Secularism In Turkey: Identity Change Through The Years

Secularism In Turkey: Identity Change Through The Years

In the introduction to a series on Turkish secularism, Efe Aydoğ sets out the historical background of Turkey’s identity today.

Conservatism and authoritarianism: this is what Turkey makes the headlines for these days. From a Western perspective, these characteristics are emphasised, with discourse focused on the imprisonment of journalists, the dismantling of the judiciary, the 2016 coup d’etat, terror plots, and severe economic crises fuelled by Erdogan’s growing Islamic authoritarianism. To some extent, this is true – but the Western conception of Turkey lacks an explanation of how Turkish politics got to where it is today.

As a child in Turkey, you are born into a world that obsesses over secularism. You hear it at school, you hear it at home, and you hear it on the streets. You either have to die for, or against secularism; there is no middle ground. This polarisation is deep-rooted in how Turks interpret secularism, itself a key pillar in the founding of the modern Turkish nation-state. In this series, entitled “Turkey: Secularism gone wrong?”, I will try to show how Turkey is actually not the typical Middle Eastern Muslim country you hear about in news. This first part will explore how competing theories of the Ottoman identity have led to the synthesis of the secular Turkish nation state.

The road to an Erdoğanist Turkey dates back to the days of the French Revolution, and the rise of the secular nation state. The French Revolution gave way to many ideas, but two in particular drastically affected Turkey’s history: radical secularism and ethnic nationalism. The Ottoman Empire had started to lose power for structural, technological and geographical reasons during the 1800s, but the wave of “national awakenings” of this century put a nail in the coffin of the contemporaneous “sick man of Europe”.

Attempts to keep the empire alive involved three steps based on different identities: the multicultural approach, the religious approach, and the nationalist approach. These three steps cannot be concretely separated in a timeline, as many of them coexisted; yet there are certain historical markers that lead to the increase or the decline of each.

The first, multicultural approach hoped to keep the empire together with all its ethnic and religious diversity. When the Greeks won their War of Independence in 1830 to take control of the Peloponnese, Sultan Mahmud II felt uneasy and initiated his plans to glue the empire together by defining Ottoman identity in its multiculturality. Ottomans passed the 1839 Tanzimat Reforms and 1856 Islahat Reforms to diversify political power within different ethnic groups and adopt fairer taxation laws to prevent the dismantling of the empire. However, this did not put an end to nationalist movements in the Balkans, and most modern Balkan states won their independence with the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

Turks had been settling in the Balkans for more than 500 years, and the defeat led to a shockwave resonating through the empire. It led to the acceptance of the second, religious approach at the period on the brink of the Great War. The Sultan, who also happened to possess the worn-out title of “the Caliph”, started emphasising his religious title. This was because the Ottomans now only controlled Muslim majority lands in the Middle East after their defeat in the Balkans. The Sultan declared  “the Great Jihad” in 1914, an invitation to Arabs to cooperate with the Istanbul government during the Great War. Yet the dreams of Islamist Ottomans were shattered when Arab leaders cooperated instead with British generals.

All of this led to questions in the minds of many Ottoman intellectuals, who were heavily influenced by French Enlightenment thinkers. Young Turks (Les Jeunes Turcs), which mainly consisted of exiled Ottoman intellectuals in Europe, increased their grip on power with the 1908 Rebellion and the 1913 coup d’etat. Their nationalist and secular ideals progressed even further after the loss of Arab territories. They had been advocating for Ottoman identity to be solely based on pan-Turkist ideals for a long time. Pan-Turkism envisioned the reunification of all Turkic nations across the globe, including those in Caucasia, where Azeris were a specific focus of this re-unification effort, and Central Asia, where advocates of Pan-Turkism aimed to incorporate Turkmens, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Uyghurs, Kyrgyzs, and Tajiks into one Turkic nation. From this point of view, the Ottoman Empire was seen as the greatest Turkic empire of all time.

This odd fusion of French secularism, nationalism, and the ideas that Turks brought with them from their nomadic days in the Asian hinterland led to the secular, unitary nation-state from 1923 onwards. The Turkish nation had to be homogenous and militaristic, in accordance with its past. The Armenian Genocide of 1915, which Turkey still disputes, was one of the first of many attempts to “purify” the Turkish nation.

With Ottoman defeat inevitable at the end of the Great War, it meant there was the need for a new Turkish nation-state. In the next part of “Turkey: Secularism gone wrong?”, I will discuss how modern Turkey was formed in 1923 on the basis of Atatürk’s secular nation-state and the controversies that arose from its authoritarian nature.

Image via Pixabay