“It's the sociology, stupid!”: Anatolia upstages western Turkey

When the Ottoman State collapsed, modern Turkey was founded on three major sociological groups: Western Anatolia including a large group of immigrants who had recently arrived from the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Kurds.

The key group was the Western Anatolian one, since it had the crème de la crème of the Ottoman order in many fields including culture, economics and politics.

Though the Ottomans had ruled different Arab lands like Hejaz or Egypt, the highlight of the Ottoman domain was always the Balkans and Western Anatolia. The Ottoman state was itself created and developed in these lands.

As a matter of fact, most of the elites who ruled over the transition to Republican Turkey from the Ottoman order were from the Balkans. Mustafa Kemal, who was from Salonika (Thessaloniki), founded the new state. Mehmet Akif, whose father was from Albania, wrote the Turkish national anthem.

In one sense, the republic was founded on the ashes of the Ottoman remnants in the Balkans and the Western Anatolia in terms of cultural and political continuity albeit with a different ideological configuration.

However, Anatolia was sidelined in the new period. The main strategy towards Anatolia for Kemalism was its transformation through long-term educational and cultural agendas. However, many in Anatolia recognized such an ambitious project as an oppressive model where they were deprived of equal opportunity.

For the Kurds, who are the third biggest group, things went not good, either. The coalition including them that had been created in the Turkish Independence War was quickly abolished and Republican Turkey quickly adopted a harsh strategy to deal with them.

Still under the influence of the Ottoman cosmopolitan culture borrowed from the Ottoman Balkans and Western Anatolia, the Kemalist regime in practice established an authoritarian cultural hegemony on all parts of Anatolia where the governments did not refrain from employing heavy military methods if needed.

Given that transforming the Kurds in line with the new nationalist project was impossible, the main tactic was to limit the Kurdish political movement lest it would become a vital risk for Turkey. Thus, Turkey’s Kurdish strategy could be summarized as a perpetual low-intensity war aiming keeping Kurds within a ‘sustainable’ state of crisis rather than solving their problems.

Thus, the Kemalist modernization project, like the Ottomans, was confined to the Western part of Turkey mainly urban centers. Accordingly, the Kemalist army and the bureaucracy were given the role of protecting the project from the peripheral effects of Anatolia.

So, despite the official narrative of a Turkish nation, modern Turkey was composed of three different major sociological groups with serious discrepancies of politics, culture as well as identity.

So, what is happening today?

The key sociological dynamic to explain the present day Turkey is the rise of Anatolia as the new dominant group replacing the previous Western Anatolian group.

But, while rising as the new ruling group, Anatolia is almost exactly repeating the Kemalist methods: It continues oppressing Kurds by using force and is trying to establish an authoritarian political and cultural hegemony over the secular groups who are now squeezed in Western Turkey.

The Islamist-nationalist political elites, who derive their power and legitimacy now from Anatolia, are adamant about changing the lifestyle in Western Anatolia in line with their ideological and cultural preferences.

So, structurally, Islamists’ approach to other sociological groups is not very different than the Kemalists before them. Like them, they also see other groups as culturally problematic groups to be adjusted in line with their worldview.

The case for the Kurds is again rotten since the standard view on them among Turks is similar: Like secularists, Islamist Turks virtually expect the Kurds convert culturally, which requires them living like other Turks and remaining Kurdish only at home or in their gardens at best.

But there is an alarming point in this story: the sociological basis of the Turkish modernization, which had its roots in the late Ottoman period and was later continued by Kemalist Turkey, faces today the risk of sociological extinction.

Turkey might soon become deprived of a dynamic sociological group continuing the historical zeal of modernization in the form of synthesis with Western values.

The Kemalist constituency is now both exhausted and old.

Separately, the Islamist and nationalist constituencies are dynamic yet they demand a new model where new social and political codes are to be updated in a more religion-friendly framework.

It is even possible to observe these sociological changes in urban centers. For example, key cities like Istanbul and Bursa that played a historical role in modernization have sociologically almost been transformed into standard Anatolian cities.

Take Bursa for example: Once it was a typical Turkish urban center that rested mainly unto the rich cultural heritage of the Balkan people. Today, Bursa is mostly a city that is dominated by Anatolian people from various Eastern provinces like Artvin, Muş or Erzurum.

Cities like Bursa and Istanbul have failed to digest millions of newcomers; instead, the newcomers have overrun these cities according to their local Anatolian culture.

Thus, it would not be wrong to define both Istanbul and Bursa today as Anatolian cities no matter their geographical position on the map.

Such new dynamics in Turkey demonstrate that the crisis of Turkish modernization is no longer a political one instead it is a sociological one.

The new political actors that derive their power from Anatolia have now taken over the state and they are determined to employ it to force complex cultural change, including in the Western part of Turkey.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.