The Footprints of ‘New Turkish Nationalism’ within ‘Old Turkey’

Neo-Ottomanism and New-Turkey are two popular terms to define the current politics of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the 12th  and incumbent President of the Republic of Turkey. Since he became Prime Minister in 2003, Erdoğan has increased his clout over government and state. Today, after this year’s contested referendum, he is undoubtedly the strongest man in Turkey and his ideas shape a new ‘national identity’ for the country.

By Serkan Çakir

Neo-Ottomanism and New-Turkey are two popular terms to define the current politics of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the 12th  and incumbent President of the Republic of Turkey. Since he became Prime Minister in 2003, Erdoğan has increased his clout over government and state. Today, after this year’s contested referendum, he is undoubtedly the strongest man in Turkey and his ideas shape a new ‘national identity’ for the country. On this blog, Uygar Başpehlivan has already discussed how this identity is being created through political and sociological discourses. This complimentary piece will specifically look at “New Turkey’s” national identity roots within Old-Turkey, bringing to front the continuities between both. New-Turkey did not appear ex-nihilo.

I should start by clarifying what I mean by Old-Turkey. I use the term to point to the pre-Erdoğan era before the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was elected and formed a government in 2002, becoming the largest political party in the country.
Since Ataturk’s death in 1938, a strong military and judiciary establishment has taken the role of the protector of the secular Republic from anyone who seeks to de-secularise its identity. Army coups are the most striking example of this role. Secular colonels and mid-ranking army officials ousted the right wing conservative ‘Democrat Party’ in 1960 by claiming that it was threatening Ataturk’s reforms. The Constitutional Court has often intervened in party politics, shutting down political parties which it deemed dangerous to the secular regime.

Then, one may wonder how Erdoğan’s ideal identity of a middle-class, anti-Western and religious Muslim-Turk became so popular in a relatively short amount of time?
This should be no surprise. It was already there, vying for power even before AKP’s existence, spearheaded by Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s mentor. Necmettin Erbakan was a prominent political figurehead from the 1970s to 1990s. He founded several political parties,  which were consistently shut down, as they were deemed a threat to the Republic. He was junior coalition partner on five occasions and a main coalition partner between 1996 and 1997.

The army considered Erbakan’s accession to the premiership in 1996 a major threat to the secular nature of the state. They ousted him in what has been coined a ‘post-modern coup’, for the indirect nature of the army’s intervention. During the National Security Council Meeting of February 22nd, 1997 Members of the Turkish Armed Forces General Staff Office dictated a number of decisions to government. The core principles of Erbakan’s party were declared a threat and had to be fought against.This, led to the resignation of Erbakan from the Prime Minister’s Office on June 19th, 1997.

What were these principles, so grave as to be considered a threat to the country by the army and the Constitutional Court?

First of all, Necmettin Erbakan was not a secular. He firmly believed that Islam and Islamic culture should occupy a significant place in Turkey’s institutions and citizens’ daily life. This, in itself, was enough to mobilize the secular establishment of security and judiciary bureaucracy against him. Secondly, his emphasis on the idea of ‘Turks as one single nation’ was not very strong. In alignment with his pro-Islamic views, he pushed for an Islamic identity, which gave Turkish national identity a secondary role. This directly clashed with the founding stones of Ataturk’s work which considered Turkey as belonging exclusively to the Turks. Turkish identity was the basis of the state. Questioning this was impossible for the military and judiciary elites of the country.

Second of all, his foreign policy ideas differed from Turkey’s conventional stance. Erbakan advocated for a more Eastern-centric foreign policy, with specific attention given to the Islamic world. He founded Developing-Eight (D-8), an organisation which consists of eight developing Muslim countries. He sought out opportunities for closer ties with Middle Eastern countries and tentatively looked at the possibility of establishing an ‘Islamic Confederation’ . This made the state security bureaucracy uncomfortable. It favoured a NATO-centric approach to foreign policy in the face of a Soviet Union threat.

Along with other founders of the AKP, Erdoğan was one of the mentees of Erbakan. Erdoğan comes from Erbakan’s political tradition of religiously conservative and anti-Western ideology, which has tried grasping power in Turkey for decades. He started his political career in 1976 in one of Erbakan’s political parties, working in local organisations. He ran in District elections twice but failed to get elected. His first big moment came when he was elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, one of Turkey’s  most prominent political posts. The publicity he gained during his tenure paved the way to the Prime Minister’s office. As Prime Minister, he initially rejected Erbakan’s teachings. He stated that he embraced all identities no matter what religion, nation or culture they belonged to.

Time has shown Erbakan’s ideas are still there, brewed with old ideas of national identity.

Despite his increasing Islamic agenda, Erdoğan never gave up on the Turkish identity of Turkey. Even though he refused Turkish nationalism from occasion to occasion, his famous phrase of ‘One state, one nation, one religion, one flag,’ is proof that Turkish identity occupies a significant place in Erdoğan’s political agenda. The reason for that is pragmatic, rather than ideological. Erdoğan realised that religious conservatism or ethnic nationalism were too limited to attract voters. Erbakan refused to embrace Turkish nationalism throughout his political career and  never achieved to get more than %21 of the vote share. Similarly, the Turkish nationalist party, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which focuses solely on ethnic nationalism never achieved to get more than %18 of the vote share.

On the other hand, Erdoğan successfully combined those two elements through a process that took years. He took the office as a Western-friendly moderately conservative and liberal Prime Minister in 2002. This has started to change by 2011, when he won his third general election with resounding success. His increasing popularity allowed him to be more authoritarian. This in turn brought him more challenges, such as the Gezi Protests of 2013. Erdoğan found a solution to these challenges in ethno-religious nationalism, appealing to religious and nationalist voters at the same time. The strategy has been success of epic proportions. He has won every election since 2002, with the exception of June 2015, in which his party lost its majority in parliament. He is unquestionably the man who rules the country.

So, what does all of this tells us? Erdoğan’s ideology of a New-Turkey with a new identity could be relatively new but their roots run deeper than 2002. Erdoğan has been able to use Erbakan’s ideology in a more populist way, by adding nationalism to the mix. This has given him significant influence in politics. Many consider him as being an Islamic Ataturk. This is partially correct: Erdogan follows Ataturk’s footprints in the identity-making process. But, his ideological inspiration is not Ataturk’s ethno-secular nationalism, but rather a religious ideology that uses ethnic nationalism to increase its legitimacy in its claim to power.




Featured Image: Necmettin Erbakan


Serkan Çakir is an International Relations student at King’s College London. His main interest areas include international security, international relations theories and populism in politics.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s