Nationalism as religion: Turkey

Has Turkish nationalism finally run its course? In 1453, the largely Christian city of Constantinople fell to the invading forces of Sultan Mehmed II, the 21-year-old Ottoman ruler known to history as Mehmed the Conqueror. As leader of the most important Islamic realm, the Sultan also bore the title of Caliph, giving him the status of successor to the prophet Muhammad and leader of the global Muslim community.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the Conqueror’s successor, Sultan Mehmed V, decided to commit his now diminished empire to the cause of the Central Powers, led by a powerful Germany and a somewhat weaker Austria. With the collapse of the German war effort in late 1918, Turkey effectively lost the war, its territory threatened with partition under the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. Greece was given the territory around Smyrna and eastern Thrace extending almost to Constantinople. Italy, France and Britain were to be awarded territories in Asia Minor. Independent Armenian and Kurdish states were to be carved out of eastern Turkey, while Constantinople itself was under allied occupation, its ultimate status to be determined later.

However, the treaty was never implemented. In the aftermath of Turkey’s defeat, an army officer named Mustafa Kemal established the Turkish National Movement in an effort to reverse his country’s plight and to secure independence from the victorious Allies. He succeeded, and the Turkish Republic was born. As part of Kemal’s efforts to modernize Turkey and emulate Europe, he abolished the Caliphate in 1924, leaving the Islamic world without a leader for the first time in centuries.

Henceforth Turkey would be a secular state, with the military maintaining its secular character. At this point Turkey could have followed one of two models: the Anglo-American or the French. Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government refrains from establishing a religion and permits all faith communities considerable freedom of belief and practice. Since 1905, on the other hand, France has followed a policy of keeping a wary distance from all religions, heavily regulating public expressions of faith and claiming ownership of all church property, allowing the churches to use it within tight restrictions. The Anglo-American model is motivated by concern over excessive government interference, while the French model fears government being tainted by religious sectarianism.

Under Kemal, later surnamed Atatürk, Turkey followed the French example, placing legal handicaps on Muslims and Christians alike, all for the purpose of maintaining a secular state, which, rather than protecting the rights of believers, undertakes to protect itself from those believers.

Political order

This policy is predicated on the assumption that religion is only a part of life that can be safely cordoned off from the mainstream of public affairs where it will do no harm. Because religion is deemed intrinsically dangerous and divisive, political order must be based instead on a unifying force, and, in Turkey’s case, this comes in the form of nationalism. Yet if nationalism itself is an idolatrous religion, as I have argued in Political Visions and Illusions, then what Turkey and other countries following this model have done is, not to privatize religion, but to replace one established religion with another.

Much as the ersatz faith of Marxism-Leninism failed to satisfy the human longing for God, so has the nationalism artificially imposed on Turkey’s people for nearly a century. Small wonder then that the Islamist Justice and Development Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has successfully appealed to Turkish voters. In many respects this parallels the movement in the Middle East away from the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hafez al-Assad towards the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and similar groups in Syria. After July’s attempted coup, Turkish nationalism may at last be a spent force. Whatever takes its place will have significant ramifications for Turkey’s relationships with NATO, Europe and the rest of the world. 


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