Gökhan Bacık
Oct 24 2019

The Return of Turkism

Just over a decade before the demise of the Ottoman Empire, intellectual Yusuf Akçura argued there were three alternative ideologies that might unite the fading multi-ethnic, multi-religious state: Ottomanism, Islamism and Turkism.

A remarkably modern concept, Ottomanism aimed to create a nation from the empire’s many religious and ethnic groups, united under the banner of Ottoman identity. 

But the main problem with Ottomanism, as Akçura pointed out, was that Turks would not accept sharing equal status with members of the other ethnic and religious groups they ruled for centuries.

More than a century later, the current state of politics in Turkey is not dissimilar.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk attempted to Turkify the new Republic of Turkey he founded in 1923, but the project has been plagued by instability. In particular, the country’s biggest minority, the Kurds, have remained unhappy partners in the new nation state. 

Islamism has emerged as another source of opposition to the Kemalist project. Both Kurds and Islamists demonstrate the failure of the Kemalist project. 

Despite its reservations about Kemalism, Turkey’s ruling party achieved some success in its first decade in power from 2002 in trying to harmonise Islamism with the Kemalist values of Westernisation. The Justice and Development Party was an ardent defender of EU reforms in those years and was praised for showing that Islam and democracy were not incompatible.

But the Arab Spring uprisings from 2011 virtually destroyed the AKP brand of Islamism, as it failed to take root in countries across the Middle East.

Turkey has responded by making a sharp U-turn and embracing Turkism. A large coalition of the elite, including Islamists and Kemalists, seem to believe the Kurdish threat requires some kind of Turkism, both in domestic and foreign policy.

Parties with such different ideologies as the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Islamist opposition Felicity Party have embraced Turkism with the Turkish military offensive in Syria this month. Politics has been transformed into a competition between different nationalisms: far-right nationalism, Kemalist nationalism and Islamist nationalism.

The Felicity Party, which normally advocates Islamist universalism, has ardently backed the Turkish military offensive against the Syrian Kurds. The tweets of Felicity Party leader Temel Karamollaoğlu reveal it is first a nationalist party before everything else.

Turkey’s military incursion into Syria against the Kurds has displayed once again that nationalism is the shared ground upon which Turkish parties are founded. Distinctive features such as Islam or secularism come second.

The authoritarian turn Turkey has taken in recent years has virtually annihilated the historical dynamics of Westernism as well as the Islam-inspired universalist elements within the AKP. Turkism came to the fore as the only alternative to the rulers of the new Turkey.

© Ahval English

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

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