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What does the ‘New Turkey’ stand for?

Through multiple New Turkeys, the country seems not to have settled as yet on its political course. Turkey is always new, forever young, never passing the stage of puberty.

Hakki Tas
17 December 2014
Tear Gas used near Taksim Square, İstanbul, June 2013.

Tear Gas used near Taksim Square, İstanbul, June 2013. Alan Hiditch/Flickr. Some rights reserved.We may not always have a reason to expect something to improve on its previous performance. However, the irresistible allure of novelty excites us and pushes to look beyond what we take for granted. Long before neurobiologists discovered this effect, politicians, including Turkish ones, employed it in political discourse. Although the discourse of 'New Turkey' has gained more currency under the Justice and Development Party (or AK Party) that has ruled since 2002, this motto has become the hope and dream of Turkish society for more than a century. In this regard, one may ask: How new is New Turkey?

A constant state of newness

The term 'New Turkey' was widely circulated in the Second Constitutional Era (1908-1922), when the Young Turks forced Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II to restore the constitutional monarchy and the Committee of Union and Progress ascended in politics. This takeover initially ushered in a new energy and was received by the Turks as “the birth of a new Turkey.” When referring to the Istanbul government, phrases such as “[the] highest officials of the New Turkey,” “the younger men of the New Turkey,” or “the new Turkey, the young Turkey of Union and Progress” were frequently cited (New York Times, August 1, 1909; February 21, 1909; September 27, 1911). Neither World War I nor the Turkish Independence War (1919-1922) halted the rhetoric of “New Turkey”. Local newspapers in the United States also referred to “the new Turkey which has replaced the ‘Sick Man of Europe’,” or the Anatolian city Bursa, which, so-to-say, “may become the capital of New Turkey, if Constantinople is taken away from her” (The Daily Ardmoreite, January 2, 1920; The Morning Tulsa Daily World, December 23, 1922).

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The Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma), January 2nd 1920.

Another 'New Turkey'

When the young Turkish Republic was proclaimed in Ankara on October 29, 1923, 'New Turkey' identified the new republican regime in Ankara instead of the late Ottoman constitutional monarchy in Istanbul. Admiral Lambert Bristol, who served as the United States’ High Commissioner to Turkey between 1919 and 1927, celebrated it, stating, “there will be a new Turkey in Europe which will surprise everyone.” In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, dated April 25, 1926, Armenian Arshag Mahedian responded to this optimism: “It is always ‘there will be a new Turkey.’ This has been repeated for centuries, but Turkey has not made any progress.”

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The New York Times, March 8th 1936

In the 1920s, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the use of the term 'New Turkey' became more commonplace. Usually written with both words capitalized and no article, New Turkey now signified a clearly separate entity marked by the Turks’ departure from an Ottoman-Islamic past and adherence to a new secular national culture, e.g. “Pragmatism is the ruling philosophy of New Turkey” (New York Times, July 4, 1926), or “A Woman [Novelist Halide Edip] speaks for the New Turkey” (New York Times, July 29, 1928). Unveiled women and Atatürk’s statue in Ulus, Ankara, became the symbols of this New Turkey. In January 1930, Turkey instituted its first national beauty contest and then participated in the international one, something unimaginable in the Ottoman past. The Turkish daily, Cumhuriyet, announced that New Turkey liberated women and was displaying its most beautiful girl on the international stage.

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The New York Times, May 30th 1936

A new country and nation was in the making, as journalist Rose Lee observed: “New Turkey progresses at high speed. Under the guidance of Mustapha Kemal the nation is reorganizing its life along modern lines […] The tranquility of old is gone and throughout the country there resound the rumblings of progress” (New York Times, May 30, 1926). Certainly, “New Turkey” was not a label that only foreign observers were using to refer to the Istanbul or Ankara governments. New Turkey illustrated a new fervour in early 1920s Anatolia. Ziya Gökalp, the ideologue of Turkish nationalism, collected his editorials in the daily Yeni Türkiye (New Turkey), all written in July 1923—shortly before the proclamation of the republic—in a book, titled Yeni Türkiye’nin Hedefleri (Goals of New Turkey). Those goals mainly covered equality among races, nations, genders, and social classes.

One can trace the term of New Turkey in the archives of the Turkish parliament. In a session on June 2, 1929, Minister of Foreign Affairs Tevfik Rüştü, declared that “New Turkey” had totally settled her boundaries with all her neighbours. In another session, dated May 28, 1934, Member of Parliament Refik Şevket Bey states that Ankara refers to “a new central government born out the faith of the nation to demonstrate New Turkey’s faith, ideal, attitude and civilization.” Interestingly, foreign governments also also used this term in official documents. In the parliamentary session, dated November 13, 1930, a letter from the Greek Parliament was read out that addressed, “the National Parliament of New Turkey.” It is interesting to observe, even years after the proclamation of the Republic, the country is still referred to as New Turkey.

In the parliamentary record, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is clearly declared the founder of New Turkey (Yeni Türkiye’nin banisi). This echoes the manner in which Atatürk had been described in the international media: “Mustapha Kemal, Builder of the New Turkey,” or “Kemal Ataturk, maker of new Turkey” (New York Times, April 19, 1931; April 2, 1939). Adolf Hitler was quoted as describing Atatürk as “the great genius who created the new Turkey” (New York Times, May 5, 1941).

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The Times (London), May 19th 1978

Newer than ever

Newness was not limited to the early 1920s and 1930s. Decades later, New Turkey has remained a source of attraction, an ideal to all. When the centre right Democrat Party was closed down after the 1960 coup d’état, the New Turkey Party (Yeni Türkiye Partisi) was founded in 1961 in line with the party-affiliated newspaper New Turkey. Interestingly, 2002 witnessed the formation of another short-lived New Turkey Party, yet with a centre-left leaning this time.

Most recently, it was Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party that employed the discourse of New Turkey. The promise of a liberal democratic country became an ideal to be aspired to for many including the disadvantaged groups of the military-dominated Kemalist regime, such as the Kurds, Islamists, and Alevis.

New Turkey as empty signifier

So, one can discern three main phases in this constant state of newness: Union and Progress Turkey, Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey, and Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. They have several features in common, moreover, which cannot be adequately treated here. Firstly, in the hands of all those politicians, New Turkey has been turned into an “empty signifier.” Signifiers are any words or images with referents, and the more specific a signifier is, the more it can be contested. Conversely, empty signifiers, devoid of agreed upon meaning, are difficult to contest. In Ernest Laclau’s terms, politicians striving for political hegemony may skilfully present their particular demand as universal via empty signifiers such as “order,” “justice,” or “peace,” desired by all, but invested with different, sometimes conflicting, meanings.

The ambiguous nature of an empty signifier may bring heterogeneous actors and practices together. To varying degrees, the discourse of New Turkey has encompassed contradictory premises in all three phases respectively: liberal and fascist, socialist and capitalist, democratic and authoritarian. Nevertheless, in all its ambiguity and inconsistency, it has also been used as a self-explanatory category: New Turkey must be desired because it is new and the old must go. In order to mobilize greater mass appeal or to attract more international recognition and support, New Turkey has served as a utopia, something discrete and ambivalent, but an appealing dream for all.

Once the empty signifier has been fixed in line with their demands, political actors sustain their political hegemony and their adversaries are turned into the enemies of the nation. Any opponent then appears to be a reactionary or traitor who cannot digest the progress toward New Turkey. While the 1920 Law of Treason had been used to eliminate the opposition in the early republican period, President Erdoğan and his circle frequently employ the same discourse and label any dissenting view as treasonous.

Moreover, the utopia of New Turkey works to justify present misdeeds under the specific circumstances of “transition.” In the early republican period, many opposition political actors and social figures were jailed, exiled, or executed in that never-ending “transition” period in order to consolidate the Kemalist Revolution. When responding to major challenges from the 2013 Gezi protests to the December 17 corruption probe, the AK Party government employed suppression and intervened in judicial processes with the same excuse of “transition”. In order to clear the path toward Turkey’s advanced democracy (ileri demokrasi) in the future, one has to apply harsh measures.

Thus, in a recent effort to justify those non-democratic measures from curtailing the social media to firing and rotating thousands of judges and police, Etyen Mahcupyan, Advisor to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, quite recently declared that the party had been forced to venture outside the law after the December 17 corruption probe, since this was an attempt to overthrow the government.

Finally, Turks have learned that transition never ends. Throughout its history, Turkey seems to be in a constant state of transition, but never achieving the ideal it is constantly striving for. One cannot ignore the political success of Turkish modernization compared to the progress or otherwise of its neighbours. However, through multiple New Turkeys, the country seems not to have settled as yet on its political course. Turkey is always new, forever young, never passing the stage of puberty.

To be more concise, the motto of New Turkey indeed comprises both the present and future tenses. In the AK Party leaders’ discourse, for instance, Turkey has already changed under their rule and there is no room for the practices of the 'Old Turkey', such as military tutelage or elitism. Yet, when it comes to political failure or non-democratic practices, New Turkey turns into a bright ideal that the government is striving for, and voters should support the AK Party until that very last corner is turned.

Parmenides said some 2500 years ago “ex nihilo nihil fit”, or in Shakespeare’s King Lear’s words “nothing will come of nothing.” How new, then, is New Turkey? Despite the premises of a new order, in practice we only observe some repercussions of the old regime, albeit in different flavours.

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