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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 433-451

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Nationalist Discourses in Turkey

Tanıl Bora

October 29, 1995, Republic Day; Istanbul, the center of the celebrations and the scene for an "olympiad" of Turkish nationalism. In line with the Olympic creed, "The most important thing is not to win but to take part," all existing types of nationalism were present: under the umbrella of the governorship's organization (or "impresarioship") and to the familiar strains of the Tenth-Year March, the nationalism of the state. Caught between the choices of taking shelter beneath that umbrella or opening their own umbrella, turned upside-down, and getting soaked in the meantime, "Kemalist" "left-wing" nationalism, with its "ability to interpret," tries to find an eave under which it can give meaning to the "pomp" of the ceremony by calling it secularism. Idealist nationalism with its triple crescent flags and its wolf's-head signs, now mixes with any crowd. 1 "Neo"-nationalism, with its "modern" and ideology-free panorama, exhibits itself through the codes of the pop singer cult and the hedonism of urban youth. All these types of nationalism, since then, have increasingly interfused. In this article, I try to [End Page 433] analyze the elements of this complexity, which ultimately reinforces the hegemony of nationalism.

Factors That Accelerated Turkish Nationalism in the 1990s

Turkish nationalism gained momentum in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This development took place parallel to the nationalistic wave rising throughout the world, and particularly in the triangle formed by the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, of which Turkey is the point of intersection. Globalization, in a way that is actually not at all paradoxical, encouraged or incited nationalism: because altering frontiers and military conflicts became possible again after the collapse of bipolarization; because minorities and human rights have become diplomatic issues; because transnational processes of economic—and geographical—deregulation have upset the structures of the nation-state. These factors have affected the ideology of Turkish nationalism in a way that ratifies and contemporizes its reactionary patterns; for modern Turkey, established during a grave crisis in which its very existence was threatened, 2 has a nation-state tradition that subsequently perceived surrounding countries as a severe threat rectified by the Cold War. This condition regarding survival and threat had a considerable effect on the way in which Turkish nationalism and the Turkish national identity took shape. The fact that globalization challenges the nation-state can easily be perceived as the modern version of a centuries-old threat toward Turkey/Anatolia, thus reinforcing this mindset. The Kurdish issue no doubt plays the leading role in this perception of the challenge posed by globalization as a part of this ongoing process, which started with the Crusades and extended to the "Oriental Issue," the Western influence and Westernizing reform policies which caused the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, and the Treaty of Sevres, which—temporarily—buried the hope to found a new state that would rise from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Another factor that afflicts the conscience of the Turkish nation is that the rise of the crisis regarding survival and threat occurred immediately after a course of self-confidence that was not properly enjoyed. Turkey had entered the 1990s with a boom of self-confidence. Capital accumulated thanks to the new right-wing economic policies in the 1980s, the progress made in merging with the flow of global capital, the fact that consumption [End Page 434] had become modernized and widespread: all these fostered hopes of graduating economically to the "world's top league," as media commentators call it. By the end of the 1980s, when Turkey applied for full membership in the EU, the prevailing feeling was that the goal of attaining the "rank of modern civilization," cherished since the founding of the Republic, had finally been achieved—or at least this belief was shared by the pro-Western elite and the urban middle class. The neo-pan-Turkist perspective that focused on an economic "rationality" espoused by the Turkic republics, which had won...


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