Nationalism may bring Turkey back to its course

Turkish flags. Photo: 


Article by: M. Bahadırhan Dinçaslan

The word “nationalism” has a negative whiff in the Western World due to historic reasons. Moreover, phenomena such as Brexit and the rise of xenophobia, which strengthened the anti-globalist, anti-immigrant and anti-union sentiment in EU, are usually associated with nationalism. This new-kind of nationalism, aiming to undermine the unity in transnational bodies such as NATO and EU, has a curious “international” foundation and is evidently led or at least funded by Russia. Under these circumstances, it might not be wise to advocate nationalism before a western audience, yet each nation’s story is different, and, as Gellner states, some kinds of nationalism may be utilized to modernize a country and establish a secular, democratic society. One of the most prominent examples of such a transformation are the reforms made by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, father of modern Turkey.

Turkey’s future is going to be shaped by nationalism once again, yet, this time there’s a “clash of nationalisms” in Turkey: one, represented by Erdogan, to shift Turkey’s axis and turn it into a North-Korea-like state and the other, a heterogeneous phenomenon represented by Mrs. Akşener, to preserve Turkey within the “free world.” The former utilizes Turkey’s terrorism problem and outrage against the western support for PKK (the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a group designated as terrorist by Turkey, NATO, the EU, and the USA, which has active armed militants within Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran and is involved in drug trafficking throughout the world) affiliated organizations, and crushes the “reasonable” voices under heaps of propaganda, while concealing Russia’s past and present support for the PKK. [1]

What Turkey made the only relatively secular, stable and constitutional republic that experienced regular elections and determined to be part of the “western civilization” in the Muslim world was its nationalistic vision back in early 1900s. Nationalists established the republic, started the great endeavor to homogenize the country in terms of education and access to social services, and introduced universal suffrage even before many European countries.

As Turkey is swayed from its century-old goal to “be a part of western civilization,” and anti-NATO sentiment is at its peak, NATO should reconsider its attitude toward Turkey and Turkish nationalism.

The coup attempt on 15 July 2016, which was orchestrated by Fethullah Gülen, a former priest living in USA voluntarily, and his followers known as “Gülen Movement”, marked a milestone in the recent history of Turkey. Although Turkish claims are questioned by the West, there’s consensus that Gülen followers were involved in the coup attempt. Following the coup attempt and the state of emergency that was instated right after, government institutions were purged of members of Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), a process which is still ongoing. However, there are serious claims by leading opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party) that Erdogan takes advantage of the situation and purges his opponents branding them supporters of FETÖ.

Besides its tremendous impact on domestic politics and policies, the coup attempt strongly affected Turkey’s foreign policy. Although various government officials stated that Turkey still sees itself as a part of NATO, the government felt that NATO was not quick to unanimously declare solidarity with the democratically elected government and accused that certain countries in the West, being NATO members, supported or still support terrorist organization led by the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen. Ministers, the Prime Minister and the President have all stated that Turkey will remember the nations that were first to condemn the coup and support their ally and will not tolerate the support for the FETÖ movement from foreign countries.

In this regard, Turkey’s reconciliation with Russian Federation was interpreted as a shift of Turkish foreign policy to grant Turkey a wider maneuverability and signal to  NATO that Turkey is not dependent on the organization. However, recent statements by President Erdogan indicate that Turkey still sees itself as part of NATO and is ready to collaborate with its allies to find solutions to regional problems. However, Fethullah Gülen’s living in USA is what gives Turkey concerns and Turkey sees this as a violation of alliance and international war against terrorism.

Although NATO officials and representatives of the member countries condemned the attempt of a coup eventually, the public opinion and the government’s stance in Turkey demands more from the alliance to prove NATO supports Turkey in its war against terrorism in three fronts: PKK, FETÖ and IS. Moreover, NATO’s and US-led Coalition’s warm relations with PYD (PKK offset in Syria, of which the armed wing, YPG, was formed and today seen as an ally of the west regarding Syrian conflict) aggravate the situation.

On the other hand, President Erdogan’s policies and the paradigm shift in Turkey meet serious resistance. Among the opinion-leaders of the opposition are Meral Akşener, a former MP who has held various posts for Nationalist Movement Party, appears to be a serious contender and is allegedly seen as the most serious threat by Erdogan. Similar to the rest of the world, nationalism is in rise in Turkey, and Erdogan, contrary to his former islamist, anti-nationalist views, utilizes a nationalist rhetoric to justify his actions that cause condemnation and discontent with the international community, and tell voters that he is the sole hope of nation against an international conspiracy. However, Ms.Akşener and her followers restrict the efficiency of his rhetoric, as the nationalism she represents advocates human rights, democracy, the rule of the law, integration and harmony with the international community.

Two kinds of “nationalisms” are clashing in Turkey, and the winner will influence the outcome of the recent change in the constitution, once again, a nationalist dynamic will shape the future of the country.

However, NATO countries seem to be strengthening Erdogan’s rhetoric with their actions. Their support for the terrorist groups affiliated with PKK in Syria gives Erdogan a strong point to convince his voters that international criticism of him is indeed just a “western conspiracy.” While Russia tries to seize the chance to increase its influence and soft power in Turkey by infiltrating this rise in the nationalism and have established a small but influential cadre called “Eurasianists,” members of NATO just push the public opinion further away from the West, strengthening Erdogan and allowing him to consolidate his power within the country.

In 2019, Turkey is going to have a Presidential election under the new constitution, which gives unbelievably generous authority to the President and makes it practically impossible to make him accountable. As it requires 50% +1 vote to be the President now, nationalism will play the key role to convince voters beyond one’s traditional supporters.

If Erdogan’s nationalism prevails, it will drastically change the route of Turkey and is sure to affect Turkish foreign relations long after Erdogan, but if Ms.Akşener’s vision of nationalism wins, it may bring Turkey back to the course envisioned by Atatürk.

Turkey’s future will surely be forged by a nationalist hammer once again. Whether it will be Erdogan’s, the one of Eurasianists, or those led by Akşener, is not decided yet. The global player who invests the most in the nationalism in Turkey, will surely be the one who benefits most.

[1]The so-called “Kurdish movement” with its ties to the designated terrorist group PKK is no alternative for Erdogan; in fact, like the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization, they were former allies of Erdogan while he was establishing his grip on all governmental bodies. Erdogan, coming from an islamist background, collaborated with the Kurdish Movement to overthrow the so-called “Military Tutelage”, the secularist establishment in Turkey that allegedly oppressed religious and ethnic extremist groups. This collaboration phase peaked at the beginning of so-called “Solution Process” in Turkey, during which PKK militants were pardoned and political offset of PKK, HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) gained a serious foothold in Turkish politics.

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