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  • An Intellectual History of Turkish Nationalism: Between Turkish Ethnicity and Islamic Identity by Umut Uzer
  • Cigdem Benam (bio)
An Intellectual History of Turkish Nationalism: Between Turkish Ethnicity and Islamic Identity, by Umut Uzer. Salt Lake City: Utah University Press, 2016. 276 pages. $25 paper.

Nationalism in Turkey is a contested topic both within and outside the country. When a Turkish American professor, Aziz Sancar, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2015, surprisingly, one of the first questions asked by international and Turkish media was that of his ethnic origins. The matter was of interest to so many because Sancar was born in Mardin, in the eastern part of Turkey, which is populated by Arabs, Kurds, and Turks. Although, allegedly, he spoke Arabic with his parents, his reply was clear: “I’m a Turk and that’s it.” Indeed, he sounded confident. Sancar and his background disrupted hegemonic liberal discourse on Turkish nationalism and Kemalism,1 which generally bemoans Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ideology as archaic. Umut Uzer’s book, in view of the relevance of Turkish nationalism, albeit in evolving forms, as manifest in Sancar’s example, takes on the challenge of understanding “the ideational world of [Turkish] nationalist thought” (p. 1). He does so by analyzing the works of major intellectuals while locating them in a social, national, and international context. The book is nicely grounded in a constructivist understanding, albeit a thin one, highlighting the interaction between the material world and ideas and the impossibility of separating them, especially with regard to nationalism.

Turkish nationalism in Western sources is sometimes reduced to certain acts of violence (against the Left) in the 1970s conducted by a group called the Idealist Hearths (Ülkü Ocakları), widely known as the Grey Wolves (Bozkurtlar). Uzer successfully reveals the broader intellectual and historical framework behind the idea, which spans from the late 19th century to today. The book is organized into five chapters that trace the evolution of Turkish nationalism(s): ethnic, civic (or Kemalist), and conservative. While adopting a chronological approach, Uzer nonetheless reminds readers that the evolution of Turkish nationalism is not linear and that various versions of nationalism within a political spectrum that ranges from the left to the far right compete and coexist. In the introduction, Uzer promises to “dissect Turkish nationalism in all of its forms and manifestations” (p. 1) — a promise he fulfills.

Feroz Ahmad claimed in Turkey: Quest for Identity (Oneworld, 2003) that for centuries “Turks” were equivalent to Muslims, especially in Europe. When was it that these two were decoupled, if at all? When did Ottoman intellectuals and bureaucrats discover a new “identity” to define themselves with? What were the social, political, intellectual factors that led to this transformation? What are the continuities and ruptures in this process? The first three chapters provide detailed and convincing answers to these questions. Uzer writes: “Turkish nationalism erupted onto the world stage in the late nineteenth century and with more vigor in the first two decades of the twentieth century” (p. 2). Indeed, Turkish nationalism was a latecomer to the European nationalist conversation and was partly a reaction to minority nationalisms as well as a recipe for saving the state. Uzer, in line with his aim of deconstructing the ideational world of nationalists, turns to the Turkish Hearth (Türk Ocağı) — which functioned as the intellectual hub from the decline of the Ottoman Empire up to the 1930s — as opposed to the better-known Committee of Union and Progress.

The second chapter attests to the richness and complexity of sources by comparing the Russian Tatar migrant Yusuf Akçura with (possibly Kurdish) Ziya Gökalp as the two founding fathers of Turkish nationalism, both of whom supported the Kemalist revolution. The two [End Page 165] men were equally influential, although their approach toward religion and the direction to which the new nation belonged in terms of civilization differed extensively. Whereas, paradoxically, for Gökalp, Islam was important, Turkey belonged to Europe, Akçura held that Turks in the Asian hinterland were a natural extension of Turkey, and he was unsympathetic to the notion of Islam as an element of the nation. The chapter also...


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