Turkish politics is on one hand a very straightforward affair, on the other a complex study in paradox. The easy part comes when you focus solely on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reading news coming from Turkey is like reading the same story over and over again.
It is called “autocracy on the march to dictatorship”.
Erdoğan is a master performer of time-honoured methods from the script book of populist autocrats. He controls the media, silences critics, rewards sycophants and distributes economic favours to cronies.
If necessary, he also rigs elections.
The only surprising part of Erdoğan’s autocracy is that elections are still held and strongly contested with a high turnout. Deemed to be free, these elections, however, are absolutely not fair. The absence of freedom of speech and assembly combined with the absence of a free media clearly favours Erdoğan.
Even under such favourable circumstances, Erdoğan had to resort to electoral fraud in April 2017 to secure a narrow victory.
Memo to the West: if you want to help Turkey, send many more election monitors next time. Given the importance of elections in Turkey, the economic situation also matters greatly. You do not need to be a Marxist steeped in economic determinism to say that Turks, like most mortals, cast their votes based on bread and butter issues. As a famous American once said: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Given such predictability in Erdoğan’s autocracy, what is the complexity and paradox of Turkey? Things get more convoluted when you look beyond Erdoğan. Look underneath the surface and you will quickly see strange bedfellows and deeper systemic forces colluding.
Why would, for instance, Erdoğan warmly embrace Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the secular republic, as he did most recently on Nov. 10? Isn’t Erdoğan an Islamist who wants to destroy the secularist legacy of Kemalism? Unveiling this paradox requires debunking the myth that the main cleavage in Turkish society is one between “Islamists” versus “secularists”.
This dichotomy has been problematic for decades. Not only it is superficial, lazy and simplistic, but more critically, this binary categorisation distorts reality by overstating the role of secularism by understating the main force driving Turkish politics since the inception of the republic: nationalism.
Secularism in Turkey has always been a skin-deep affair based on sartorial symbols and superficial life style issues such as consumption of alcohol. Secularism was never conceptualised as a real political revolution aimed at creating an impartial state towards diverse faith communities.
The secular Republic of Turkey remains a Sunni Muslim state where non-Sunni Muslims and of course non-Muslims are regularly discriminated against. The genetic codes of the republic are therefore not based on genuine secularisation.
Instead they are based on “Turkish” nation-building and three historic tragedies: the de-Hellenisation of Anatolia, the Armenian genocide and the denial of Kurdish ethnic identity. In that sense, the “Islam versus secularism” fairy tale fails to capture the force majeure that unites the majority of the Turkish populace, the Turkish political system and the foundational codes of the Turkish state: conservative nationalism.
The marriage of nationalism with conservativism is what gave us the “real” official ideology of the republic: a Turkish-Islamic synthesis, which gained official visibility after the 1980 military coup when the generals first embraced “green Kemalism” against socialism and Kurdish nationalism. Green, of course, being the colour of Islam.
We should therefore set aside “Islam” versus “secularism” as the primary lens in analyzing Turkish dynamics.
Islam versus secularism will never help you understand why Erdoğan’s party and the secretive religious movement of Fetullah Gülen entered into an existential war.
This was fratricide within the Islamic camp and had nothing to do with secularism. It was a power struggle about which conservative type of authoritarianism would govern Turkey.
Similarly, good luck analyzing the most important problem of the country, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict with Islam versus secularism.
Here too, the most important driver is not religion, but nationalism.
Erdoğan’s embrace of Kemalism – the new kind of green Kemalism – is therefore in great harmony and continuity with the authoritarian state tradition of Turkey based on conservative nationalism.
The glue that holds this alliance between Kemalism and neo-Ottomanism is the deeply rooted desire for full-independence, full-sovereignty and national power to stop Western imperialists. These 'nefarious American and European forces' do not want to see a strong Turkey, we are constantly told by so-called secularists and so-called Islamists.
Today, like yesterday, we are told these 'nefarious forces' are behind Kurdish separatism, greater Armenia, and all attempts to economically subjugate Turkey’s growing economy.
Western complicity with Gülenism is the icing on the cake for the love fest between Erdoğan and Kemalism. Seen, from this perspective, Erdogan’s green Kemalism supported by far-right nationalists and anti-Western Eurasianists in the military is more than an opportunistic alliance: it is the default setting of the Turkish Republic.