Significant changes in Turkish religion and Turkish nationalism

Turkish society has proved to be loyal to its country rather than divided over religious and political views as Turkey’s disputes with Israel have united them into a common feeling: nationalism.

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, received wisdom has tended to view nationalism and religion as mutually incompatible in the Turkish context. Turkish nationalism, so the narrative goes, is defined by the secularising, modernising example of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a military man with an almost religious faith in the ability of science to reshape society. Islam, with its appeals to multinational, multiracial unity, inevitably stood in the way of the ‘pure’, homogenous nation state. Such an understanding was propagated by those early secularising elites within Turkey itself, and accepted by observers outside the country for the better part of 100 years. The current AKP government, however, is challenging this formula. Recent developments - in particular the much remarked upon recent spat between Turkey and Israel - demonstrate that Turkish religion and Turkish nationalism are far from irreconcilable.

A singular irony of the founding of the Turkish republic is the fact that initially the new nation was defined primarily on religious (rather than linguistic) grounds, (with, it must be said, an unhealthy dose of ethnic nationalism thrown in for good measure). Significant numbers of those resettled on Turkish land during the Greek-Turkish population exchanges, for example, were Greek speaking Muslims who in many cases couldn’t even speak the Turkish language. The most important fact was that they were Muslim: religion was the most important category to fulfil in order to be included in the new Turkish state. The irony is that this definition was emphasised even as its new leaders were attempting to systematically ‘cleanse’ religion from public life. The newly independent Turkish republic wasn’t just neutral to religion, it was actively hostile, establishing a rigid and doctrinaire form of secularism in a country that until recently had been the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. The state would be actively superior to religion, and all expressions of Islam were to be tightly regulated by the “Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı” (Department of Religious Affairs) to ensure compliance with the new secular order. The Caliphate was abolished; independent religious establishments were closed down; imams were appointed and their Friday sermons written by the new religious affairs department; women were discouraged from wearing the veil. Myriad other cultural and political reforms were initiated, aimed at faster and more effective westernisation. All this was done in the name of modernisation, secularisation and - crucially – nationalism: to oppose the changes or the way they were implemented was to risk being vilified as a ‘gerici’ (reactionary), against the modern, independent Turkish nation.

The military became a symbol of the secular order, and the four coup d’etats that the country experienced during the twentieth century were all - to a greater or lesser degree – military responses to perceived religious incursions into political and social life. Inevitably, tensions also developed with minority communities who felt excluded from such a rigid understanding of the Turkish nation, and during the 1990s something like civil war exploded in the south-east of the country between Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish state.

The paradigm seemed to be broken with the spectacular electoral successes of the AKP, an Islamically oriented party, starting in 2002. Here at last, it was thought, was a way out of the monocultural impasse, a tonic to divisive and destructive Turkish nationalism. The new government sounded a refreshingly emollient tone, and a series of symbolic ‘openings’ helped warm up relations with the Kurds, the Greeks, and the Armenians as well as other minority communities within the Turkish borders. In addition, more progress was made in the EU accession process by the AKP than any previous government.

This rosy picture, however, has soured recently. Campaigning during the parliamentary election earlier this year, Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan adopted a much harsher note on the Kurdish question than ever before, and - having won almost 50% of the popular vote - has continued this tendency since. The EU process is effectively dead, and the government has wasted no time laying the blame squarely at the door of the EU itself. The USA comes in for increasingly stinging criticism (again sanctioned by rising anti-American sentiments in Turkish society). Emboldened by a booming economy, Erdoğan flexes his muscles on the world stage as no Turkish leader has before, which – appealing to the collective libido dominandi - wins him ever more support back home. Boorish populism is prosecuted in the name of greater and deeper democracy.

As with all nationalisms, the new Turkish model needs outside foes against which to define itself, and perhaps the most significant of these today is Israel. The raid by the Israeli Defence Force on the Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010 caused widespread public and political anger, and the Turkish-Israeli relationship has since deteriorated to such a degree that Turkey has almost entirely suspended political, military and economic ties with Israel. Owing to the widespread popular support for the government on this issue, the AKP has no motivation to back down, indeed one could argue that it actually has an interest in prolonging - even elevating - the dispute. The situation clearly illustrates how far popular Turkish nationalism has shifted: a hitherto unheard-of instance of secular nationalism and emotional religious indignation uniting in a common cause. Nationalism and religion have been the two primary energising forces in Turkish society for almost a hundred years, even if one has always dictated to the other. The current Turkish government’s rhetoric manages to appeal to both impulses, and that’s why it’s such a powerful brew.

About the author

William Armstrong is a freelance journalist and editor in Instanbul. He also writes in his personal blog