Turkish nationalism vs. Turkey nationalism

Turkish nationalism vs. Turkey nationalism

Since the beginning of this year, Turkish politics has been in a very interesting state of mind. The “peace process” with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization by all Turkish definitions, is creating both hopes and fears. Some feel happy that Turkey will finally find peace of mind after a three-decade-long, low-intensity civil war. They welcome the process and support the AKP government moving forward. But others fear that their beloved country is heading toward collapse at the hands of a treacherous government.

The second view is shared by most supporters of the two big opposition parties: the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The MHP is more furious, but the CHP is not too different from it on fundamental issues. They both claim that the government “should not have talked with the terrorists,” and condemn the current peace process as a dishonorable concession. Since their total vote makes up some 40 percent of society (the CHP around 25 percent, the MHP around 15 percent), their stances are not unimportant.

These two parties can be considered as the two legs of a “nationalist front,” representing the ideology called “Turkish nationalism.” This comes out not only in their opposition to the peace process, but also in their visions for the would-be new Constitution. Both parties insist that the whole society should be constitutionally defined as the “Turkish nation” (“Türk milleti”), a term that most Kurds, which make up some 15 percent of society, dislike. The MHP is even more hawkish, insisting that the constitutional clause decreeing that every citizen of the Republic of Turkey “is a Turk” must be kept as is.

Last week some 300 intellectuals also supported this position by signing a declaration that stressed, “Turkishness cannot be taken out of the definition of the nation or citizenship.” Notably, they did not say anything about how this 90-year-old concept of defining every citizen as a Turk can win the Kurds. They just said that this was a concept created by “the great Atatürk.” (So, was Atatürk great because of his rightful ways? Or were his ways rightful by definition because he was “great”? There was no answer to that question, and I think few of the signatories were aware of the nuance anyway.)

But if this line is “Turkish nationalism,” then what is the AKP ideology? It is totally non-nationalist?

I don’t think so. In fact, when you listen to Erdoğan, he too comes across as a nationalist leader, constantly emphasizing “our nation,” its values and its place in the world. But he carefully avoids calling it “Turkish nation,” leaving room for non-Turkish identities in Turkey, especially the Kurds. In fact, what Erdoğan implicitly refers to is the “Muslim nation” of the Ottoman Empire, in which Turks were central but also respectful to Kurds, Arabs, Bosniaks and all other non-Turkish ethnicities. (Non-Muslims were better treated in that Ottoman concept than the secular yet illiberal “Turkish nationalism,” as well.)

So, I think we are heading toward tension between “Turkish nationalists” and “Turkey nationalists,” the latter envisioning a more pluralist country. Yet my formula is still based on the least-definition-is-the-best-definition formula: Let us just speak of “the nation,” and let everybody define it according to his imagination.