Turkey's Identity Crisis

As politicians purposefully polarize their own society for political profit, the result is rage and violence.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets members of parliament from AKP during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, on May 30, 2017.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets members of parliament from AKP during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, on May 30, 2017.  (Umit Bektas / Reuters)

On June 14, a Turkish court sentenced Enis Berberoglu to 25 years in prison for spying. The decision sent shockwaves through Turkey, even after a year during which the government arrested, detained, or purged more than 200,000 people in the aftermath of last summer’s attempted coup d’etat. Berberoglu is neither a supporter of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of orchestrating the military intervention, nor is he a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a terrorist organization that has been waging a war on the country for three decades. He is a journalist and legislator from the Republican People’s Party, which represents a decidedly secular and nationalist constituency.

Turkey has imprisoned 177 other journalists, but never a non-Kurdish parliamentarian. The charges against him are fabricated—he has run afoul of the government because he does not support the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) religiously based agenda to transform the country, and is believed to be a source in a story detailing the shipment of weapons to extremist groups in Syria by Turkish intelligence agents. In response to his imprisonment, the leader of Berberoglu’s party began to lead a nationwide march for justice.

The unfolding Berberoglu drama is about freedom of the press, the arrogance of power, and justice, but it is also emblematic of the intra-Turkish struggle between the AKP faithful, followers of Gulen, secular elites, Kurds, and liberals. As Erdogan has consolidated his personal political power, destroyed any semblance of an independent media, brought the military to heel, and purged the bureaucracy—all in an effort to complete the transformation of Turkey he began 15 years ago—the struggle over what it means to be Turkish has kicked into high gear. Given the Turkish Republic’s history, this should surprise no one, but that does not make it any less worrisome, because fights over identity tend to be destabilizing and protracted.

In Turkey, this conflict can be traced back to the founding moment of the republic. For modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal—known universally as Ataturk—to be successful, it was neces­sary build a mythology around the idea of “Turkishness.” This mythology established linkages between Turks, the Turkish language, and the land. As a result, the loyalty of citizens would, in theory, shift from the Ottoman political-religious establishment that ruled over a predominantly Muslim domain, to a nation of Turks and a state whose rulers derived their legitimacy from the defense of Turkishness.

Paired with the mythology of Turkishness was Kemalism and its “Six Arrows”—republicanism, statism, reformism, populism, nationalism, and importantly, secularism—that served as the ideological foundation of the new republic. Neither Turkishness nor Kemalism garnered unanimous acceptance as a legitimate system of belief. There are many in Turkey, especially those of a pre­viously dominant political class, who embraced Ataturk’s ideas, but others have resisted them, and still others have remained ambivalent. Consequently, Turks have grappled with questions of identity similar to those facing others in the region.

Throughout Turkey’s history, the demands of Turkishness have alienated Kurds, whose identities the republic officially denied. This is not a problem that is unique to Turkey, however. Kurds in Syria, Iraq, and Iran have also confronted the challenges associated with being a minority ethnic group. Still, while many Kurds in Turkey are well-integrated into the political, social, economic, and cultural life of the country, there is an inherent fric­tion between Turkishness and Kurdishness. That tension broke out into a war between PKK and the Turkish state in 1984 that has continued, on and off, ever since.

Beyond the Kurdish issue, there is also the deeper tension over religion. In his efforts to mark a break from the Ottoman Empire and consolidate the new Turkish Republic, Ataturk moved to disestablish Islam. When in 1924 he abolished the Ottoman caliphate, which had served as the center of both political and religious power for Muslims, it was a historic step, but it was not enough. A massive cultural shift was also required. Toward that end, Ataturk instituted the use of the Latin script, European numerals, surnames (which the Ottomans hadn’t used), and the Gregorian calendar in place of the Islamic one. He also criminalized the fez. The office of the Sheikh al-Islam, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Pious Foundations, and religious schools were abolished, while Sufi brotherhoods were outlawed. And in 1928, the article of the constitution that identified Islam as the religion of the state was deleted.

For those to whom Ataturk’s secularizing reforms did not make sense, opposition was not just a matter of personal piety. After all, one could be a fervent believer in the new republic as long as religion did not enter the public sphere—politics, education, media, and the arts—in any way. This was not an accommodation that pious Turks were willing to make for two related reasons. First, the official narrative that connected secularism with progress, and faith with backwardness, had consequences for the pious, who confronted institutional discrimination. Second, when Turkey’s Islamist movement developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, its leaders sought to fuse religious ideals and principles with other spheres including politics, education, business, and culture. Part of their resis­tance to Kemalism was the Islamist view that the elite’s effort to embed Western ideals and institutions in Turkey was needlessly emulating alien ideas and values that were inconsistent with a Muslim society. These competing conceptions of Turkish identity have largely defined the pa­rameters of political discourse since the republic’s founding.

Inasmuch as a culture war is at the heart of Turkish politics and Turkey is often portrayed as a country with two societies—one secular and the other religious—living in parallel, these categories are not as clear as this rendering suggests. Turkey’s Islamists are nationalists who accept the fact of the republic even as they work to undermine its founding values. At the same time, the republican elite have used religion for their own ends. The most relevant example is the way the military—routinely described in the Western media as staunchly secular—promoted Islam as a specific part of a broader “national culture” in the 1980s. This was an effort to establish political con­trol over a society in which violence between leftist and rightist groups killed thousands before a coup took place in 1980—at that point the third military intervention in 20 years. The idea, called the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” was, at its base, about identity.

Yet it was not until the AKP came to power in late 2002 that Turks could explore their religious identities more freely. This was unsettling to the party’s opponents and was made more so not just by the AKP’s electoral successes, but also by the way these victories ad­vanced and reinforced religious sensibilities in Turkey. Conventional accounts that label the AKP as Islamist, placing it in the company of the Muslim Brotherhood, do not adequately capture the nature of the party. The Islamism of the AKP is less targeted and more diffuse than that of the Brotherhood, though it certainly belongs within the general classifica­tion of Islamist groups, which seek to forge religious societies.  

The party shares with Islamist groups the idea that society’s deviation from religious values has had a deleterious effect on it. In Turkey’s case, this deviation came in the form of Ataturk’s inauthentic reforms that placed the country within the ambit of a West that did not accept Turks as equal partners. Ankara’s natural place, in the AKP leadership’s view, was instead as a leader of the Muslim world. Domestically, the party has sought to expand and embed a pious sensibility that flows naturally through all as­pects of society. Although the AKP has limited alcohol sales and secularists have raised alarm over the perception that an increasing number of Turkish women are donning the hijab, the party claims not to be interested in the transformation of Turkish society through religious dictates. Rather, one of the great accomplishments of the AKP—and a source of its elec­toral success—is how the party has paved the way for Turks to explore and express their Muslim identity in ways that would have been unthinkable and unsafe in the past.

The problem for them, of course, is the considerable resistance to the AKP’s project. Even given the large numbers of Turks who self-identify as be­lievers or who regard religion as important to them, the AKP has never been able to capture an outright majority of Turkey’s popular vote. Although Erdogan garnered 52 percent of the vote in his 2014 presiden­tial elections, the party’s high-water mark in legislative elections was 49.83 percent in a June, 2011 vote. Multiple variables account for electoral outcomes, of course, but Turkey’s history of culture wars and a political strategy of po­larization based in part on identity are an important part of the explanation.

Erdogan and the leaders of the AKP have worked assiduously to cast their opponents as not authentically Turkish in that “solidly middle class with conservative values” way of the party’s core constituency.  A 2013 dispute over alcohol was a case in point. When secularists objected to an AKP plan to restrict alcohol sales, Erdogan hit back by seeming to insult Ataturk and his longtime deputy, both of whom were known to consume copious amounts of alcohol. “Given that a law made by two drunken [people] is respected, why should a law that is commanded by religion be rejected by your side?” he asked. Erdogan was clearly drawing the line between God-fearing good Turks and those who preferred the illegitimate legacy of two al­coholics. Although the AKP may have resolved the problem of Islamist politics in an officially secular political system, identity remained a raw issue.

The problem in Turkey—and elsewhere in the Middle East—is that as politicians purposefully polarize their own societies for political profit, there is a dearth of democratic institutions through which people can process their grievances. The result is rage and violence. War between the Turkish state and the PKK already wracks the southeast of the country, occasionally spilling into the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Rumors abound that the AKP is arming its own cadres out of fear of another coup attempt like the one thwarted last summer, as Erdogan and his party pulverize his opponents through purges, detentions, and arrests. The country offers some unsettling precedents for extreme polarization. In the late 1970s, almost 5,000 Turks were killed in fighting between rightist and leftist forces, prompting a coup in 1980 that brought stability back to Turkey, but at the cost of even more lives. How long will it be before the current situation deteriorates into more widespread violence?

This article has been adapted from Steven A. Cook’s new book, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.