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[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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You may or may not find the following two historical nuggets useful when considering the modern-day Turkish situation.

The reign of Sultan Abdülhamit II (1880-1909)

I came upon the first in Norman Stone’s recently published history of Turkey. It follows thus: Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamit II’s reign was characterised in Europe at the time as tyrannical, authoritarian, and paranoid. Prompted by wider events gripping the Ottoman Empire, Abdülhamit attempted to reassert the Islamic character of the empire and reemphasise the Ottoman Caliphate, suspending the liberal constitution almost as soon as it was passed in 1876. He himself retired from the open, European-style Dolmabahçe Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus to the secluded Yıldız Palace in the forest just up the hill, where he weaved an elaborate network of spy cells and state informants. However, at the same time Abdülhamit made important reforms to the civil service and significantly modernised the army. He also did much for education, introducing the first girls’ schools and setting up numerous technical institutions, schools of engineering, medicine, and even business foundations. His great achievement was perhaps the Hejaz railway, a fine metaphor for the paradoxical combination of religion and modernity symbolised by his reign: a fine logistical feat and the first Muslim-built railway, designed to take pilgrims securely from Damascus to the holy places of Mecca and Medina.

Abdülhamit’s authoritarian nature, his reemphasis of the Islamic character of Ottoman lands, and his simultaneous modernising reforms have their obvious parallels in contemporary Turkish politics. He was ultimately deposed in the Young Turk Revolution of 1909, which reintroduced liberal constitutional rule to the empire in a last attempt at preserving the withering Ottoman state. Norman Stone argues that the impetus for this revolution came, ironically enough, from the same technical, military intelligentsia that Abdülhamit had in fact helped create. He goes on to suggest that “modern Turkey is undergoing a smudgy version of what happened in the later nineteenth century”, and though he refrains from making any concrete predictions, there is a rather Whiggish suggestion that something like the model that ultimately led to the Young Turk revolution may well be repeated.

The “Glorious” Revolution (1688)

The second example is more fanciful, perhaps even “maverick”. It was suggested on my long commute to work as I listened to Melvyn Bragg (described by Will Self as a “handsome walnut”) discussing the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688 with his guests on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. Consider the following landmark in the development of English parliamentary democracy in the murky light of modern-day Turkish politics:

The Revolution of 1688 saw the Catholic King James II of England overthrown, to be replaced by his Protestant Dutch nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange (William III). The revolution was effectively organised by a union of Whig and Tory parliamentarians: an elite who had run the country and who between them had agreed that there was only one group of people who should be frozen out of politics and office (Catholics). James came to the throne in 1685 intent on removing the barriers that prevented Catholics from accessing office, and tried to get restrictive rules repealed. When he couldn’t do so, he effectively tried to subvert the law by dispensing members of the old order from office and replacing them with his own sympathisers in the army, the court, and in local government. He manipulated parliament, packing with MPs that would be favourable to his policies; he built up an alternative standing army that was feared could be used to impose his personal will; he revoked charters signed by previous monarchs. What started out as a seemingly innocent attempt to extend religious liberties to Catholics soon began to be seen as threatening authoritarianism. James seemed to be giving an extra twist to the policy of toleration that the English monarchy had been pursuing since the restoration of 1660.

The Orangist conspirators who eventually facilitated the revolution of 1688 comprised of the Protestant aristocracy and gentry, a far from representative group of individuals. They increasingly felt that their liberty and their parliament was under threat, and that if that Catholics were allowed equal freedom with Protestants, they would only use it as a first step to eventually subvert the toleration achieved and become the dominant power. Wherever Popery first arrives, so they thought, arbitrary or authoritarian government inevitably comes in its wake. Historians have discussed in some detail what James’ reign actually represented. Some say he was in fact never intent on absolutism, but was simply trying to achieve toleration for Catholics, in an age when the formal practice of Catholicism was still officially banned. Others believe that the authoritarian Catholic Louis XIV was his model, citing the growing links between the English monarchy and the French court. Absolutism was his ultimate goal, which he initially sought to achieve through liberal steps.

Esoteric though they may be, the parallels with modern Turkey should be fairly clear to anyone with even a sketchy knowledge of the contemporary Turkish political situation. For ‘Catholics’ read pious Sunni Muslims, for ‘Whigs and Tories’ read Turkey’s traditional secular order. To stretch the comparison ad absurdum: 1688 in England has its parallel in the failed attempted military coup of 2007 in Turkey. Imagine if the revolution of 1688 hadn’t happened, and that James II had stayed on the throne – that’s where Turkey stands today with the AKP government, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the Jacobite potential despot. However, while James II faced organised, energised and rising resistance in the Whigs and Tories, today’s ruling AKP has effectively pursued the remnants of the old order out of their traditional centres of power, and is blessed to be faced with an inchoate, haggered, and backward-looking opposition.

It’s up to you whether you find the above examples absurd, or enlightening, or both. What’s undoubtedly true is that if anyone says that they know what’s eventually going to happen to the political system in Turkey, they’re wrong.

Travel notes – Mardin

January 21, 2012

You can make out Mardin from far away on the long western approach road, perched as it is on top of a mountain overlooking the Mesopotamian plains. As you get closer the box-like homes become clearer, nestled alongside the pencil-like minarets, towers, and domes, all built of the same pale honey-coloured limestone. It’s a striking, eerily timeless-looking place, but look out to your left and the present comes crashing back into view. Carved ominously into the soil of a smaller hill just outside the town are large white capitals, clearly spelt out for all comers to see, “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” (How Happy to Call Yourself a Turk): a warm welcome from the Turkish military. The dolmuş I was travelling in passed countless army barracks and check points, and we were stopped twice by gendarmes asking for identity papers. A castle, originally Roman, sits on top of the mountain above the town, but whilst most Turkish towns make a landmark of their castle – charging a couple of lira for what is invariably the most spectacular view of a place – Mardin’s castle is absolutely closed. The Turkish army are its current occupants, the latest in a long line trying to establish hegemony in this ancient spot.

Close to the Syrian and Iraqi borders, the area has been a complex mixture of Arabs and Kurds for millennia, and during the 1980s and 1990s it was one of the hottest in the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. It is also known as the Tur Abdin (“Servants’ Plateau”) plain, the historic motherland of the Syriac people of south-east Anatolia. Syriac Christians have lived in Tur Abdin for 1600 years, originally retreating there to escape Byzantine persecution. They were thus able to maintain their ancient liturgies, still performed in Aramaic (the language Christ would have spoken), and the nearby 5th century monastery of Deyr ul-Zafaran (“Monastery of Saffron”) remained the spiritual centre and seat of the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church until 1932. The 20th century, however, proved to be the most cataclysmic in their history, when the Syriacs became one of the less remembered casualties of the upheavals that erupted in eastern Anatolia at the end of the Ottoman Empire. From 200,000 Anatolian Syriacs in the 19th century, their numbers fell to around 70,000 by 1920. A significant portion of those remaining left the area during the unrest of the 1980s and 1990s, caught in the crossfire between the Turkish government and the PKK. Today the community numbers no more than a few thousand. The landscape is thus scattered with decaying monasteries and deserted villages, and – like most towns in these parts – Mardin is also still home to the obligatory, rotting, untrumpeted Armenian church.

The municipality’s official tourist leaflet carries the headline: “Mardin: where the call to prayer echoes within the sound of church bells.” It’s a nice line, but the only church bell still ringing in the town is that of the 15th century Kırklar Kilisesi, or “The Church of the 40 Martyrs”, and a rusty old bell it was too. A caretaker called Musa rings it to announce prayers at regular intervals throughout the day, and potters around to keep an eye on things and answer questions whilst it’s open to visitors. Of the eleven churches still standing in Mardin, the Kırklar Kilisesi is the only one still open for services, and Musa told me that church numbers have been steadily dwindling, “definitely down from 10 years ago.” The flock now totals “about 80 families, around 400 people.” During my visit a family of three wandered in to the church. The father told me they lived in northern Syria, and that they were in Mardin as tourists, searching for the old family home that had been deserted a hundred years ago “because there was big problem.” Musa himself was of an extremely morose disposition, hardly able to look such comers and goers in the eye, but occasionally bursting out in fits of uncontrollable hysterics. There is in fact an uneasy coyness about most of the Syriacs I met. Put it down to an over-active imagination, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was the weight of such a tormented history weighing down upon them. Amongst all the dry facts and figures recounting seismic demographic change, it’s perhaps easier to ignore the mental effects wrought on those left behind than the physical.

Even one so well travelled as British historian Arnold Toynbee described Mardin in the 1920s as “the most beautiful town in the world,” Indeed, it has been experiencing something like a touristic renaissance more recently, with the (relatively) improved stability of the area helping to stimulate a renewed interest from visitors, mostly Turkish. A florescence of newly renovated boutique hotels can be found tucked away down the rabbit-warren backstreets that tumble down from the main central street. During my visit I stayed in the splendid “Kasrı Abbas”, converted from a large old mansion on the hillside: rooms with ornate carvings and multi-domed roofs opening onto wide open courtyards, offering panoramic views across Mesopotamia to the Syrian border. The backstreets themselves have similarly benefited from the rejuvenation, impossibly evocative and seemingly untouched for hundreds of years (despite their deliberate tidying up). It all feels slightly uncomfortable though, as if many things remain unsaid, much still remains unconfronted. The number of tourists will doubtless continue to rise, but they will probably be condemned to look at dead relics, unresurrectable remnants. Daily Radikal carried a front page story earlier this month about an apparent “return of the Syriacs”, reporting that a number of the families who migrated from Tur Abdin since the 1980s have returned. But the evidence looks pretty slender to me. It seems more than doubtful that anything like a return to the same number as previously lived in the area could ever be possible. The ties have been irreversibly cut.

Mardin perhaps bears comparison with another ancient and contested site, Jerusalem. But whilst I expect Jerusalem would confound because of the sheer intractability of its present day conflicts, Mardin does so because of precisely the opposite. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Turkey, (and that’s saying something), one gets the crushing, debilitating impression of lost, dead history. But although dead, it’s history that casts a long shadow. Unlike the myriad remnants of ancient civilisations across Anatolia, Mardin’s sense of lost history is of critical importance to the present: it paints the present day into a corner. You feel that the past has been forcibly forgotten, ignored, at most whispered about uncomfortably. It’s as if a door has slammed shut, but is still creaking uneasily. It all leaves quite an impression, but not a particularly pleasant one.

A little while ago I came upon one of those old, forgotten, po-faced, unintentionally hilarious English-language travel guidebooks on Turkey. Simply called “Turkey”, it was published in 1963, written by a splendidly-named “Andre Falk”, surely one of the great travellers of Anatolia. I can only say that I wish today’s Lonely Planet guides were written like this.

Falk on Istanbul:

What is one to think of the local mosques, shapeless, dull and unimaginative, looking like asthmatic tortoises decorated by what might be pencils, rockets or phallic symbols?

The Golden Horn is not and probably never has been anything but a stagnant backwater, a sump full of floating vegetable waste at the foot of bare mounds.

The Grand Bazaar remains the biggest in the world, and probably was once the most exciting. But after numerous fires (its last layout dates from 1889 – the worst of periods) it is now the ugliest junk market to be found between East and West […] Let us move on. Everybody knows that the only places for decent shopping are in Rome and Paris…

On Ankara:

It takes an effort of the imagination to realise that this ultra-modern city was created from nothing. You take it for granted that you can live there without contracting malaria.

A gypsy caravan rotting in the backyard of an air-conditioned government building: that is more or less the picture of Ankara.

There is little life in public places, nothing to invite you to stroll about after office hours. Severe, ill-paid officials lock up files of state secrets in their briefcases and hurry off along avenues named after flowers for a game of loto with a colleague from the next department. Suffering diplomats stifle a yawn over the bridge table while the ladies are eagerly engaged in gossip. At the municipal restaurant the din of the musical medleys annoys the secret service agents who are straining their ears to listen to the diners’ conversations. A city you must see, of course, but a brief visit is enough.

On Anatolia:

It is a harsh, even brutal land, where nature and man combine to form a scene of extraordinary harshness.

From north to south you find carelessness, absence of style and no attempt at elegance […] Concrete, disinfectant, prison smells, grey buildings with the paint peeling off, such are the provincial hotels revealing the bad workmanship put into them. The restaurants are like canteens and the dining rooms like feeding troughs.

On Turks:

When a Turk says no, he raises his eyebrow, throws his head back and gives you a stony stare, as if he would like to see you fall dead at his feet. Such behaviour does not make for easy relations between men, but at least it is clear.

His endurance and his lack of imagination make the Turkish infantryman a redoubtable soldier: ‘the most reliable and the most obedient in the world’, wrote T.E. Lawrence, who had fought him in Arabia […] To tell the truth, it is rather a terrifying sight meeting Turkish soldiers.

Fortunately rugby is unknown in Turkey, for it would turn to a massacre.

The higher reaches of Turkish society are probably, man for man, more brilliant than their western counterparts, and this is all to their credit, for the intellectual professions are meanly rewarded […] When you meet a professor, a librarian or a hospital doctor, you are greatly touched when you learn the real incomes of these disinterested men.

The humble folk of the Anatolian mountains and plains are capable of generous and sometimes touching hospitality toward those who know how to behave properly, or towards those in genuine distress. But such a welcome is always tinged with suspicion. The foreigner is no longer the undesirable he was, but they still do not want him and he is automatically suspect […] There is no doubt ample historical justification for this distrustful turn of mind. We will merely add that it does not ease the task of the traveller, who bears no responsibility for the Ottoman Debt and cannot tiptoe about for weeks on end, hoping to make people forget about the Treaty of Sevres.

 On politics:

A democratic politician speaks in different tones when addressing the Council of Europe to when in his constituency accusing the republican opponent of being uncircumcised.

 On republican reforms:

Atatürk wanted to dress his Turks like Westerners. Apart from a slender few, all he did was to turn them into a lot of old tramps.

If revolutions have their necessities and progress has its demands, beauty still has its claims which one would like to see less disregarded by modern Turkey.

The effort to effect a complete revolution was asked for from the most conservative and static of peoples […] Left to himself, it seems, the Turk would only want to do one thing: remake his bed and go to sleep on it. Perhaps this is why, as soon as he gets home, the first thing he does is to don his house pyjamas.

On minibuses:

They say quite rightly that the drivers of these boneshakers are good; the reason is simple, the others are all dead.

On travel:

A plague on those archaists who dip their mandarins’ brushes in the pot of local colour and go off to the banks of the Ganges or the Nile to utter literary bleatings over the photogenic qualities of the squalid.

It is a frequent misfortune that when you reach your destination on a pilgrimage into the past all you find is fragments of pillars buried under weeds. The ideal journey is one which leaves you with the illusions of your imagination unbroken and arrives at no destination.

[Published on openDemocracy (18th Oct 2011): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/significant-changes-in-turkish-religion-and-turkish-nationalism]

[Also published (in Turkish) on ABHaber.com:  http://www.abhaber.com/ozelhaber.php?id=11509]

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, received wisdom has tended to view nationalism and religion as mutually incompatible in the Turkish context. Turkish nationalism, so the narrative goes, is defined by the secularising, modernising example of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a 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 secularising elites within Turkey itself, and accepted by observers outside the country for the better part of 100 years. The current AKP government, however, is challenging this formula. Recent developments – in particular recent spat between Turkey and Israel – demonstrate that Turkish religion and Turkish nationalism are far from irreconcilable.

A singular irony of the founding of the Turkish republic is the fact that initially the new nation was defined primarily on religious (rather than linguistic) grounds, (with, it must be said, an unhealthy dose of ethnic nationalism thrown in for good measure). Significant numbers of those resettled on Turkish land during the Greek-Turkish population exchanges, for example, were Greek speaking Muslims who in many cases couldn’t even speak the Turkish language. The most important fact was that they were Muslim: religion was the most important category to fulfil in order to be included in the new Turkish state. The irony is that this definition was emphasised even as Turkey’s new leaders were systematically attempting to ‘cleanse’ religion from public life. The newly independent Turkish republic wasn’t just neutral to religion, it was actively hostile, establishing a rigid and doctrinaire form of laicite in a country that until recently had been the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. The state would be actively superior to religion, and all expressions of Islam were to be tightly regulated by the “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 written by the new religious affairs department; women were discouraged from wearing the veil. Myriad other cultural and political reforms were initiated, aimed at faster and more effective Westernisation. All this was done in the name of modernisation, secularisation and – crucially – nationalism: to oppose the changes or the way they were implemented was to risk vilification as a ‘gerici’ (reactionary), against the modern, independent Turkish nation. The military became the symbol of the secular order, and the four coup d’etats that the country experienced during the twentieth century were all – to a greater or lesser degree – military responses to perceived religious incursions into political and social life. Inevitably, tensions also developed with minority communities who felt excluded from such a rigid understanding of the Turkish nation, and during the 1990s something like civil war exploded in the south-east of the country between Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish state.

The paradigm seemed to be broken with the spectacular electoral successes of the AKP, an Islamically-oriented party, starting in 2002. Here at last, it was thought, was a way out of the monocultural impasse, a tonic to divisive and destructive Turkish nationalism. The new government sounded a refreshingly emollient tone, and a series of symbolic ‘openings’ helped warm up relations with the Kurds, the Greeks, and the Armenians as well as other minority communities within the Turkish borders. In addition, more progress was made in the EU accession process by the AKP than any previous government. This rosy picture, however, has soured recently. Campaigning during the parliamentary election earlier this year, Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan adopted a much harsher note on the Kurdish question than ever before, and – the AKP having won almost 50% of the popular vote – he has continued this tendency since. 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 USA comes in for increasingly stinging criticism (again sanctioned by rising anti-American sentiments in Turkish society). Emboldened by a booming economy, Erdoğan flexes his muscles on the world stage as no Turkish leader has before, which – appealing to the collective libido dominandi – wins him ever more support back home. Boorish populism is prosecuted in the name of greater and deeper democracy.

As with all nationalisms, the new Turkish model needs outside foes against which to define itself, and perhaps the most significant of these today is Israel. The raid by the Israeli Defence Force on the Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010 caused widespread public and political outrage, and the Turkish-Israeli 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 the dispute. The situation clearly illustrates how far popular Turkish nationalism has shifted: 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 energising 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’s why it’s such a powerful brew.

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