The rise of nationalism in Turkey

Published 16.07.2018 23:22
Updated 16.07.2018 23:25

From the 1980s onward, literature that called for the end of nation-states and nationalism grew dramatically over the world. Francis Fukuyama's work, "The End of History" was among the most prominent of this wave. Political establishments and intellectual life were influenced immensely by these works and debates. The rise of debate on globalization, the efforts made by ethnic separatist movements, the formation of transnational political institutions like the European Union were a few results of this trend. Emphasis on both globalization and localization, attempted to undermine the centuries old phenomenon of nationalism and nation-states.

This rising international accumulation of political, intellectual and cultural fashion of 'anti-nationalism' also affected Turkish intellectuals, media and politics. Especially from the mid 1990s onward, the intellectual hegemony consisting of alleged liberals and leftists, pioneered the war on Turkish nationalism and sought ways to limit the identity of Turkishness to an ethnicity rather than the identity of a whole nation, by giving credentials to ethnic seperatism, to an extent.

This ideological and discursive hegemony of the so-called liberal intellectuals affected not only the leftists or liberals, but also the transformation of mainstream conservatives into a sort of liberalism. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), founded in 2001, defined themselves as conservative liberals and did not select the concept of nationalism among the alternatives of self-definitions, primarily in the beginning. With great support in the EU and the emphasis on the NATO alliance, the AK Party maintained its axis on the liberalist way of conservatism for almost a decade. And Turkey's nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) kept its second biggest opposition status throughout this time. Then everything changed.Turkey has gone through a serious fight for its independence in recent years.

First, the conspiracy against the head of the National Intelligence Service (MIT) in 2012 and the Gezi Park protests in 2013 by a religious extremist group, the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), pulled the trigger against the elected government and national institutions of Turkey, which paved the way for an indirect foreign intervention. These coincided with the end of positive news and comments on the Turkish government and President Erdoğan in Western media outlets and in the discourses of Western governments. It might be worth adding that the founding leader of this terrorist organization is under protection by the United States despite diplomatic efforts for his extradition.

Furthermore, on the days of Dec. 17-25, 2013, pro-FETÖ prosecutors, judges and policemen attempted a judiciary coup against the government as an invisible hand of foreign intervention, similar to what happened in Egypt and Brazil. This went in hand with PKK and Daesh attacks in Turkey which caused hundreds of fatalities in 2015 and 2016. It is also worth remembering that the Syrian branch of the PKK, the People's Protection Units (YPG) is given thousands of truckloads of heavy weapons by the U.S. government. This is not a secret. And finally, the July 15 coup attempt in 2016 was a milestone for both polity and society.

Most of Turkish society, primarily conservatives and Turkish nationalists were aware that this was not only a coup but an apparatus for the invasion of the country on behalf of "outsiders" and the civil resistance by people who defeated the putschists and saved the independence and national will of the Turkish nation. In any dictionary, this is called nationalism. That night, the streets witnessed the alliance of conservatives and nationalists on the basis of defending the homeland. These were the ones who mostly voted for the AK Party and the MHP. The very recent successful cross-border military operations into northern Syria to fight terrorism, consolidated this nationalist front.

Nationalism's role in the victory of People's Alliance

The elections on June 24 led to the debates on the rise of Turkish nationalism and attracted a huge interest in nationalist politics in Turkey. The election winner, the People's Alliance, composed of the AK Party and MHP did not emerge as a strategic coalition for a certain election, i.e. June 24; instead the alliance was built upon the common ground discussed above. This was not planned or formed just at the negotiation table. The supporters of these two parties established the alliance on the streets of resistance on the night of July 15. Without regarding this conjuncture in Turkey, neither the election results and the People's Alliance nor the rise of Turkish nationalism could be perceived.

The recent June 24 election ended with the victory of President Erdoğan as the candidate of the People's Alliance and the alliance's majority in the parliament. Moreover, the election results suggest the victory of nationalism. Firstly, the MHP, the primary representative of Turkish nationalism in Turkish politics had been the third largest party by gaining 11 percent of the votes despite the polls and contributed to Erdoğan's presidency even if a large part of the party officials left the MHP and founded a new party, called the Good Party (İP). Secondly, the Turkish voters prized Erdoğan and his AK Party's shift to nationalism as they maintained their presidency after 16 years in governance.

Far-right movements or nationalism?

Trump's presidency in the U.S., Le Pen's runner up candidacy in France, far-right victories in Austria, the AfD's rise in Germany, far-right leadership in Hungary and others led some pundits to consider the rise of nationalism in Turkey within the same frame. However, there is a need for a differentiation between the far-right movements in the world and Turkish nationalism. The basic characteristics of the far-right movements are xenophobia and strong anti-refugee discourse, but this simply does not take place in any word or document of the MHP since the first wave of Syrian refugees entering Turkey. On the other hand, the phenomena of the rising far right showed its effects on Turkey especially on the newly founded İP, which emerged after the division of the MHP. The İP gained around 9 percent in the election and on contrary to the MHP, the İP built itself on a xenophobic, anti-refugee ground and these far-right tendencies put the İP apart from the nationalist-conservative MHP. So, defining the İP as nationalist is clearly misleading in this manner, far right is a more fitting phrase.

There is misuse of the concept of nationalism in contemporary European media to identify far-right parties. In addition, Turkish nationalism is a rare case in the theories of nationalism. The founding father of Turkish nationalism, Ziya Gökalp, comes from the Kurdish ethnicity and he is not the only one. Turkish nationalism is not ethnic nationalism, instead, as a nation formed within a world empire, Turkey ought to be considered as a super-identity over different Turkic ethnic groups. This is important to understand as to why the MHP increased its votes three times more in mostly Kurdish populated regions of Turkey, and why Erdoğan got most of the Kurdish votes despite military operations against the PKK and YPG inside and outside the country. The MHP never advocated an ethnic Turkism that can be seen as "anti-Kurdish" tone, instead they always underlined the belonging of Kurds to the whole Turkish nation.As a result, the People's Alliance, constructed on the common principles of conservative democracy and nationalism, won the government. This was not a short-term electoral collaboration, instead a necessity brought by the internal and external conjunctures and the demands of the Turkish society.

* Ph.D. at the University of York

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