Interview: Umut Uzer on the turbulent history of Turkish nationalism


Three leading right-wing figures from the 20th century in Turkey: Former Welfare Party head Necmettin Erbakan (L), former Justice Party head Süleyman Demirel (C), and former Nationalist Movement Party head Alparslan Türkeş (R).


William Armstrong –

The recent vote in the German Parliament describing the 1915 killings of Ottoman Armenians as genocide drew a predictably angry reaction in Turkey. Accusing Turkish deputies in the Bundestag of “treason,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan focused his ire on the co-chair of Germany’s Green Party, Cem Özdemir, conjuring archaic concepts of blood purity. “He is a so-called Turk. What kind of a Turk? They need to have their blood tested,” Erdoğan railed.

The episode showed just how potent nationalism remains in Turkey. “An Intellectual History of Turkish Nationalism: Between Turkish Ethnicity and Islamic Identity” by Umut Uzer of Istanbul Technical University (reviewed in the Hürriyet Daily Newshere), offers a timely look at the past and present of Turkish nationalism. Uzer spoke to HDN about his work. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

You describe how Turkish nationalism developed quite late compared to other nationalisms in the Ottoman Empire. Why was this?

As rulers of the Ottoman Empire, following a policy of Turkish nationalism would not have made sense because it would have brought about the dismemberment of the empire, which like all empires was multinational. For most intellectuals the main identity was at the state level, while for the less educated their affiliation was more at the local town or village level, or at the level of religious affiliation. So there was no strong national identity even in the Ottoman territorial identity. For Turks the eruption of Turkish nationalism came rather late – in the late 19th century and early 20th century. There was no hegemonic form of Turkish nationalism until the coming of Mustafa KemalAtatürk and the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

On the advent of Turkish nationalism we can talk about a number of issues. One of them was separatism on the part of minorities in the Ottoman Empire, their quest to establish their own nation states first in the Balkans and then in the Middle East. Turkish nationalism was a reaction to those national liberation movements. Another aspect was the scholarly studies of Turkish history and languages, which started in Western Europe and Russia and which had an influence on the educated Turkish elite.

But Turkish nationalism never became hegemonic during the Ottoman era. The Young Turks are presented by many scholars and others as a Turkish nationalist movement, but I think that is rather problematic. Turkish nationalism was one of the factions and ideas within the movement, but so was Ottomanism, Islamism and Westernism. It was only during the time of Atatürk that Turkish nationalism became the official ideology of the state.

In the early development of Turkish nationalism the influence of Muslim emigres from Russia in the Ottoman Empire was important but today it is not too well known. What was their influence?

Their influence was important. We’re talking about Turkic immigrants coming from Tsarist Russia – from Azerbaijan, the Crimea and Kazan, rather than Central Asia. The Caucasus, the Crimea and Kazan were more economically developed than Central Asia because of oil, trade and other reasons. So educated people in these regions were more interested in nationalism and modernization. We should emphasize that among the Turkic peoples of Russia, as well as in the Ottoman Empire, Turkish nationalism started out as a modern ideology, emphasizing women’s rights, modern education, etc. This contradicts with Turkish nationalism from the 1950s onward.

These Russian emigres were often active in Russian politics and were aware of what was happening in the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe. They tended to know a lot of languages including their local languages, Ottoman Turkish, Russian, French, German, and others. So they were well educated and politically active in Russia and later in the Ottoman Empire. Their expertise in history, their political activism in Russia, and their education in Western Europe contributed ideologically and academically to the idea of Turkish nationalism, modernization and women’s rights. They were not as influenced by religion as many of the elite in Ottoman Turkey, so they had a more liberal attitude on many issues.

Turkish nationalism is an extremely potent force, with different flavors in all ideological strands in the country from left to right, secular to religious. How did you want to address this broad sweep?

My book is a textual analysis of the important nationalist thinkers from the late 19th century to the 21st century. There is an element of nationalism in many political ideologies – left or right – but just because there is that element I wouldn’t consider that political movement or ideology to be nationalistic. For example, today there’s a tendency to say the current government is nationalistic, or to say that the 1970s leftist movements were nationalistic because of their anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism. But I would argue that a political movement or ideology is mainly nationalist only if the nation is at the top of the hierarchy of loyalties. If the primary loyalty is to the nation rather than to religion or class, then I would call that movement a nationalistic movement.

The ideological odyssey of Turkish nationalism is the topic of my book: How nationalism has changed from a more modern, pro-Western, even progressive idea to a more conservative and patriarchal idea from the 1950s. There are of course different kinds of nationalism: Conservative nationalism, Kemalist nationalism, and ethnic nationalism. Today we have elements of nationalism in many different parties and movements. It has become just one of the tools to mobilize the masses.

You narrate the shift from Kemalist to conservative nationalism in the 1950s, which has been a schism since that point. How did the Cold War reinforce Turkish nationalism?

In the 1950s the most important development was the coming of democracy to the country. So even though the cadres of the Democrat Party [DP], which came to power in 1950, came from the Republican People’s Party [CHP], they mobilized the masses with ideas and slogans that included religion and a conservative form of nationalism, even though from today’s perspective they seem pretty pro-Western and quite secular. Although at the legal level the secular system was preserved during that era, at a discourse level Prime Minister Adnan Menderes used a lot of Islamic slogans.

But in the 1950s a number of processes were important for this change in the form of nationalism. One was democratization, the other was urbanization and the increasing number of people coming from the provinces to the major cities in Western Turkey. With that we see the desires and interests of the provincial people coming to the center and being more acceptable, even in governmental circles. The interesting thing about the Cold War was that it brought together an alliance of these different people – conservative nationalists and Islamists had a common aim in fighting against the Soviet Union. So the DP had both old-style Kemalists and people who could be called Islamists or conservative nationalists, some of whom were expelled from the party for their use of language against Atatürk and whatnot. Anti-Communism, anti-Russian, anti-Soviet feelings brought these people together and their differences mattered less in those days because the major source of concern was the Soviet Union. Russia, you have to keep in mind, had been an enemy of the Ottoman Empire for many decades.

The Association for the Struggle Against Communism had branches throughout Turkey, and anti-communism was definitely one of the themes among right-wing circles. Another common theme was anti-CHP sentiment, which was important for the Turkish political right. The coming of democracy made the government more open to the demands of the common people, so all these elements came together and created a different form of Turkish politics, similar to the conservative turn in America in the 1950s.

What about the question of social classes? It’s clear that different styles of nationalism were underpinned by different economic constituencies.

I’d argue that nationalism is a supra-class ideology. It’s beyond class. It has different expressions in rich and poor neighborhoods. In general, Kemalist nationalism was espoused by better educated, richer people, whereas people coming from the provincial areas identified more with the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] or increasingly Islamist movements. So there is this class dimension, though I don’t look too deeply into it.

Obviously nationalism requires an “other” to define itself against. Since the 1980s that has mainly supplied by the PKK and Kurdish nationalism. How has that reshaped Turkish nationalism?

Nationalism definitely needs an “other” to define itself against. In the Turkish case, during the Atatürk era, a Turk was implicitly defined as a Turkish speaking Muslim. That was open to non-Turkish speaking Muslims but for non-Muslims it was more difficult to be considered a Turk. At the people’s level and at the governmental level non-Muslims were considered non-Turks. But noone questioned the Turkishness of Kurds and Laz people. Within the Turkish nationalist movement, both in the past and today, there have always been people of Kurdish background. Some have called Ziya Gökalp a Kurd, because he was from Diyarbakır, but he addressed these issues and said he wasn’t a Kurd and didn’t support a racist form of nationalism anyway.

Within the MHP there were and are numerous Kurds. The mayor of Bingöl in eastern Turkey was from the MHP in the 1970s, while later in the government between 1992 and 2002 Osman Durmuş openly said he was a Kurd. There are other examples.

But it’s true that the PKK became the “other” of Turkish nationalists. The MHP was very much against the PKK and against giving political or cultural rights to the Kurds. The Islamic link with the Kurds became important for the conservative MHP, seen as important for the prevention of a civil war in Turkey.

The MHP has actually had even more problems with the Alevis. Although we have certain senior MHP leaders who have spoken sympathetically about Alevis, they are associated with the left. During the 1970s, political conflict was between right and left, and the Alevis were associated with the left. So I’d argue that the MHP’s problem has been more with the Alevis than the Kurds. But still it doesn’t support any form of cultural rights for the Kurds, and the MHP is almost invisible in the Kurdish areas of Turkey.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğanhave moved away from the rigid ethnic definition of nationalism, and the vision is not limited to the national borders of the Turkish Republic. But they are still using many Turkish nationalist tropes. They have this bellicose ideology of self-assertion and national glory, overcoming various supposed enemies. Perhaps the best term is “Ottoman nationalism” – it’s oxymoronic but I think it captures the essence of the current government’s nationalism.

I might agree. Most people in Turkey and Europe disagree, but I always say that the AKP is not Turkish nationalist. It has been specifically mentioned by the current president and former prime minister that they have “trampled on all forms of nationalism.” Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said he was “anti-nationalist,” as did Erdoğan. They were also more open to Kurdish demands, at least until recently. TheCHP and MHP would never have allowed so much for the Kurds. There was Kurdish TV, which nobody cares about anymore but which was a big deal at the time. There are also new Kurdish departments at universities.

We could call the AKP’s nationalism “Ottoman nationalism,” or “Islamic Anatolian nationalism,” or “Islamic Ottoman Anatolian nationalism.” Even though it might be contradictory, we might need to use a term like “Ottoman nationalism” to explain present-day Turkey. President Erdoğan’s criticisms of Germany and people of Turkish background in the German parliament were rather nationalistic. Of course you cannot totally reject Turkishness, but it has been discouraged for the past decade-and-a-half. A new form of identity emphasizing the past and Turkey’s geography has been encouraged.

It has been interesting to see some pro-Erdoğan protesters using the ultranationalist grey wolf hand gesture. It just showed again how the constituencies overlapped.

Yes indeed. Some of the “grey wolf” members of the MHP have moved toward the ruling party because they seem to associate with the president. His recent stance against Germany over the Armenian genocide claims could bring in even more nationalistic people to his side. He definitely has an appeal beyond his own party. Many MHP members have sympathy for him because of his personal style and his manliness. The overlap is definitely there.


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