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Turkish national identity according to Erdoğan and AKP


Standpoint of Turkey

Turkish national identity according to Erdoğan and AKP

Ali Bayramoğlu


Ali Bayramoğlu

Political scientist

In this interview, Ali Bayramoğlu explains the meaning of the notion of national identity according to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP party as well as the strategy of the latter to transform it. According to the political scientist, AKP is trying to build a new political and civilizational order with references to Ottoman history, Turkish nationalism and Islamic identity. Ali Bayramoğlu also comments on the change of direction made in 2010 regarding the democratic reforms carried out by the AKP party, henceforth abandoned. Finally, he explains the reasons for the change of Erdogan’s status - presented as a conservative Democrat and then as an Islamic-nationalist by some observers - and affirms that the values ​which AKP refers to, when it comes to building national identity, are essentially the tradition and the Islamic and patriarchal order.

What is AKP’s and Erdogan’s ideological and political position with regards to identity issue in Turkey?

Erdogan had followed different directions over the years.  The followed path changed to a great extend with Turkey’s and the world’s conjuncture. We might say that the first phase was a more reformist phase therefore a phase less focused on identity. But especially after 2003, we witnessed at the level of a discourse resulting from Arab Spring, a period where an Islamic and –with Tayyip Erdogan winning his combat within the state- a non liberal identity policy were on the forefront. This was the statement of a return from democratization and reforms and putting Turkey’s identity policies and authoritarianism on the front.

What is that policy?

We might use several terms to explain it. Neo-Ottomanism is a local national identity in AKP’s language. Let me put it this way: A new political order, a search to create a new civilization within a certain relationship with the West but with some reservations with regards to western universal values and cultures… Of course, inevitably this search has a strong reference to Ottoman, Turkish nationalism and Muslim identity. Although pietism, Islamism, nationalism, tradition are familiar concepts, with AKP those notions take on a new form. AKP is in search of a more overconfident political model, wishing to be more involved in the Middle East and more efficiently using its military power, a model that would challenge and confront more. Therefore with authoritarianism gaining ground, we may say that this sort of a nationalist, religious local identity policy is dominant in Turkey.

Could we say that it was a way towards freeing from Kemalism?

Well it depends on what we mean by freeing from Kemalism. It would still be a very strong statement. Because political intentions don’t always correspond with sociologic structures. From the view point of sociologic texture these lands are the lands where conservatives, seculars and non-Muslims lived together since the beginning of 1700’s. This is not only about cohabitation; this configuration brings together different civilizations. One group can triumph over the other. As a matter of fact, for many years Kemalists dominated over the pious.  Today we might have an opposite situation. But this development would hardly progress towards a way to destroy the other groups’ existence because, such a  development is more than this society can stand and would arise various problems. Freeing from Kemalism is in one sense true, since a more conservative and religious ideology based on local values is being created instead of a secular and western state ideology which Kemalism installed. We might say the following; Mustafa Kemal built a modernist republic, Tayyip Erdogan added conservative tones to it and he came out as the builder of a conservative republic, that is exactly the reason he has such support.

If we see Kemalism as a mentality then we can say that there is no “freeing from it” or change, because what Erdogan is doing is exactly what Kemalism did. This is an understanding where the State commands, where politics dominate over cultural and social life and is a part of it, just as it is the case with Stalinism, Kemalism and Centralism.

You mean that one does not lead to the other?

No, it does not! In political terms they could survive side by side, from a mentality point of view they are not very different things.

You have supported for a long time AKP’s reform efforts. According to you at which stage AKP gave up its democratization and reform agenda? 

This requires a very detailed answer but let me summarize it. This takes place between 2010 and 2013. It would be right to start from the international conjuncture. When the Arab Spring started Turkey was considered as a model country. Tayyip Erdogan went to Cairo and talked on virtues of laicism. When Arab Spring failed, positions have changed. Erdogan started his battle with the West for Hamas and Muslim Brothers and the situation rapidly became a disengagement from universal language and values. During the Arab Spring the Islamic tone within the discourse got stronger in Turkey.

Then comes economy. Turkey has taken advantage of the growth cycle with liberal and neo-liberal policies. But when the cycle changed and the growth possibilities came to an end then gradually a certain distance emerged with the West’s economic model. Since the beginning of 2010’s Tayyip Erdogan started to intervene to Central Bank and played with the market economy.

The third factor is the big rupture during the Gezi events. Gezi events are about demands that surfaced due to politics of Tayyip Erdogan’s government and put against AKP, it is about AKP’s fight against those demands. It was the first time that AKP fought against a social demand. Another factor is Erdogan’s winning the battle against the actors of the old regime. He defeated the army. After the referendum, he cleared up the Kemalist justice system and hence after having won its battle within the state he started to follow identity policies more easily. We can of course enumerate countless factors but what is important is the following: None of those is enough to explain the change on their own. We need to bring them all together. In the end, AKP who was once on a huge liberal democrat wave is today acting quite the opposite on an anti-liberal wave.

After the speech he gave in Cairo in 2011Erdogan was considered a conservative democrat, today we could talk of an Islamist nationalist figure. What do we owe this change to?

In fact these are only notions. When people started to use the notion “conservative democrat”, I said that this expression was nonsense. Conservative democrat is a notion of the western tradition. When AKP was in search of an identity at that time, they came up with such a notion. There were no content to it. At that time AKP needed reforms and we needed AKP. We hoped that this would be good, we waited for it and we pushed it. Therefore the attitudes that were adopted that day aimed this, it could have backlashed and it did. We’re now back to true colors.

Why is that?

Because the actor you have in front of you is not an actor who comes from democrat, liberal, universal values. To the contrary, it’s an actor who is from the most conservative part of Turkish and empire lands. No matter how he had changed, the claim he asserts is based on the “I will build an oriental civilization, I will build a powerful Turkey and I will do this with my belief and my nationalism” discourse.

So where did you go wrong?

I don’t think there is a mistake. I believe that there is continuity. Tayyip Erdogan had done very important works. First of all he created a middle class and he increased its percentage from 21% to 41%. Although he had done this thanks to Western style liberalization, it wasn’t an easy job and he succeeded it. Second, he made the religious part of the population equal with the laics. The conservatives in Turkey perceived these equalizing policies as democratization. For the religious conservatives in Turkey, democratization is not about freedom of expression, of press or individual freedom. For them freedom means being equal with others, it is the freedom of benefiting from these rights. We have hoped that this would go to a second stage. But unfortunately this transition did not happen. If the world conjuncture were to be different, if the Fettullah Gulen thing did not happen than other things could have happened. As it turns out, we have come to the end of changes that can take place in a Turkey ruled by Tayyip Erdogan.

How does Erdogan define western values and being westernized?

I say it in terms of universal values; I don’t think he is very much at peace with individual freedoms and values. This is one of the fundamental differences between the Eastern culture and Western culture and this has no link with Christianity or Islam. For example, Armenians are Christians, but I find that the value system of Armenia is much more similar to our value system here. The obedience, hierarchy and tradition dominating … Whereas it is the opposite with the West, with values such as freedom and equality being in the forefront. Therefore equality and freedom exist to the extent of their usefulness for Tayyip Erdogan.

Doesn’t authoritarianism mean a transition to a uniform identity? What I mean by uniform refers to Turkification policies.

I don’t think they have an agenda of Turkification.

Then on what do they build the identity?

On tradition… On Islamist and patriarchal references. What we mean by authoritarianism is that obedience, hierarchy and politics are the most treasured values; it is the legitimacy of power being in one hand. One would rightfully look for nationalism and Islam behind it but all the things that are shown as references would be linked one way or another. For example the leader in Islam is the imam and there is no opposing to him, you can ask for counsel from him.  If, that imam does not respect sharia law than one might object to him. I think that is the kind of definition Erdogan has in mind. But this is not Islamism, this is patriarchy. From the point of nationalism, we all know that the biggest fear on this land is the fear of division. That is why a considerable part of Turkish history is based on Turkification. The nationalism wave has passed without undergoing any change from military to the state and from the state to AKP. Today we see not elits but Muslims arising from lower segments of society. Turkification can only be taken into consideration in respect to Kurdish issue and there it goes to the separation, division issue.

Well what about Alevis, what is the position for them? The reforms that started during the EU harmonization process are not carried into effect? Why?

Alevis’ situation didn’t change that much, it has been partially discussed and partially tolerated. There are actually many de facto djemevi in many places. The mutual anger eased down a bit but Tayyip Erdogan and his entourage frowns upon diversification in places of worship, they frown on equality of djemevi and mosque. Therefore, I don’t think that they would go in those issues much,  besides these are dangerous topics. There is an important Alevi population in Turkey and these Alevis are integrated into the state in a lot of ways, they are an important part of Turkish leftist movement but they do not prefer to stand out as political actors. If they were to stand out, there could be a civil war in Turkey: Alevi issue is unlike the Kurdish issue, what is in question here is a sect. Therefore it is a matter that is addressed in a religious and cultural framework.


 Interview by Lilit Gasparyan



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