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William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr

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‘Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks’ by Jenny White (Princeton University Press, 2013, 40TL, pp 241)


It’s a reviewer’s job both to critique the book at hand and to detail and summarize its most salient points. It’s a tribute to Boston University anthropologist Jenny White’s excellent “Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks” that it makes the latter extremely difficult to do, simply by doing justice to the enormous complexity of Turkish society. The reader is offered no simplistic thesis, but rather a careful consideration of the forces pulling the country in multiple, often contradictory directions; this makes the book a pleasure to read but something of a nightmare to review.

The “Muslim nationalism” of the title refers to Turkey’s new hegemonic group. In contrast to the isolationist Kemalist republicans that went before, the Muslim nationalists have a looser, less blood-based definition of Turkishness, imagining a nation with more flexible Ottoman boundaries. They were profoundly shaped by the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” that emerged in the years after the 1980 military coup, and have a powerful collective sense of identity, sometimes reinforced and sometimes contradicted by the consumerist boom that followed the opening up of the country’s economy in the 1980s. It’s also not possible to understand them without reference to what White describes as a “distinctly Turkish post-imperial sensibility” - the Ottoman past now being “romanticized and consumed uncritically.” For many Muslim nationalists, therefore, the emblematic founding moment for the Turkish nation is the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, as opposed to the declaration of the republic in 1923. Accordingly, numerous “new” public festivals and ceremonies harking back to the Islamic and Ottoman past have been introduced, often unsubtly placed at the time of traditional republican holidays.

However, Muslim nationalism is not only an inheritor of a post-imperial Ottoman sensibility, but also – inevitably - 80 years of the Kemalist state tradition and its associated neuroses. The Muslim nationalist vision is shaped by an imperial Ottoman past overlaid onto a Republican state framework, and at its worst it’s is a vision that mixes the toxic anxieties of both. This is a fact clearly demonstrated by the Turkish government’s embarrassing references to pernicious “foreign powers” being behind the Gezi Park protests that recently swept across the country. Indeed, the “new Turks” perhaps share more with the old Kemalist establishment than they might care to admit, combining a curious mixture of often contradictory ideas: the Kemalist external threat paradigm, authoritarianism, a belief in the effectiveness of social engineering, intolerance of heterodoxy, nationalist suspicion of outsiders, Turkish exceptionalism, and the patriarchal family. They also largely understand democracy “as a mandate for the winning party to impose its values.”

One of White’s central and most original sections comes when she examines the Muslim nationalists’ attitude to women. For both Muslim and secular nationalists, White says, there is a “clear link between sexual purity and national honor … [a] discursive association between the penetrability of national boundaries, female sexual vulnerability, and male sexual agency.” As the dreadful “journalist” Fatih Altaylı wrote in a 2008 column: “Maybe you are not aware of the fact that the Turkish army is also protecting what is between a woman’s legs. The Turkish army protects the borders of Turkey, and this border lies between a woman’s legs.” Ultimately, both Muslim and secular nationalists share a highly gendered understanding of the “motherland,” limiting women’s roles in essentially masculinist and militarist configurations of national identity.

White convincingly suggests that the two old monolithic “categories” of secular and Islamic nationalism actually have more in common than the chronic polarization in the country might suggest. Although the lines of demarcation are sharply drawn, they are often (unconsciously) crossed. One interpretation of the Gezi Park protests that have recently shaken Turkey is that their core is made up of a largely apolitical young generation, opposed to authoritarianism in all its forms and unmoved by the stale old dichotomy. The government’s response may have stuck rigidly to the old paradigm - casting the demonstrators as little more than antediluvian coup-nostalgic Kemalists - but many of those protesting on the streets no longer consider those old distinctions to be relevant anymore. Nevertheless, this constituency still only makes up a tiny proportion of Turkey’s population, and probably also only a small proportion of all Turkey’s youth. Whether it will be able to have any significant effect on Turkey’s future political direction is now a critical question.


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June/19/2013

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foxybey Bey

6/20/2013 5:38:16 AM

Page 21, "I make no attempt in this present study to be representative, but I wish to discuss certain discursive patterns that emerged from my conversations." Any normal person should stop and think. Extreme observations are exaggerated as the norm and normal people are marginalized because representation does not matter. Chapter 3 is about a single former Turkish Mayor with crazy views, but since we do not think representation is important, then it has meaning. This is disturbing.

foxybey Bey

6/20/2013 5:26:49 AM

Jenny White is a Marxist Zealot who originally came to Turkey to literally create a communist revolution. The quote below is placed in the back because of its controversy. Page 202, Notes on Chapter 2, Note 49, "When I returned to Turkey in 1983, . . . . hundreds of leftists, SOME OF MY FRIENDS AMONG THEM, were tortured in jail and their lives irrevocably altered by death, disease, mental illness, and the inability to resume their careers or to build stable family lives."

Thracian Anatolian

6/19/2013 10:56:20 PM

@alkan alkan: Have you ever heard of the word "Turk" used by Central Asian tribes for thousands of years by any chance? It is a myth that Ottoman Turks were not aware of their Turkishness. Turkey as a nation-state and Turks as a nation, however, were the products of 19th century intellectual, just as every single nation state is.

mara mcglothin

6/19/2013 4:13:52 PM

KM I couldn't have said it better. Not "apolitical" just not party oriented! I bet that is going to change. I would hope that their is one states"person" hiding among the "terrorists" that will come to the forefront and put the needs of a democratic Turkey before their own ill gotten gains. We are all sorely lacking these types of statesmen to be sure!

alkan alkan

6/19/2013 4:12:47 PM

" the emblematic founding moment for the Turkish nation is the conquest of Istanbul in 1453" This notion is very misguided as the Conquest of Istanbul was not accomplished in the name of the Turkish nation: this concept was nonexistent then ! It was made in the name of Islam. Anyway what was the percentage of the Turks in the conquering army? The concept of Turkishness appeared for the first time only in the late xİx. th century.

Thracian Anatolian

6/19/2013 1:51:49 PM

@mehmet ud: Come down to planet earth. Associating with other Muslims have only brought havoc on Turks and nothing else. The Middle East is like a giant quagmire, it will swallow those who venture too close to it. Turkey should increase its influence through low politics, be it through increased trade or the airing of Turkish serials, without committing its resources to intractable high politics issues which do not concern us.

mehmet ud

6/19/2013 12:00:42 PM

"Muslim Nationalism" we're in the re-making of the caliphate and global expansion

K M

6/19/2013 5:21:08 AM

To call the protesters "apolitical" is to use the narrowest possible definition of "politics": an affair of parties. The protests, in fact, are vitally political, they cut to the very heart of what the _polis_ is as idea(l), as actual space, and the citizen's relation to it. They are also, unlike the older generation and the young nationalist/Islamic conservatives, a broader-minded group, blessedly free of paranoia. They are the hope of Turkish democracy and worldliness.
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