Turkey's new nationalism paints West as oppressor

A new report by an American think tank suggests that the nationalism sweeping Turkey is an old and successful tactic of promoting a siege mentality that translates to tight control and votes for authoritarian leaders.

al-monitor People wave Turkey's national flag as they arrive to attend a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the attempted coup at the Bosporus Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey, July 15, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.
Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman


Topics covered

secularlism, islamists in turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, turkish nationalism, turkish foreign policy, us-turkish relations

Feb 12, 2018

As the United States and Europe continue to ponder ways to manage relations with an increasingly assertive, unpredictable and nationalist Turkey, a fascinating study released by a liberal DC think tank might offer them some valuable clues — while also adding to their confusion.

In its report, “Is Turkey Experiencing a New Nationalism?,” The Center for American Progress concludes that yes, it is. “Compared with the more secular nationalism seen under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s presidency … this new nationalism is assertively Muslim; fiercely independent; distrusting of outsiders; and skeptical of other nations and global elites, which it perceives to hold Turkey back.” All of this is being stoked and exploited by the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Some 80% agree with the statement, “Islam plays a central role in my own life and is essential to my understanding of Turkish identity.” But this idea should not be seized on as proof that most Turks are Islamists. The report suggests that 70% think “Turkey should be a secular state that respects the rights of people from all religious backgrounds to practice their faiths with no official state religion.”

More puzzlingly, while 54% believe that Ataturk’s secular vision is under assault, 51% credit the unabashedly Islamist Erdogan with fulfilling Ataturk’s ideal of a strong and independent nation.

Nicholas Danforth, a historian and Turkey expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center, another DC-based think tank, told Al-Monitor the study “suggests the most potent force in Turkish politics is not Islamism per se but an increasingly religious form of nationalism that sees both the country and its faith as subject to Western assault.”

The cocktail of Islam and nationalism is easily observed in the slogans and social media accounts of the Turkish forces taking part in Turkey’s three-week-old offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in Afrin. Evocations of the country’s Ottoman past punctuated with cries of “Allahu akbar” and assertions of Turkish superiority are de rigueur.

Anti-Americanism has soared to unprecedented heights. According to the report, whose findings are based on a sample of 2,453 people interviewed by the respected polling firm Metropoll, 83% of respondents have an unfavorable view of the United States. Some 73% have similarly negative feelings about the European Union, compared with 63% for Turkey’s historical foe, Russia.

The notion that enemies bent on its destruction encircle Turkey is nothing new. Under decades of military tutelage, successive governments peddled the siege mentality to justify the suppression of democracy and to control the population. Erdogan has simply perfected this art and is converting it into more votes.

Thus, when American generals warn Turkey against making further moves against the Syrian Kurds in places like Manbij, support for such action among the Turkish public grows even stronger.

Danforth argued, “With anti-Americanism so pervasive and deeply felt, no amount of threats or concessions from Washington will be able to manage it easily.” At best, he concluded, “US policymakers can try to mitigate the risk of direct confrontation in the short term while preparing for the likelihood that relations will remain strained for the foreseeable future.”

Turkey’s faltering economy, though, remains Erdogan’s Achilles' heel.

While Turks remain sharply divided along partisan and ideological lines, a plurality of respondents — 45% — say that Turkey is headed “for the worse,” with only 34% arguing the opposite. Potentially most troubling for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, only half of those who voted for it in the 2015 elections believe living standards for their families have improved. Moreover, a mere 13% of those who voted for the far-right Nationalist Action Party  whose support is important for Erdogan believe life has gotten better.

A separate survey published by Metropoll based on its December 2017 findings showed some 47.1% view the economy as Turkey’s gravest problem. In January 2017, only 14.6% of respondents thought so. Conversely, in January, well over half saw terrorism, which is conflated with Kurdish separatism in the public psyche, as the biggest threat. By December, only 14.3% assessed terror in the same light. Such data may help shed light on the timing of the Afrin operation and the likelihood of snap polls.

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