, or Turkish, religion was the most important category to fulfill in order to be included in the new Turkish state. Even Atatürk himself recognized the increased importance of religious sentiment, and was not averse – particularly in the early years of his leadership – to appealing to the emotional religious feelings of the people when seeking to unite the nation behind his resistance forces. He led the War of Independence as a Gazi, (meaning “Warrior of the Faith” in it’s original Arabic form), repeatedly invoked the name of God and the spiritual dimension of the liberation struggle in public pronouncements, and established Sunni Islam as the state religion in 1924.

Such an approach was seen as necessary following the religious retrenchment experienced by the Ottoman Empire during the late -19th and early -20th century. The loss of almost all Ottoman territory in the Balkans prior to the First World War resulted in the flight of around 400,000 Muslim migrants from hostile regions, to re-settle in Istanbul and Anatolia. Similarly, around the same number of Circassian Muslims from the north coast of the Black Sea also migrated to Ottoman territories in the 1860s, escaping from the increasingly aggressive practices of the Russian Empire. These migrants, or muhajir, had learnt to wear their religion as the singular mark of identity, and saw in the Ottoman Empire (and subsequently the Turkish Republic) a protective confessional motherland. Anatolia went through enormous demographic changes during the later years of the Ottoman Empire. Erik J. Zürcher estimates that immediately prior to the First World War, Anatolia was 80 percent Muslim, whilst ten years later, this figure had risen to 98 percent.[1] This more narrowly Muslim composition inevitably had a large impact on the policies and attitudes of the late-Ottoman and early republican eras. The decision to empty Anatolia of Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Syriacs – both before and after the establishment of the Republic – clearly illustrates how the new nation’s identity had become inseparable from its Muslim identity.

Elite Secularist Nationalism

This religious definition was emphasized even as Turkey’s new elites were preparing to systematically cleanse Islam from state institutions. The newly independent Turkish republic was not just neutral to religion; it actively subordinated it to the state, establishing a rigid and doctrinaire form of laicite in a country that until recently had been the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. All expression of Islam was to be tightly regulated by the new Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (Department of Religious Affairs) to ensure compliance with the new secular order. The Caliphate was abolished; independent religious establishments were closed down; imams were appointed and their Friday sermons were written by the state; women were discouraged from wearing the veil. Myriad other cultural and political reforms were initiated, aiming at faster and more effective Westernization. All of this was imposed from above, and all was done in the name of modernization, secularization and – crucially – nationalism: to oppose the changes or the way they were implemented was to risk vilification as an irtıcacı (reactionary), against the modern, independent Turkish nation. The military became the symbol of the secular order, and the four (if we include the “post-modern” coup of 1997) coup d’états  that the country experienced during the 20th century were all – at least in part – military responses to perceived religious incursions into political and social life.

Thus, it is clear that there was a tension – even predating the declaration of the Republic – between the technocratic, secular nationalism of the reforming elites and the religious character that was essentially the defining feature of the new nation. In his fine assessment of modern Turkish history, Perry Anderson has described Kemalism as an “ideological code in two registers. One was secular and applied to the elite. The other was crypto-religious and accessible to the masses. Common to both was the integrity of the nation, as supreme political value.”[2] Atatürk’s secularizing reforms have too often been accepted as the defining features of Turkish nationalism but it is clear that such dry, technocratic reforms could not possibly constitute the sole emotional appeal influencing such an aggressive and deeply-felt nationalism. It is significant, for example, that the extreme nationalists of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – which won 13 percent of the votes in the parliamentary election of June 2011 – responded to the reopening of the historic Armenian Surp Haç Church in Ani with reactiveFriday prayers, which they organized two weeks later in the same location.[3] Likewise, it is striking that Turkish soldiers, felled in counter-insurgency conflict with the PKK, are uniformly referred to as şehitler, or “martyrs”, by the Turkish media.

The AKP and Post-nationalism?

The spectacular electoral successes of the AKP, an Islamically-oriented party, starting in 2002, seemed to challenge the assumptions of the secular-nationalist paradigm even further. Here at last, it was thought, was a way out of the monocultural impasse, a tonic to divisive and destructive Turkish nationalism. Many optimistically hoped that the AKP would take the country to a post-nationalist state of peace, respect for human rights, and economic prosperity, and a series of symbolic ‘openings’ helped warm up relations with minority communities within the Turkish borders. In particular, the government was expected to attempt a solution to the “Kurdish Question” by re-emphasizing common religious bonds between Turks and Kurds. More progress was made in the European Union accession process by the AKP than any previous government. It also defanged the Turkish military – that bastion of unreconstructed secular nationalism – which it accuses of plotting a coup to overthrow the elected government in the Balyoz, or “Sledgehammer”, case.

The AKP’s Marriage of Nationalism and Religion

It is becoming clear, however, that the government’s struggle against the generals was in fact only a strike against one, narrowly defined, type of nationalism. Another has become evident, and this form can be said to constitute the new ideological bedrock of the AKP government. Campaigning during the parliamentary election of June 2011, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan adopted a much harder note on the Kurdish question than ever before, and – the AKP having won almost 50 percent of the popular vote – he has continued this tendency since. In response to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attacks on Turkish forces stationed near the Iraqi border in October, the government retreated back into the full scale military solution that has failed to solve the problem thus far. The feeble “apology on behalf of the state” that Erdoğan offered in November for the Dersim Massacres of 1937-39 can be summarily disregarded, representing nothing more than the government’s latest attempt to score cheap political points against the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The EU process is effectively dead, and the government has wasted no time laying the blame squarely at the door of the EU itself. The United States – and “the West” more generally – comes in for increasingly strident criticism, sanctioned by rising anti-American sentiments in Turkish society (a recent poll found that 64.8 percent of Turks have a “negative” opinion of Americans).[4] Despite evident deficiencies in the “Turkish model”, Erdoğan obviously relishes being idolized across the Arab world and, emboldened by a booming economy, he flexes his muscles on the world stage as no Turkish leader has before. Appealing to the collective libido dominandi, such behavior wins him ever more support back home. Boorish populism is prosecuted in the name of greater and deeper democracy.

The equation of Turkish with Muslim identity was always tacitly understood; now it is explicit. Whilst previous Turkish administrations have, at times, won support by appealing to both nationalist and religious sentiments as well, none have done so as successfully as the AKP. Erdoğan differs from Turgut Özal in degree, organization and success, having become the first leader in Turkish history to win three consecutive elections, with a consistently rising share of the vote. The AKP’s real innovation lies in its ability to achieve what no other government has before: wedding populist religious nationalism to the levers of government and remaining in power whilst doing so.

The New Paradigm and the Turkey-Israel Dispute

As with all nationalist movements, the AKP’s needs outside foes against which to define itself, and perhaps the most significant of these today is Israel. The raid by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) on the Turkish “Mavi Marmara” aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010 caused widespread public and political outrage, and the Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relationship has since deteriorated to such a degree that Turkey has almost entirely suspended political, military and economic ties with Israel. Owing to the widespread popular support for the government on this issue, the AKP has no motivation to desist; indeed one could argue that it may even have an interest in prolonging, even escalating the dispute. The spat brings into sharp focus the elision that has occurred between nationalism and religion: a hitherto unheard-of instance of secular nationalism and emotional religious indignation uniting in a common cause.

Nationalism and religion have been the two primary energizing forces in Turkish society for almost a hundred years, even if one has always dictated to the other. The current Turkish government’s rhetoric manages to appeal to both impulses, and that is why it is such a powerful brew.


[1] Erik J. Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p.164.

[2] Perry Anderson, “Kemalism: After the Ottomans,” London Review of Books, 11 September 2008, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n17/perry-anderson/kemalism

[3] “Turkish nationalist party holds Friday prayers at Ani ruins,” Hürriyet Daily News, 1 October 2010, http://web.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=mhp-prayed-at-ani-ruins-2010-10-01

[4] Talip Küçükcan, “Arab Image in Turkey,” Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) Research Report, June 2010, p.25, http://www.setav.org/ups/dosya/35086.pdf

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