Turkey’s psychedelic rock star and liberal nationalism

Turkish intellectual and researcher Tanıl Bora in a seminal 1994 article identified five nationalist discourses in Turkey: Official nationalism, or the nationalism of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Kemalist nationalism, liberal “new nationalism”, radical nationalism (Turkism) and Islamist nationalism.

Among those five, Bora puts special emphasis on the liberal nationalism, which is the product of the more Western-oriented branch of Kemalist nationalism. Liberal nationalism defines national identity as the aspiration and capacity to catch up with the most developed countries in the world, that is Western countries. It puts emphasis on economic success to such an extent that it sometimes promotes “market fetishism”, “welfare chauvinism” and “class-based racism”. It presents itself as the nationalism of the 21st century by its focus on youth and its indulgence in popular culture.

Ertuğrul Özkök, who steered Turkish media’s flagship Hürriyet daily as editor-in-chief and chief columnist between 1990 and 2010, is one of the most fervent supporters of this type of nationalism. Openness to the world, a desire to enjoy life, having the skills needed for the new economy, like computer literacy and speaking English, are the main characteristics of Özkök’s new Turk.

Physical appearance is also an important part of this new image of Turkish people. Özkök said in 1992 that the new generation of Turks are much more beautiful than previous generations. In another article the same year he praised the features of a Turkish soldier who lost his leg fighting Kurdish militants

“Contemporary and beautiful. With no moustache, he is large, young and modern,” is how Özkök described wrestler Sabahattin Öztürk when he won the 1993 world championship. “Our Sabahattin is more handsome, more modern and more contemporary than those from the West.”

Turkish pop music, which saw a revival in 1990s with starlets such as Tarkan, was a central part of the liberal nationalism marketed by Özkök. In 1994, he described the reconciliation of young people with Turkish music as a “profound national osmosis”. He said that Turkey, thanks to the dynamics of the market, had eventually managed to create a synthesis of East and West, which could not be achieved by the state’s cultural policies.

“Turkey in the end finds the grand synthesis it has been seeking since the 19th century. We are learning to live in the East with the rhythms of the West,” Özkök wrote.

Özkök’s quest for this new Turk has continued unabated. In 2000, he declared a new Turkey had been born, with new Turks now determining the image of the country. Turkey had gotten rid of the pessimistic and negative intelligentsia, he said, referring to those who saw criticism of the state as an article of faith.

Many years have now passed and the country has been ruled by an Islamist government for 17 years. But Özkök still looks for traces of those new Turks and naturally a recent article in the New York Times on Gaye Su Akyol, an internationally acclaimed star of Turkey’s new generation psychedelic music, caught his eye.

In a column on Dec. 12, Özkök thanked the article’s author Alex Marshall for showing that Turkey is greater than just five politicians. He said Marshall was right to say the revival of Turkish psychedelic music, which was widely popular in 1970s, indicated also the resurgence of a protest culture that was crushed by the 1980 military coup.

But strangely Özkök held back from praising Akyol for her contribution to the resurrection of psychedelic music, which he called the music of innocent years, though the article was centred on an interview with the star.

Of course for Özkök, an article published in the foreign press on the rise of a new Turkish musical genre was an opportunity to display his liberal nationalism. It is only natural for him to forget that he once called the 1980 coup “the end of a nightmare”, or ignore the fact that he once denounced the protest culture prevalent in 1970s.

Of course Akyol, who according to Marshall uses her music to comment poetically on Turkey, is not the kind of star who fits into this nationalist narrative. Akyol dedicated her 2019 ELLE Style awards to all women, men, trans individuals, homosexuals, queers and to all “who struggle to survive in this patriarchal and boring world no matter what, who break prejudices and shows the courage to be herself/himself, who take risks without thinking what others will say”. So understandably her worldview jars with the liberal nationalism that only seeks hedonism and material benefits.

Akyol does not fit, at least ideologically, in Özkök’s concept of the new Turks who work in senior positions in U.S. corporations and are graduates of Ivy League universities.

Despite its shortcomings, Özkök’s article deserves to be read, if only to understand his brand of liberal nationalism. If you are bored, then listen to Gaye Su Akyol’s music and fantasise about a world devoid of nationalism and the likes of Özkök. After all, as Akyol says in her latest hit, “consistent fantasy is reality”.


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