Nationalism in Turkey: Roots and Contemporary Answers

Nationalism has been the most influential trend in both current political discussions as well as the in emergence of more engrained political processes in Turkey. In all political strands from the far left to the far right, a ferment, or at least an influential force of nationalism exists in varying tones and different degrees. Nationalism is represented in almost all political structures and provides for many issues of Turkey the necessary templates for easy explanations and reactions, which most of the time function successfully. Through conditioned reflexes, which have been imprinted to the collective subconscious of the country, nationalism manages to mobilize reactions to current issues. It can easily be said that it is the trend with the highest political decisiveness.

Nationalism accelerates societal reactions and may give them diffusiveness; it may cause speed conglomerations around identities, generate power consolidation and motivations for action. Its symbols and simple slogans, and most importantly its armour against criticism, turn it into the easiest political identity as well as the political position harbouring the least risks. Almost everybody is being criticised for being not nationalist enough, whereas nationalism itself never becomes a subject of criticism. It is rather being treated as if it were an untouchable political trend, shared commonly by the whole country. Every single political actor takes nationalist sensitivities into consideration. Nationalist parties or leaders may be criticised for what they do, but nationalism per se can never be.

The fact that nationalism in Turkey has been the most decisive trend and the deepest penetrated ideology in traditional as well as in contemporary politics, cannot solely be explained by the needs that it satisfies today, or with reference to the prevailing global trend. It is also related to its roots that enabled its emergence and development. Nationalism in Turkey has many similarities with the currently rising new right populism and nationalisms in the world, but it also displays distinctiveness. For being able to discuss the power of nationalism in current Turkey and the possible political outcomes it can induce, it would be useful to briefly mention the resources of its characteristic features. This is necessary, because its influential power and its direction are to a great extent determined by its founding character.

Late nation, belated nationalism

First of all it has to be said that nationalism in Turkey has been shaped, compared to other western (European) examples, by a late consciousness of becoming, and being a nation. Although Nationalist parties (MHP) and Turkists deprecate it, Turkish nationalism is rather a belated nationalism. It has developed as a reaction to nationalisms that have started in Europe and thereafter were diffused to the Slavic people and the Balkans. Hence, its reactionary aspect is very dominant and it is under the influence of a spirit, which is from various angles surrounded by a belatedness complex.  As opposed to nationalisms that emerged as founding ideologies, it is not the carrier of assertions of independence, construction and rise but bears the traces of a climate of defeat, anxiety and defense.

Towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the “survival” issue of the Ottoman Empire gained urgency. One of the rescue prescriptions that were discussed among the Ottoman intellectuals was nationalism. Others were Westernism, Ottomanism and Islamism. During the Constitutional Period, nationalism found support within the circles of the ruling Union and Progress Party. Although it was connected to actionary ambitions such as the Turan Ideal (gathering all Turks on earth under one single flag), this nationalism was in fact a defense ideology. The idea of confronting nationalisms, that became dangerous through uprisings, with a counter-nationalism paved the way for the Armenian Deportation and pretty much defined the position to be taken during the WW1, which eventually ended up with defeat.

Owing to the war circumstances and the debacle psychology, Turkish nationalism ceased to be an intellectuals’ movement and has converted into the defense ideology of the state. The argument of “the cause of survival” and the anti-western stance, which contemporary nationalism fells back on too often, is a consequence of this hard trauma. Nationalism makes easily use of otherizing and polarizing themes and discourses concerning foreign threats, permanent enemies, internal collaborators and traitors, which due to the durable effects of the abovementioned trauma are always updatable. The feeling of running behind with regard to the construction of a national identity also triggers the complexes based on the differences with the West in terms of development levels, particularly in science, technology and economy. This feeling lurches between envy and the exaggerated nostalgia of the past.

Nationalism in the cement of the Republic

As the defense ideology of the Ottoman Empire, nationalism has also been an important component of the founding cement of the Republic of Turkey. For obtaining the resistance energy required by the War of Independence and later the essential motivation for the foundation of a national state, nationalism has again been used as a vital resource. In order to establish a nation state on the Ottoman remnants, one had to create a nation first. Prospective tensions that were expected to raise among the Muslim majority due to the founding cadres’ aspirations to catch the western civilization and their ideal of a secular Republic were hindered by appealing to the most reliable political refuge, i.e. nationalism. Within the process, bloodline-Turkist trends, which were limiting the space for consent, have been marginalized and estranged.                                                                                           

Since the economic organization of the Republic was almost made from scratch, the necessary ideological material was overwhelmingly provided by nationalism. As can be seen in the pogroms on September 6-7, 1955, the nationalization of capital was managed through attempts to expel and annihilate the non-Muslim minorities. The motivation for development was also purveyed here. Various factors such as the Kurdish uprisings, the hard winds of nationalism which started to blow again in mid-century Europe, the Russian threat which emerged again with the Cold War and especially the feeling of being “excluded” from the West which was renewed with the Cyprus conflict did all nurture nationalism by using the „survival narrative“. Despite the fact that nationalism generated a founding energy for the Republic, it became an official ideology, which continues to be linked to a narrative of defense.

Following the country’s transition to the multi-party system, the emerging right-populist line put the Sunni-Turkish majority into the center of its focus of “nation” and “national will”. This paved the way for nationalism to become popular and pervade on the ground. During the 60s and 70s, when it was in the vanguard of anti-communism, nationalism also got in cultural contact with the religious conservative line. Aggressive populist intellectuals from the right, such as Necip Fazıl Kasakürek, whom President and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan frequently cites, spoke out the power of the nationalist-conservative majority. Yet, from the point of the Kemalist republicanists, the usefulness of nationalism did not decrease: developments such as the Cyprus conflict and neoliberal economic reforms, continued to escalate nationalism. The Kurdish policy, which the military junta after the coup in 1980 pursued and the ensuing long lasting period of conflict, revived the nationalistic narratives and gave it new motives.

Its general character and authentic features

As I have tried to illustrate in the brief summary above, nationalism has very strong ties with social threat perceptions and national anxieties. Despite the fact that its assertion for superiority cannot move beyond the glorification of the past and cultural differences, nationalism nonetheless manages to respond to grave complexes. By way of antagonisms, it can create an effortless pride or excuse. The fact that it has been made use of by very different political circles, responding to different needs while its content has been altered accordingly, creates a large space of representation.

The fact that Turkish nationalism has been shaped on the grounds of a traumatic defat, increases the reactionary and negative motivation burden it carries. Various political actors have given a try to a positive reframing of nationalism, yet its political power does not stem from what it claims to be in favour of, but of what it stands against. One property that differentiates Turkish nationalism from the wave of xenophobia we see in Western Europe is its definition of enemy and foreigner. In Turkey, which is both historically and geographically an immigration country, the „enemy from within„ (Armenians, Kurds) rather than incoming foreigners are seen as an issue. Parallel to this perception, it is a widely accepted idea that there are local collaborators who were either culturally poisoned or bought off by the traditional enemies of the country and that the country harbors a large population of traitors.

For the last five decades Turkish nationalism has been represented by the MHP (Nationalist Action Party), however it can be found to varying degrees in other parties as well. The MHP was founded by Alparslan Türkeş, a Turkist colonel who was part of the team that staged the coup of 1960. Starting with the 1970s the party had become an important political actor: It built the Nationalist Front (Milliyetçi Cephe- MC) governments with center right and Islamist parties in the 70s. Together with Islamist parties, it was part of the holy alliance in the early 90s; it formed a coalition with the left-wing, yet pro-nationalist Democratic Left Party (DSP) towards the end of 90s, and finally it came together with the AKP in the “People’s Alliance” in the last elections in 2018. Even looking at this short list suffices to prove how influential a political partner the MHP is.

AKP's test with nationalism

The last two decades – most of which were governed by the AKP- represent a unique story with regard to the re-popularization and enhanced influential power of nationalism in Turkey. In the 1999 elections all nationalist parties, both from the left- and the right had enlarged their vote share. The coalition government, which was formed by DSP, MHP and ANAP (Motherland Party) underwent several political crises, predominantly related to the relations with the EU and privatization issues, and came to an end with the economic crisis in 2001. With the elections held in 2002, the AKP came to power alone. At that time the party promised an outward-oriented stance with regard to the IMF economic program and EU-relations. The AKP presented itself as an Islamic-democratic party that had severed its ties with the Islamic National Vision (Milli Görüş) movement, from which it had originally sprung.

Parallel to the economic program and the EU process, the AKP got closer with liberal circles and pursued a kind of aggressive policy against the nationalist opposition arising from the right as well as the left. AKP leader Erdoğan distanced himself so far from nationalism that he even announced that “he has trampled on it”. The presidential elections in 2007 witnessed a crisis whereupon a tough power struggle with the bureaucracy, notably the military and the jurisdiction started. The AKP formed a strong alliance with the Gülen sect that is a promoter of a nationalistic expansionist idea of the Islamic civilization. This motive is bound to the establishment of a nationalism of the umma (Islamic community of all Muslims), or a new Ottomanism, in which Turkey take back its role of a leader of the Muslim world. While the Gülen sect accelerated the process of setting up its own cadres into state institutions, it also disbanded a wide range of cadres and groups that used to represent state nationalism.

With the 2008- world economic crisis, trends shifted. The EU accession process slowed down and Turkey became embroiled in the regional troubles that plagued its neighbourhood from 2011 on. Domestic troubles such as the falling out of Erdoğan with the Gülen sect and the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process led Erdoğan to resort to nationalism - the primeval defense ideology which he announced to have trampled on only a short time ago - for the presidential elections in 2014.

Nationalism, the Fort Knox

The retreat to nationalism which marked the last five years of the AKP government, bears significant resemblance with the original emergence of nationalism in Turkey. Both the internal and the external situation did not only reawaken the survival discourse, but the AKP also needed a strong defense strategy and an ideological anchorage, to defend against a loss of power. Nationalism was in this regard the strongest ideological apparatus for consolidating political power by escalating societal polarization and creating the perception about growing foreign and domestic threats. 

This time nationalism was there not for defending the country but the government. Sure enough, nationalists represented by the MHP defined this as a necessity for the survival of the country.

Answers to current issues

The alliance built by AKP and MHP did not function as a mere political cooperation. Contrary to what has been projected, nationalism did not function as a pragmatic support apparatus of Erdoğan; it became much more influential and determinant than this. From government policies to the mid- and lower level cadres of the new regime, it had an impact in all spheres. Once again, as opposed to the popular belief, the politics of resorting to nationalism did not bring nationalist votes to the AKP; it rather caused an expansion of the total nationalist electorate.

Erdoğan's defense strategy is surely not solely an outcome of internal political requirements. Nationalism offers certain opportunities. Before anything else, the international scene, which used to offer abundance of money and of status, has been altered. Neither Turkey nor the AKP government, which actually benefited very much from the support from especially Western countries, can take this support for granted anymore. Like the whole world, Turkey currently experiences the crisis of the debt-based accumulation model. The need for controlling the reactions to this crisis produces nationalistic, authoritarian responses. However, in countries like Turkey where the need for foreign direct investments continues, the obligatory character of this relation, which renders it impossible to break the bridges, can only be concealed with an exaggerated nationalist rhetoric. This is also the reason why the government has resorted to describing the economic crisis as a foreign economic attack.

A similar position can be observed in various foreign policy issues, primarily those related to the Middle East. The Middle East policy, once built upon the New Ottomanism thesis has ended in failure. Relations with Russia, which proceed upon a shy Eurasianism are also to a great extent relying on bargaining opportunities against the West. Millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey fulfill a similar function. A not very consistent foreign policy which is being shaped parallel to shifting balances and according to bargaining options, needs even more nationalist heroism for being able to come up with easy justifications. As already mentioned above, the anti-Westernism, which has strong historical roots, does also function as a source for bargaining.  Just as the tool of Islamophobia or xenophobia is being used in Europe for managing the public opinion or producing pretexts by relying on the already established public opinion.