The return of the Sheikh: On Turkey's so new nationalism

It was a memorable, decidedly chilling sight. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had supporters hoist a little girl dressed in military camouflage onto the stage with him as he was addressing his party. Noticing the tears welling up in the little girl’s eyes, he said: “See, we have our maroon berets. Maroon berets do not cry.” Kissing her cheek and clutching her to his side, the president tried to calm her down. And he continued: “Gendarmerie special ops, lieutenant colonel, maroon beret ... Mashallah. And she has the Turkish flag in her pocket. If she becomes a martyr, she will be covered by that flag. She is ready for everything, right?”

This harrowing scene reminded me of another similar incident in 2008, when the then chief of staff General Yaşar Büyükanıt was offered a Turkish flag painted with the blood of 13 high school students. “The flag made him emotional”, the newspapers covering the “ceremony” reported.

Then I thought of the headline of a report by John Halpin, Michael Werz, Alan Makovsky and Max Hoffman of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington D.C. based non-partisan think-tank, summarising and commenting on the findings of a new survey on Turkish self-perceptions. “Is Turkey Experiencing a New Nationalism?” the authors asked. Their answer was positive. Surely, the survey had provided some original, unprecedented insights; why else would the authors feel the need to refer to a “new nationalist spirit”?

Alas, the findings of the survey, carried out by the polling firm Metropoll, which conducted face-to-face interviews with 2,453 people from 28 provinces in November 2017, simply reiterate what we already know thanks to dozens of other, similar, surveys conducted in last two decades. In this respect, it could also be read as a complement to Bilgi University’s “The Dimensions of Polarisation in Turkey” survey that I discussed in some detail a couple of weeks ago.

Thus an overwhelming majority of the respondents (86 percent) affirmed that “being a Turk” was an important part of their identity. Conceptions about “what it means to be a Turk” are also in line with the findings of earlier surveys; a belief in strong families, speaking the Turkish language and being Muslim are the three most cited identity components - by roughly 68 percent who said they all are “very important” in defining Turkishness.

The findings do not fail to register the resilience and wide appeal of the Sèvres syndrome either, the belief that the West is bent on dismembering Turkey as it did the Ottoman Empire. Some 84 percent of the respondents agree that “Global economic and political elites have too much power over Turkey and should be resisted”. This is compounded with a strong anti-immigrant feeling with 78 percent agreeing with the statement that “Turkey spends too much time and money caring for refugees from other countries and should focus more on its own citizens.” One other interesting, yet not so unexpected finding, is the belief – mostly held by AKP supporters of course – that “Turkey under Erdoğan is fulfilling Atatürk’s ideal of a strong and independent nation”.

These are important findings, but what leads the authors of the report to conclude that this is “a new nationalist spirit grounded deeply in Islam and opposition to Western nations and non-Turkish citizens”?

If they are referring to the centrality of Islam in defining Turkishness, as they seem to do when they point to the 80 percent who agree with the statement that “Islam plays a central role in my life”, this is a platitude known to all observers of Turkey’s politics, expert or non-expert.

If this is meant to draw attention to “a new form of Turkish nationalism”, they are again off the mark for Islam was an important ingredient of several strands of Turkish nationalism, since at least the transition to multi-party politics. As several commentators have noted, these strands differed from the official Kemalist narrative only in the extent to which they stressed the salience of religion in defining Turkishness (see for example my article, “The Topography of Nationalism in Turkey: Actors, Discourses and the Struggle for Hegemony”, in Riva Kastoryano (ed.), Turkey between Nationalism and Globalization, London: Routledge, 2013; or Tanıl Bora’s earlier essay, “Nationalist Discourses in Turkey”, The South Atlantic Quarterly, 102 (2/3), 2003, 433-51).

More importantly, however, the authors turn a blind eye to the complicated relationship between secular official nationalism and Islam which the republican elites used to rally the Anatolian masses round the radical goals of the Kemalist revolution. In fact, the solution proposed by one of the twin founding fathers of Turkism, Ziya Gökalp, to the fledgling nation’s identity dilemma was a synthesis that brought together what he described as the three elements of Turkishness, namely Turkism, Islamism and Modernism, summed up in the slogan “To be of the Turkish nation, of the Islamic religion, and of European civilization”.

It is true that at least at a rhetorical level, the founders of the republic did downplay the role of Islam when they set out to define what it means to be a “modern” Turk. Yet they adopted a much more accommodationist attitude towards religion in practice, keeping it under control rather than trying to eradicate it. And Islam was the tool the Democratic Party (DP) used to challenge the hegemony of the establishment Republican People’s Party (CHP) from 1950 onwards.

What we witness today is not the rise of a new nationalism, but the return of Ziya Gökalp whom Yusuf Akçura, the other founding father of Turkish nationalism, described as a “sheikh”, or spiritual guide, in an essay he penned for a special issue of “Türk Yurdu”, the foremost Turkish journal of the period, dedicated to the life and teachings of Gökalp in the wake of his death in 1924. It was precisely this status as a guide, a sheikh, that convinced the Turkish youth to join “the most perfect confraternity that has ever existed, the confraternity of Turkish nationalism” (for these and following quotations, see Umut Özkırımlı and Spyros A. Sofos, Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey, Hurst and Co. and Oxford University Press, 2008).

The Turks, Gökalp said, were a nation rich in culture, but poor in civilization. They had borrowed “the institutions of foreign peoples and produced an artificial civilization out of them, instead of creating their own”. This also explained the gulf separating the educated and the “common people” in Turkey. To bridge the gulf, the educated had “to go to the people” and learn from them the basics of the national culture, as well as introducing them to modern civilization. The formula he proposed was simple and quite straightforward: “Let us try to acquire everything in techniques from Europe, but let us find our culture only in our own national soul.”

Does this sound familiar to you?