Politics in Turkey Is More than Just the Tension Between Islam and Secularism

Ömer Taşpınar

The polarity of Islam and secularism has long defined Turkish politics. But despite its continuing popularity among the commentariat, this binary mental map in fact often generates only superficial thinking and lazy analysis of the nature of the Turkish state. More importantly, it no longer captures the complex nature of politics. The time, thus, has come to discard this shopworn paradigm. We need a more accurate political vocabulary to understand Turkey. To this end, nationalism, the driver behind global populism, provides a better alternative.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often is portrayed as a dangerous Islamist determined to destroy the secular and democratic legacy of the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This conventional wisdom masks the reality of a deeply rooted Turkish state-tradition based on national sovereignty. To be sure, in our age of identity politics and clash of civilizations, Islam continues to polarize politics in Turkey. But if you look beneath the surface, you quickly see strange bedfellows and deeper systemic forces colluding.

The alliance between Erdogan, nationalists and ultra-secularists within the military is a case in point. Make no mistake, Erdogan is a religious conservative with Islamist tendencies. But above all, he is a populist nationalist who has no qualms about embracing the legacy of Ataturk – known as Kemalism – in favor of national sovereignty.

This is why it is time to replace the Islam versus secularism duality with the real political driver of Turkish politics: Turkish nationalism, the meeting point – rather than divergence – of secularists and Islamists.

The Islam versus secularism duality won’t help you understand why Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, the AKP, and the secretive religious movement of Fethullah Gulen entered into an existential war. After all, this was fratricide within the Islamic camp. The only sensible way to see it is as a power struggle over which type of authoritarianism would govern Turkey.

Similarly, good luck trying to comprehend the most critical problem of the country, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, in light of the Islam versus secularism binary. Here too, the most important driver is not religion, but nationalism: Turkish nationalism on a collision course with Kurdish nationalism.

Similar dynamics apply to foreign policy. Turkey’s problems with the EU is not an Islamic one. It is a product of the EU reacting to Erdogan’s autocratic nationalism, and Turkey’s response in the form of nationalist anger. Similarly, the chief problem in Turkish-American relations also is centered on nationalism: the resentment at US support for Syrian Kurds.

To go beyond the Islam versus secularism duality as the primary lens in analyzing Turkish dynamics, one needs to appreciate what truly defines secularism in Turkey. This has always been a skin-deep affair, based on sartorial symbols and superficial lifestyle issues: What one wears and what one drinks are more important than how one thinks. Thus, the donning of headscarves and consumption of alcohol have become critically important social markers in defining secularism. And when secularism is so shallow, it is unsurprising to find that so-called secularists share so much with Islamists. For in fact, they are in full agreement on issues of critical relevance, such as in seeing the Turkish republic as a Muslim country that belongs to Sunni Turks.

Indeed, an important part of the problem is that secularism, in its Turkish context, never conceptualized the separation of state and religion. Turkish secularism utterly failed at creating a state that was impartial in its treatment of diverse faith communities. From its inception to this day, the “secular” Turkish republic has been a Sunni Muslim state where non-Sunni Muslims (called the Alevi communities) and non-Muslims are regularly discriminated against.

The genetic code of the Turkish republic therefore is not based on genuine secularization. Instead, it is founded on Turkish nation-building and three historic tragedies: the de-Hellenization of Anatolia, the Armenian genocide and the denial of Kurdish ethnic identity. In that sense, the Islam versus secularism fairytale fails to capture the centrifugal force that unites the majority of the Turkish populace, the Turkish political system and the foundational code of the Turkish state, the latter being conservative nationalism.

The marriage of nationalism with conservativism gives us the real official ideology of the republic: a Turkish-Islamic synthesis that gained official visibility after the 1980 military coup, when the generals began to openly embrace religious nationalism against socialism and Kurdish nationalism. Erdogan’s embrace of Kemalism, therefore, is in great harmony and continuity with an authoritarian state tradition based on conservative nationalism. The glue that holds together this alliance between Kemalists and neo-Ottomans is the deeply rooted desire for full-independence, full-sovereignty and the national power to counter Western “imperialists” who are seen as modern-day Christian crusaders.

A conspiracy-prone mentality also is common to both the Kemalists and neo-Ottomans. Both constantly complain about supposedly nefarious American and European forces that are determined to undermine Turkey. Islamists and secularists agree that there are dark forces behind the Kurdish separatist movement, the idea of greater Armenia and the perceived attempts to economically subjugate Turkey. Belief in American and European complicity with Fethullah Gulen is the icing on the cake in the lovefest between Erdogan and the Kemalists.

By this perspective, Erdogan’s alliance with the xenophobic right and the ultra-secular Kemalists in the army is more than an opportunistic coalition: it is the default setting of the Turkish republic. And by this understanding, Turkey is a more dangerous actor in regional politics than one might have assumed when all was believed simply to be the result of the tension between the holy and the profane.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.

AFP PHOTO/OZAN KOSE