To be worthy of Turkishness!

Even though the English writer Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name George Orwell, established his fame worldwide with novels such as 1984 and Animal Farm, he is also known for his essays and polemical criticism that cover a diverse range of topics.

This versatility, and a prolific body of work, have earned Orwell recognition as one of the 20th century’s most influential writers, with The Times placing him second on its list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, after the poet Philip Larkin.

One of Orwell’s best-known essays is “Notes on Nationalism”, first published in May 1945. Drawing a clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism, he defines the latter as “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” Another characteristic that is just as important for defining nationalism is the “habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”

It would not be inaccurate to say Orwell has been proven right as nationalism was one of the most significant factors that shattered the dreams of a more democratic world after the end of the Cold War, replacing them with a profound sense of pessimism. From populism to anti-migration sentiment, from separatist movements to the rise of authoritarian regimes, many of the concepts and phenomena that have left their mark on our political analyses over the last three decades cannot be easily explained without an understanding of nationalism, and the powerful sense of belonging it has managed to evoke in the last 200 years or so.

Today’s Turkey, where the “state of war” has brought a powerful surge of nationalist feeling to the point of hysteria, presents a unique opportunity to study these trends. A recent survey on “The Level of Polarisation in Turkey” carried out by the Centre for Migration Research at Istanbul’s Bilgi University in collaboration with Infakto RW, under the supervision of Pınar Uyan Semerci and Emre Erdoğan, even though it does not focus on nationalism per se, contains a wealth of data on this hysteria and the feelings that have given rise to it.

The survey presents data gathered through face-to-face interviews with 2,004 people over the age of 18 across 16 cities in Turkey and has an estimated margin of error of three percent, under the assumption of a simple random sampling method. It examines the societal polarisation that has become more visible during the 15 years of AKP rule from the perspective of political party supporters.  

Those who participated in the survey stated the identity they feel closest to was “the Turks”.  A point that needs to be emphasised here is that 29.6 percent, approximately one-third, of the respondents chose “Turkishness” when asked to cite one identity to define themselves. This was followed by 16.5 percent who mentioned “Ataturkists” (interestingly, lower than the proportion of participants who identified themselves as Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters) and 12.8 percent who said they were closer to “religious/pious people”. Similarly, “Turkish” was one of the most popular answers (76 percent) when participants were asked to select an identity from a list presented to them to indicate the category of belonging for which they would prefer to use the pronoun “we” – only to be surpassed by the family (90.9 percent).

The survey findings also show that an overwhelming majority of Turks still subscribe to nationalist conspiracy theories, a tendency that has been widely referred to as the Sèvres syndrome, after a treaty signed by the Ottoman Sultan and European powers in 1920 to dismember whatever was left of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, 87.6 percent of the respondents agree with the statement, “European states wish to partition Turkey, like they did with the Ottoman Empire in the past”. The proportion of those who believe that Europe is helping separatist organisations in Turkey is 87.5 percent, while 77.3 percent believe that there are no differences between the reforms required for European Union membership and the capitulations, the uneven trade agreements between European states and the Ottoman Empire. Finally, 77.6 percent agree with the statement that “The spirit of the Crusades lies at the root of Europeans’ anti-Turkish attitudes.”

Slightly more than half of the participants (52.7 percent) said the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was the political party they feel the greatest distance from. This shows that negative opinions towards the Kurds and Kurdishness is one of the rare commonalities shared by the majority, even though this figure is not mentioned in the section entitled “Our Commonalities”. Among the latter, we also see the values that are generally believed to represent “Turkishness”, such as religion or conservative family values – a finding that has been corroborated in previous surveys as well. One factor that has been recently added to this list seems to be hostility towards refugees; hence those who believe the Syrian refugees should be sent back to their country is 83.2 percent of AKP supporters, whereas this figure reaches a staggering 92.8 percent among CHP supporters. We should note in passing that 75.9 percent of pro-Kurdish HDP supporters also support the repatriation of Syrian refugees. 

At first glance, one might claim that these findings contradict an argument I have persistently put forth in my earlier articles; that Turkey has been unable to develop into a society united by a modicum of shared values and interests, let alone a homogenous nation.

After all, the preponderance of citizens define themselves as Turks. This majority group, however, is made up of different communities, and each of these has its own understanding of “Turkishness”. This is strikingly evident when looking at the section entitled “Political Party Supporters and Identities: Correspondence Map”. 

The map shows clearly that there are three large “communities” clustered around (i) nationalist, religious and conservative values, (ii) Atatürkism and secular nationalist values, (iii) and under the umbrella of Kurdish nationalism (a category that includes a small minority of leftists).

As I have stressed before, these communities are not monolithic either, but include a number of smaller communities. This multitude makes up the “archipelago of communities” that I sought to conceptualise in my first articles in Ahval.

Given this, one should not be surprised that Erdoğan has accused various organisations of being “unworthy of Turkey” and Turkishness, that the government launched an online service for citizens to research their ethnic genealogy, that one of Turkey’s leading columnists wrote of his rage at able-bodied Syrians enjoying themselves in Turkish coffee houses smoking shisha instead of fighting to defend their own country.

At the end of the day, as Orwell said: “Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also - since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself - unshakeably certain of being in the right.”