Nationalism in Turkey: Stuck in The Middle

23 March 2010
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End of the 20th century and beginning of 21st century was a time period which almost every concept started to lose or change their meanings and was required to be defined all over once again. And numerous political phenomena took their share from this process. According to a theory nationalism is the most effected phenomena by the empowerment of globalization process. Globalization picked up speed after the end of the Cold War period. It is asserted that globalization obliterates nationalism.


In my opinion, globalization does not obliterate but changes the essence of nationalism. For instance Germany, once the cradle of the wildest form of ethnic nationalism, today adopted civic nationalism and embraced all the people form all over the world, especially Turks. Specifically, for Turkey, it would be out of question that nationalism has been abolished by the process of globalization. What I believe is that, nationalism changed its essence from civic, to conservative and lastly ethnic nationalism. Today national identity in Turkey is between the civic and the ethnic nationalism.


Before we start it would be beneficial to give some definitions about the issue of nationalism. Benedict Anderson states that “nation, nationality, nationalism - all have proved notoriously difficulty to define let alone analyze”; and he defines nation as an “imagined community” (1). According to the modernist school of nationalism, nation is constructed to answer the needs of modernism as means to political and economical ends.


Nationalism is a social movement, an ideology a symbolic language. It is the birth child of the French Revolution. As widely known, the idea of nationalism was born from the principles of the revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. The effects of the French Revolution were started to be seen in Ottoman Empire at the beginning of 18th century. The search for democracy was continued during the 19th century and ended with the acceptation and declaration of the First Constitution in 1876. 1876 Constitution elicited Ottoman Empire to become a Constitutional Monarchy and this attempt should be accepted as a legal reform in terms of representation of public in the administration and founding the Parliament.


Turkish National Identity: Between the Civic and the Ethnic
First World War was the cultural, political, social and intellectual turning point for Turkey. Nationalism was the required new ideology for the newly founded state, also for the social and the political system. Turkish democracy followed way that the French Revolution has drawn. But because the French Revolution could change its characteristic depending on the political entity that it spreads, Turkish revolution adapted French Revolution and continued to go ahead on the path of its own. One of the important contemporary nationalism theorists, Feroz Ahmad does not use words like rising, development, evolution. Because he believes that Turkish Republic did not come into being as a phoenix from the ashes of Ottoman Empire. Instead, Turkey is created by the Kemalist elites by struggling against the foreign invaders and the old regime (2).


Then what is Turkish nationalism? Organic nationalism constitutes the base for Turkish nationalism which is the consciousness for the common culture and common history, scientific nationalism that predicates on the competition with other states on cultural arena. This was the base for Turkish nationalism. It can be said that this essence might be left in the first period of the Republic which civic nationalism was the preferred method for the newly constructed Turkish state. In today’s contemporary societies the state is no longer valuable than the citizens.  However if we take a look at the history of Turkey, it would be seen that the state was more important than the individual in most of the times.


According to the principles of civic nationalism, the nation is based on the political entity; not on a common ethnic race. Civic nationalism sees the nation as group of individuals who have equally shared political rights. According to this system, the state takes its legitimization from the representation of the public will. However this citizenship focused, peaceful and contemporary understanding of nationalism which can apparently be seen as a turning point for contemporary nationalism theory could not be permanent for Turkey. In this respect, Turkish nationalism stuck between the French way of nationalism which was internalized since the foundation of the Turkish Republic that based on citizenship values and ethnic nationalism. As a result, a national identity crisis came out for Turkish citizens (3).


In between, there is a period which was a scene for conservative nationalism. Regarding the 1980s we see that conservative nationalism is at rise. In this kind of nationalism, not self-determination but the patriotism concept is important. Nationalism is undertaken in a traditional fashion. The target is to protect the statue-quo. This understanding finds existence in settled structured nations and it is against revisionist movements like building a nation. In this sense, it is totally different of Atatürk’s way of nationalism. Migration and trans-nationalism are the two biggest enemies of conservative nationalism. Margaret Thatcher government, former President of the USA George W. Bush and Sarkozy in France are the three examples for this kind of nationalism. In Turkey conservative nationalism brings Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to our minds. However the party that was very active in 1980s became extremely passive in today’s Turkey. 


Regarding the ethnic nationalism, it targets racial, religious purity. Ethnic nationalism can lead to rebels, genocides and wars. Anthems and flags are counted as sacred in ethnic nationalism. It has a more pejorative meaning than patriotism. The extreme case of ethnic nationalism was Germany. Adolf Hitler wanted to create an “Aryan Volk” which composed of blond and blue eyed people, especially people from Germany, England, Holland, and Scandinavia. His ambition of creating a “pure” nation ended in genocide in other words ethnic cleansing. Hitler’s name was written in history as of the most notorious and dirty statesman in the world.


Ethnic nationalism in Turkey is not in its extremist form. In fact AKP rejects ethnic Turkish nationalism ideologically and the opening process is a proof for this which targets to unite Turk and Kurd population in Turkey. However the PKK effect obliterates these negotiation efforts. Furthermore the effects of globalization, long lasting discussions about the accession process to the European Union, the formation of a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq and support of the USA and European countries to this situation, and Kurdish dispute are the causes that triggered the ethnic nationalism in Turkey. These events created a perception of a perishing Turkish identity and make Turkish nationalism stronger and shook the confidence to the West. As a result the wish of a Turkey independent of the West became stronger.


There is a possibility that the cause of the chaos in Turkish society is the concept of “Turk” has no clear explanation. Albeit that, the statement of Ataturk: “Happy is the one who says I am a Turk” designates civic understanding of nationalism which elicits volunteer participation rather than ethnic nationalism, today the meaning of “Turk” highlights a more ethnic meaning (4). At this point one could ask that whether the word “Turk” denotes an ethnicity or being citizen of Turkey, regardless of ethnicity, religion or other affiliations. Actually 66th article of the Constitution underlines that citizens of Turkey are equal, regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity (5).


It is a fact that the model of nation-state which was a product of nationalism idea was started to be eroded. However nationalism movements continue to exist by changing in context and shape. In this regard it can be said that none of the forms of nationalism would ever going to be disappear. Formations like the European Union increased the phenomena of centralization. Besides, these kinds of unions create trans-nationalism. Furthermore it is a fact that there is an increased individualization which promotes minority identities. Eventually the nation-state is affected negatively by these factors. At the same time in contemporary politics, multiple-identities are the underlined phenomena. Today, states cannot ignore the fact of multiculturalism; so the governments have to embrace very different identities.


All in all, if these threats against the nation-state are considered, it is clearly seen that the nation-state’s classical structure reached its very historical maturity. Also like all the political concepts, there is need for a new formation for the nation-state. In this sense, a new type of nationalism is a requirement for this new century which will embrace multi-identities. 


Belonging to another race or religion should not become the essence for nationalism; otherwise this will lead to violence based ethnic nationalism. It can be assumed that Turkey stuck in the middle of ethnic and civic nationalism is because there is no clear definition of the concept of “Turkishness” had been made in the Constitutions since 1876. Today, in Turkey “othering” became more intense. The citizens who live in Turkey, but do not have a Turkish identity, feel like the “other”. The superior status of being a Turk or Sunni or both is being challenged by the rise of civic nationalism. Today citizens, who are from Turkey but are not ethnically Turkish, can utter different demands.


Avoiding from different identities and belongings can be counted as natural for the governments. Because homogenous states can be administrated easier than multicultural ones. However in civic nationalism, which is the most eligible type of nationalism of today, the state obtains its legitimacy from the active participation of its citizens who have the right of voicing their demands. In this sense, moving towards a reconstruction of Turkish nationalism and building a voluntary citizenship on multicultural basis which does not smash down under the dominance of Turkish ethnicity is an obligation for this period of time. Actually in today’s global world there are almost no nation-states left and we will witness the changes in the development of the nation-state model and progression of the civil society in further times of the 21st century.




1. Anderson, B. (1983): Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso.

2. Ahmad, F. (1993): The Making of Modern Turkey. Routledge.

3. Aydıngün, A. (2010): Türkiye’de Bağımsızlık ve Milliyetçilik Anlayışı


5. Okan, E. (2009): Türk Milliyetçiliği ve Ötekiler


7. Kardam, N. (2007): It is Time for Civic Nationalism


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