Why and how does nationalism engulf Islamism in Turkey?

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Translated by: Gizem Ünsalan

Hello, good day. Today, I’d like to talk about the connections between nationalism and conservatism, as well as their impact on Turkish politics. This is actually quite an old topic. Yusuf Akçura is considered to be the father of Turkish nationalism, or Turkism. In “Three Policies”—an article he wrote in 1904 which was later published as a book—he defined these policies as Ottomanism, Turkism, and Islamism. Putting Ottomanism aside, we have to acknowledge that the connection between Islamism and Turkism—or, in its milder form, nationalism—has played a crucial role in Turkish politics since the transition to a multi-party state, with the relationship being at times collaborative, at times competitive, and at times combative. 

These two streaks have always coexisted within the right-wing movement, starting with the Democrat Party. Then, particularly during the 1970s, the National Salvation Party and the Nationalist Movement Party left their mark on Turkey. Afterward, following the September 12 coup, these movements experienced a long period of interruption. That’s because the ANAP, under the leadership of Turgut Özal—who claimed to bring together four movements—had largely attracted these segments. Yet both the MHP’s continuation, the Nationalist Task Party—which later switched its name back to MHP—and the National Salvation Party’s continuation, the Welfare Party, were unable to attain their former authority for a while. But then they figured out a way to regain their strength later on.

In Turkish politics, this is referred to as nationalism and conservatism. Especially during the ANAP years, there was talk of separate nationalist and conservative wings within the ANAP, and they were even said to collaborate at times when facing segments believed to be liberal. Then, after the ANAP lost its influence, they left their own mark on politics. One of the most important issues here is that conservatism has always been innate to nationalist movements, and nationalism has always been innate to conservative movements in Turkey. But we could state this another way: When nationalism was the prevailing movement, the MHP was the choice, while a prevailing Islamist or conservative movement was executed via the MSP or the Welfare Party. And in some cases, they actually appealed to and continue to appeal to common segments in Anatolia. So, the voters would assess the parties individually based on the conjuncture and very easily switch from one party to the other—meaning they could go from the predominantly nationalistic MHP to the predominantly Islamist MSP or Welfare Party, or vice versa.

These seemed like quite interwoven movements, but of course they were separate. So, despite seeming ever-linked, these movements actually had serious issues with one another—and this is clearly understood if we take a look at their ideologies. After all, in pure Islamism, the concept of “ummah” (community) takes center stage, and in this sense, they might not be able to get along with Turkish nationalists. Indeed, nationalist movements have always stressed this issue in their criticism of Islamism in Turkey. Regardless, in the end, these movements have coexisted as if in a relationship of love and hate, fighting at times and making peace at others, but always standing on their own feet.

During my first years as a journalist, I started studying the Islamist movement, and I later studied the nationalist movement, as well. Indeed, it wasn’t too hard to switch from working in one area to the other, but my main focus has been the Islamist movement. I’m also someone who observes the nationalist aspects of the Islamist movement, but during the late 1980s and 1990s, when I started working, the prevailing discourse was one of Islamism, and it was on the rise globally. Nationalism had lagged far behind, but it was still there; the National Vision movement and Welfare Party did this particularly well in the 1990s, and here, I think the key player was Necmettin Erbakan himself. I have a lot of memories from doing journalism in different parts of Turkey, especially the Southeast. I’ve experienced many instances where I saw that the nationalism and Islamism within the National Vision movement could sometimes get along perfectly and sometimes be at complete odds with one another.

For instance, in Diyarbakır, there was a police officer from Yozgat who called himself a National Vision proponent who rose through the ranks. As we toured Lice, Diyarbakır with the Welfare Party committee, I remember him telling me, “Either I’m not a proponent of the National Vision, or these people aren’t,” adding that the main issue here was, of course, the Kurdish issue. In his view, some of the Welfare Party representatives there were pro-Kurdish. Yet here, Erbakan could truly balance all these factors really well. Of course, Erbakan’s identity as a teacher played a crucial role in this, as someone who was both a professor of mechanical engineering and a teacher, someone who could look after all of them. Most importantly, he was seen as a scholar who was well-versed in Islamic affairs among his own segment. He could resolve all sorts of reluctance and tension through his discourse.

I think one of the most important advantages the National Vision movement in Turkey was that it could bring together people from different ethnic groups around an Islamist discourse. In this sense, it was vastly different from all right-wing parties, particularly movements such as the MHP. After all, there was quite a serious Kurdish presence, both in the voter base and among the top party ranks, in the National Salvation Party, later in the Welfare Party and during the first years of the Virtue Party, and finally in the Justice and Development Party. The extent to which these people openly accept their Kurdish identity and work toward these interests is a topic for another discussion, but they were there, and the party specifically saw it as an advantage and promoted it. Let’s not forget: One of the most decisive factors behind the Justice and Development Party not getting shut down by the Constitutional Court was the concern that, if the party was gone, the Southeast—meaning Kurdish voters—would only have one party to vote for. In that sense, the presence of the Kurds, of religious Kurds, was among the most important pieces of leverage these movements—and, in a general sense, the Islamist movement within Turkey—had when negotiating with the government.

I think this wore off significantly after a certain point in time. Since Erdoğan has largely been concerned with maintaining his role in power, especially in the era that began with Gezi and after the direct attacks from Fethullahists, in his search for new allies, he chose to change his discourse and team up with certain segments within the government or somehow related to the government, starting with the MHP and Devlet Bahçeli. There’s a sort of pragmatism here, but this pragmatism has led to quite a serious erosion of the segment that largely made up the Justice and Development Party’s past and present in the true sense. As nationalism and conservatism were already making progress together, it somehow paved the way for nationalism to fully take center stage.

Of course, it’s important to look at the international conjuncture, as well. Just as Islamist movements were growing significantly all around the globe in the 1980s, with the Welfare Party and other movements also rising alongside, nowadays, there is quite a serious decline in Islamist movements in Turkey and around the world. In terms of Islamism, there isn’t much that comes to mind except for strict terrorist organizations such as the Al-Qaeda and ISIS. As for the other Islamist movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in the Arab world, most Western circles see them as almost equal to terrorist groups. On the other hand, all around the world—in India as well as in Brazil and some European countries—we see that a blend of nationalism and populism is on the rise again. So, when we factor in such an international conjuncture, we could say that the Islamist movement within Turkey is losing more ground to nationalism each day. Of course, people who were born into and raised on Islamism won’t give it up so easily. But it’s possible to say that they also honed their nationalist reflexes.

Yet when we take a look at young generations, I don’t believe there is a tendency for young people to gravitate towards the Islamist movement, or for kids of religious families to gravitate towards this Islamist movement or that version of Islamism. By contrast, nationalism seems attractive to young people as it always has—but even more so now.

But it’s not just nationalism. As I mentioned in many other broadcasts before, breaking away from Islamism doesn’t necessarily mean being flung into nationalism. There are people who have broken away from Islamism to appear in other places, closer to the center or more to the left. Now, I’ll say this to form more of a basis for what I’m going to say: Right now, there are a number of parties that were born out of the National Vision movement. The first is the Justice and Development Party, of course, then there’s the Felicity Party, then the New Welfare Party—Fatih Erbakan’s party—as well as the DEVA and Future Parties. Now, the ones that are outright Islamists are the Felicity Party and the New Welfare Party. No matter how hard these two try, they can’t get past a certain thing. So, despite the Justice and Development Party distancing itself from Islamism—in fact, it’s fully broken off already—the parties with an Islamist claim are not getting significantly stronger.

On the other hand, the DEVA and Future Parties don’t really have Islamist claims. Here, the DEVA Party and Babacan seem to be closer to the center, without too much involvement in these subjects, as if they’ve adopted a position of “Let’s not make religion a part of politics.” If you ask me, what Davutoğlu is doing—and neither he nor those around him will agree with this—what Davutoğlu is doing seems to me like trying to create an alternative to what Erdoğan is doing. And what is that? As you know, Erdoğan doesn’t use the terms nationalism or Islamism. He came up with something called “yerli ve milli” (homegrown and national), and it’s become his hallmark. “Homegrown and national” is actually the trajectory of an Erdoğan and a Justice and Development Party that were born out of Islamism before evolving into nationalism.

I believe Davutoğlu has, for the most part, taken a similar position, one that somehow encompasses both Islamism and nationalism—and the idea of Ottomanism could become a topic of conversation at this point. So, when you look at it, there isn’t a bold Islamist stance in Turkey right now, and the parties with Islamist claims are weak. Of course, Erdoğan’s Islamism does appeal to religion and does some speculative things via religion. It’s something that’s been happening since Gezi, such as the videos he still can’t show regarding the mosque incident, etc. He constantly uses this. When he can, he tries to use it in the populist sense, but it’s clear that the religion is one where nationalism is the main prevalent force.

Indeed, we all know the epithet given to Erdoğan: “Reis” (The Chief). This is actually one of the most important differences between Erbakan and Erdoğan, the transition from “teacher” to “chief.” “Reis” is less a religious term than a military one, often used in the underground world as well as in the “ülkücü” (idealist) movement. It isn’t a term with religious connotations; it’s closer to a position of leading a group of men. At least, we could say it’s secular rather than Islamist. In this sense, the fact that Erdoğan, despite coming from an Islamist movement and owing his whole existence to that movement, quite seriously broke away from that movement in one way or another and sacrificed said movement—whose roots date back to the last years of the Ottoman Empire—to one of the biggest competitors of the movement might seem a little harsh. But I believe it contributes to one of his biggest competitors regressing and becoming ineffectual, to his benefit—I want to emphasize this point.

After this experience, Islamism is losing its chance to take an effective stand opposite nationalism in Turkey for a long time. Indeed, when experts analyze voting activity from the most recent elections, they tell us that a majority of the votes the Justice and Development Party lost, particularly in Anatolia, went mostly to the MHP. Besides, there isn’t a single party in power anymore. As you know, we don’t have a parliamentary system, but we can certainly predict that the MHP will always have a certain force, or that Turkish nationalists will have a certain force within different parties. I don’t think a purely Islamist movement will have a strong and lasting impact in Turkey. Movements and people who have clearly come from Islamist backgrounds are trying to distance themselves from Islamism. This is a position even beyond the proposition of “taking off the National Vision shirt” once espoused by Erdoğan and his friends.

Perhaps this should have actually happened long ago; perhaps something like this was necessary to close the books on Islamism in the political arena in Turkey. I don’t know, but in the end, having Erdoğan in power caused Islamism to regress and nationalism to rise in Turkey. Another interesting aspect is that the people and parties who define themselves as nationalists in Turkey—for instance, Bahçeli and the MHP—don’t play a big role. They simply stood where they stood, and people came to them. So, I honestly don’t think they made an effort to attract those people; I don’t think they developed some effective policies. The nationalists stood somewhere, yet at a certain point the people, movements, and parties coming from Islamism found themselves so scattered and unable to pull themselves together that some of them transitioned to nationalism.

Before I finish, I want to make a correction regarding something I mentioned in yesterday’s broadcast. I talked about Metin Külünk, who was a candidate to be the provincial head of the Justice and Development Party in Istanbul before pulling out at the last minute, then running again, only to lose. I mentioned that he took down his video on the Marmaray, but, apparently, he hasn’t. I’d like to apologize to him, as the video is still there. Of course, this Marmaray issue is a whole other issue; the Marmaray isn’t operated by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and that whole debate is ongoing, but that video is still there, and it’s an interesting video. If you wanted to film an anti-government video today, you probably couldn’t do much better than that video, especially in these pandemic times. After all, the Marmaray is operated by the Turkish State Railways, and having documentation that people aren’t following rules such as social distancing, etc. must have seriously bothered the party in power. Anyway, I would like to fix my mistake by once again stating that the video is on Metin Külünk’s social media account; again, I’m sorry. That’s all I have to say. Have a nice day.

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