According to political scientist and nationalism theorist Benedict Anderson, a nation is an imagined and socially constructed political community that has set itself apart due to some shared characteristic within the boundaries in which is feels it has dominance. Therefore, theocracy – the rule of religious institutions over the people – is contrary to nationalism.
As nationalist movements created the modern states of Europe, the Catholic church lost its dominance and Latin was replaced by national languages. Turkey, by eliminating the caliphate, changing to the Latin alphabet, and reforming its language, underwent a similar process.
Early Turkish nationalism was represented by the Committee of Union and Progress, which controlled the late Ottoman Empire before the republic was declared in 1923. Ziya Gökalp, an early 20th century Turkish intellectual, sociologist and early theorist of Turkish nationalism, said Turkish nationalism was a natural result of the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the weakening of Islam.
One of the unplanned results of mass migration from the periphery of the empire to Anatolia, and especially to Istanbul, was a change in the state’s ideology. As influential as the Islamisation of politics was on the decrease in the Christian population and the increase in the Muslim population, the increased immigration of ethnic Turks to Thrace and Anatolia after the loss of the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan provinces also set the stage for the development of an ethnic Turkish nationalist movement.
In addition, as the Ottoman Empire forged a closer alliance with Germany, which was undergoing its own German nationalist transformation, Ottoman intellectuals such as the ethnic Tatar Ottoman politician Yusuf Akçura increasingly became proponents of a nascent theory of Turkish ethno-nationalism known as pan-Turkism.
Turkish nationalism first found expression in literature. The Ottoman Empire was an ethnically, religiously and linguistically diverse state that historically had divided its citizens according to religious affiliation into self-ruling millets, or nations, with the empire.
After the advent of nationalism in Europe, with its focus on ethnicity and language as the basis of nationhood, Ottoman scholars such as Ahmet Vefik Paşa and Süleyman Paşa began to write about a Turkish ethnicity and language and theorise its characteristics apart from a Muslim or Ottoman identity. They wrote dictionaries of the Ottoman Turkish language, and histories of the Turkish people. Gaspralı Ismail, a Tatar journalist in Crimea wrote of “unity of language and thought” as the founding principles of pan-Turkism. Soon more and more pieces of nationalist literature were written, giving Turkish nationalism its foundations in the mid-19th century. “Print-capitalism”, as Anderson called it, helped give birth to a new nationalism and facilitate the development of a modern conception of the nation-state.
Without doubt, today’s Turkish nationalism owes its present shape to Gökalp above all. It was in his day that Turkish ethnic and national identity was first being discussed as something separate from a religious Islamic identity. Gökalp was the first to suggest that Islam could be reformed and Turkified. He saw religion as a feature of the nation as a community and aimed to give religion a national character. Religion could help give a collective moral compass to modernisation. But this was not all it could do – religion is a force that can unite society and this force should be used in service of the nation. However, this powerful force should be kept separate from political, economic, legal, artistic, linguistic and scientific institutions. Religious services should relate only to faith and worship.
These ideas were influential in shaping the creation of a government institution that regulated religion – the Diyanet, or Directorate of Religious Affairs – after the founding of the republic. This also set the foundation for laiklik, a uniquely Turkish interpretation of laïcité, which is a less libertarian form of the concept of secularism, or “separate of church and state” in English.
The second half of the 19th century saw reforms called the Tanzimat in which the Ottoman state attempted to begin administering its subjects as citizens and institute some democratic institutions as well as developments in technology and infrastructure. But the state was unable to get ahead of the competing ethno-linguistic nationalisms developing within its borders. In the run-up to the Balkan wars and then World War One, the Ottoman government was subject to a series of coups, revolutions, and changes of leadership.
In 1913, after the Babı Ali raid, the Turkish nationalist wing of the Committee of Union and Progress, consisting of thinkers influenced by Abdullah Cevdet and Ziya Gökalp, had a chance to shape politics. As General Enver Paşa would write, the word “Turkey” became more common as a name for the nation. It was thought that Turkey needed to accept more “Turkish” refugees from lost Ottoman provinces while sending away ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities. The conception of an ethnically Turkish nation state was one of the reasons for the massacre and deportation of Armenians.
The second important political shift can be said to have been when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, later to be the founder of the republic, was appointed head of the Thunderbolt Army in the Ottoman military and it retreated to north of Aleppo. Thus, the empire effectively lost its Arab-populated provinces and reduced its territory to Anatolia. The third important political shift was the final, secret meeting of the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies, during which the Turkish nation and the Turkish state were declared to be one.
The fact that this declaration left Kurdish-majority cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk out of its conception of Turkish territory was an important step for the nation-state. By leaving these important Kurdish cities outside the borders of the state after also dropping the Arab territories from their claims, they ensured an ethnic-Turkish majority within the state’s borders. They thought it would be easy to assimilate the remaining, mostly rural and nomadic Kurdish population. If this nation-state declaration had not drawn the borders thus and had instead retained Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish territories, it would have been hard for Turkey to establish a unitary nation-state. Atatürk had prepared an alternative plan for a federation just in case.
We have already mentioned that part of this national conception was a modern, Turkish version of Islam. The “population exchange” that took place between Greece and Turkey, in which Christians within Turkish territory were deported to Greece and Muslims from Greek territory were deported to Turkey, aimed to reduce the Christian population of Turkey. This included Christian Turkophones from Karamanmaraş, while Pontic Greek-speaking Muslims in the Black Sea region were assimilated.
During the first quarter century of the republic, the government applied a violent policy of forced assimilation against Alevi Muslims, who practice a heterodox form of Islam, since their practices did not fit with the official state interpretation of Sunni Islam. According to historian Mete Tunçay, the state also pursued violent assimilation policies against the Kurds during this time or forced them to flee to Iraq, Syria, and the Soviet Union while resettling some to the Western provinces to Turkify them. This policy of forced exile or resettlement dates back to the Ottoman Empire.
To fully understand the long history of nation and state building in Turkey, it is also helpful to look at recent developments. From 2013 to 2015, there were peace negotiations between the Turkish government, led by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had carried out an insurgency in he mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey since 1984.
When those talks failed, the state returned to a policy resembling that of the first quarter century of the republic. While the AKP is motivated mainly by immediate political circumstances, from a nationalist perspective this was an intentional policy. In 2017, a referendum approved a new executive presidential system. This was also part of that plan, with its basis in Turkish nationalism.
The full transition to a presidential system this year is much like the suspension of the Ottoman parliament by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1878. The new system has completely neutralised the power of parliament. The goal is to minimise access to power by unwanted elements, such as the Kurds. As Islamist as the AKP may be, by exchanging a bit of control for the support of the nationalists, the party has prevented any future out of control Islamic movement from affecting the state.
According to 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the state is “a supreme manifestation of the activity of God in the world”. From a Hegelian perspective, the Turkish nation has fully identified with the Turkish state’s new structure.
This is the current stage of Turkish nationalism. By means of the holy Turkish state, the greatness of the Turkish nation is on display to friend and foe alike.