THE MYTH OF ‘NEW TURKEY’: KEMALISM AND ERDOĞANISM AS TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently made a speech where he has outlined how to gradually exit the Covid-19 lockdown for Turkey. After outlining the ‘normalisation plan’, Erdoğan has also talked about Turkey’s fight against ‘terrorists’ inside and outside Turkey. While describing these ‘terrorists’, he used the term “kılıç artığı”. This term can be roughly translated as ‘sword survivors’. Historically, this term has been used in Turkey to refer to the members of different ethnic groups who have survived massacres, genocides, or other atrocities. Considering Turkey’s history with its own ethnic groups, this term might refer to Armenians, Alevis, Kurds, Jews or, shortly, the members of any group who are not Sunni Muslims or Turks. Apart from its obvious demeaning and negative connotations, this term also implicitly acknowledges the existence of genocides and massacres, which is ironic considering the Republic of Turkey’s official stance on the Armenian Genocide.
This was not the first time that this term has been used by politics people in Turkey. The fact that Erdoğan, the leader of the state, and not the layperson uttered these very words can be the topic for another article. Here, I would like to focus on the implications of saying and getting away with these types of phrases and what this means for ‘new Turkey’.
Erdoğan has always made it clear of his intentions to create a ‘new Turkey’. The year 2023, a landmark date that has been set by Erdoğan himself, has not been chosen arbitrarily; it would be the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic. For Kemalists, people who follow the principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic, the transformation into a Republic 2.0 is already complete because the fundamental principle of Kemalism, secularism (or the French laïcité as it inspired the Kemalist leaders), is already considered in danger. Still constitutionally a secular state, Turkey has long been considered different by proud Kemalists compared to other ‘democracies’ in the Middle East, and the running joke (well, every joke carries some genuine concern with it) amongst Kemalists is that Turkey would turn into ‘another Iran’ in the region if ‘it continues like this’. By ‘like this’, they refer to AKP’s policies they would regard as non-secular. Erdoğan, on the other hand, has also constantly pitted himself against the Kemalist establishment of the state. He has proudly announced himself as the ‘other’ of the Kemalist state.
The type of ‘ideal citizen’ that was constructed by the Kemalist ideology in the early Republican period of Turkey (1923-1938) required that citizens be secular (in Kemalism’s twisted version of secularism, this meant that an ideal citizen would be the one who is a Sunni Muslim but would not practice or express religion in public space), ‘modern’ (meaning leading a Western lifestyle) and speak the Turkish language. This meant that citizens and groups who led religious lifestyles (but also secular non-Muslims) and who spoke a different language other than Turkish were seen by Kemalist leaders as ‘non-ideal’ that had to be suppressed (suppression by Kemalist leaders had various means ranging from population exchange to genocide). ‘White Turks’ of Kemalism have been constructed for decades according to these principles. Ironically, this Orientalist mindset that the Kemalist leaders had adopted (West/ ‘modern’ as something good and the ultimate “telos” vs. East as something ‘backwards’ that should be avoided) has also been internalised by Erdoğan. Otherwise, how else can we explain Erdoğan’s frequent referral to himself as the “Black Turk”? In fact, the word he uses in Turkish, “zenci Türk”, apart from being derogatory (the word “zenci” in Turkish has a negative connotation yet its usage is still common), clearly illustrates how he also sees himself as the ‘other’ of the Kemalist ideology. Hence, the type of country he wants to transform Turkey into by 2023, ‘new Turkey’, is also usually considered the ‘other’ of the Kemalist Turkey.
However, is it really possible to talk about clear binaries? Do Kemalism and ‘Erdoğanism’ really constitute each other’s opposite? Or is ‘new Turkey’ just the continuation of old Turkey with merely different kinds of elites? Is ‘new Turkey’ a myth? The latest usage of the term “kılıç artığı” has reminded us once again that when it comes to certain issues, Turkey will not become a brand ‘new’ one. Below, I discuss two of these situations where Turkey has continued to act the same, whether it is ‘old’ or ‘new’.
Unity Against Kurds
To understand how Kemalism and Erdoğanism actually complement each other to strengthen Turkish nationalist narrative, it is possible to analyse their policies towards one of their favourite common ‘others’, Kurds. For Kemalists, since Mustafa Kemal and his friends came from a military background, the Turkish Armed Forces has always been held in the highest regard. In fact, until very recently, the Turkish Armed Forces has always been voted the ‘most entrusted institution’ in Turkey. The sanctity of the Armed Forces has never been challenged by Kemalists, despite many military coups and memoranda throughout the history of the Republic. They were also considered the vanguard of the state they inherited from Mustafa Kemal and his cadre. Considering Erdoğan’s willingness to eliminate Kemalists from the state establishment, Ergenekon operations that started in 2007, resulting in the arrest and trials of many higher-ranked officers within the Armed Forces, was no surprise to anyone. The coup attempt of July 2016 illustrated the extent to which the Armed Forces was restructured: the new commanders replacing the previous ones were loyal to Gülen Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation that was working in harmony with AKP and Erdoğan until 2013 and that was, as is claimed by AKP, behind the coup attempt in 2016.
The Kemalist fascination with the Armed Forces is no surprise given how the military culture is deeply embedded within the Kemalist state. Erdoğan, a master tactician, knows that the Armed Forces is his joker card that he can play with whenever he is in trouble. Hence, it is no surprise that whenever he feels threatened, be it from internal or external forces (“dış güçler” is the favourite phrase of conspiracy theorists within Turkey), Erdoğan launches a military operation against Kurds. This is exactly what happened after the general elections of June 2015 when AKP could not receive enough votes to form the majority within the National Assembly and HDP, pro-Kurdish party, received an unprecedented 13% of the national votes. Not soon after, major Kurdish cities and towns in the southeast part of Turkey were blockaded, and curfews have been announced. A report published by the Democratic Regions Party addressed the human rights violations that were conducted by the government, including killings of the civilians and destruction of towns beyond repair including UNESCO heritage sites. A similar operation, this time outside Turkish borders, was launched in Afrin, a Kurdish canton in Syria, in 2018, just months before the general elections. Let us not forget the very recent invasion of northeast Syria by the Turkish Armed Forces, again targeting major Kurdish cities in Rojava. In fact, Erdoğan revealed that one of the goals of this operation, which is ironically named ‘Peace Spring’, was population engineering by declaring that Idlib is not suited to the lifestyle of Kurds and that instead, Arabs should live there because it is all deserts. Apart from these military operations, a bill on stripping some of the MPs of their immunities from prosecution was passed by the National Assembly in 2016. The bill specifically targeted MPs of HDP, paving the way for these MPs to be prosecuted on charges of ‘supporting terrorism’.
What is the common element in all these cases? It is the fact that CHP, the party that Mustafa Kemal himself founded and the party that still represents the Kemalist principles, has officially supported all these actions. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of CHP, has a reputation for ‘reluctantly agreeing’ with everything AKP proposes: before the voting on the immunity bill, he stated that even though the proposal of this bill is unconstitutional, they would be voting in favour of the bill. Again, he said before voting on the military bill that would allow Erdoğan to send troops to Rojava that they would vote in favour of the bill even though they feel sad about it. In a country as authoritarian as Turkey, it would be fair to consider these merely fear of not being seen as loyal to the authority, instead of genuine intentions of CHP. However, there were times when Kılıçdaroğlu, rightfully, raised his concerns and skilfully managed to create awareness around issues he cared about (his Justice March is the best example). It would also be unfair to single out Kılıçdaroğlu when he is merely continuing his party’s approach when it comes to the Kurdish issue. In fact, when it comes to Kurds, it is not only CHP but also AKP that also follows the Kemalist mindset that sees Kurds through an Orientalist approach. This way, AKP continues the ‘old Turkey’ tradition.
Unity against Armenian Genocide
Apart from Kurds, another issue that seems to be uniting both Kemalists and Erdoğanists is the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The Kemalist, ‘old Turkey’ strategy on this topic is, most of the times, denial of any such thing (the Turkish word “sözde” meaning ‘pseudo’ or ‘so-called’ is always added when mentioning the Genocide), after all denial is the last stage of genocide. Other strategies include admitting that some ‘bad stuff’ happened but that happened due to the forced displacement of the Armenians, or, in case you are a more extreme Kemalist, blaming Armenians for anything that might have happened since they ‘betrayed’ the Ottoman Empire. At this point, it would be fair to wonder why something that happened even before the Republic was founded is so embedded within the Turkish nationalistic narrative. After all, whatever happened (call it a ‘genocide’ or ‘forced displacement’) happened during the Ottoman Empire, and the Kemalist state was based on the idea of completely breaking away with the Ottoman past to create a Western, ‘modern’, Turkish nation-state. So why not rejecting crimes that were committed in the Ottoman Empire as well? The answer to this lies in the perpetrators and masterminds of those crimes: Talat Pasha and Enver Pasha. They were part of Young Turks, the Turkish nationalist section of the Committee of Union and Progress that was organised during the last decade of the Ottoman Empire. Hardline leaders of this group, including Talat and Enver Pashas, came from the Balkan stock of the Empire (just as Mustafa Kemal, who originated from Thessaloniki), and the Balkan Wars had left them believe that non-Muslim population of the Empire should not be trusted. In 1915, they executed their plan of making Anatolia Armenian-free. Mustafa Kemal was not involved in Talat and Enver’s crimes, and he later dissociated himself from the Committee of Union and Progress. However, today’s CHP, the party that Mustafa Kemal founded, is still ideologically closely associated with the Committee of Union and Progress. Many streets and boulevards in Turkey are still named after Talat and Enver, and they are still considered two heroes of Turkish nationalist narrative.
If Talat and Enver are considered two heroes of Kemalists, then why would AKP, desperate to position itself against the Kemalist establishment, not take this opportunity and acknowledge the Genocide? AKP’s fascination with the Ottoman Empire and their neo-Ottoman aspirations seems to be the biggest obstacle for them. The narrative that Ottoman Armenians tried to betray the Empire and this, somehow, justifies their punishment is still a popular one. On April 24 (the commemoration day for the Armenian Genocide), Erdoğan published a statement where he commemorates “those Ottoman Armenians who have lost their lives due to the sufferings of the First World War” and later, goes on to commemorate all the Ottoman citizens who have lost their lives in the war. Compared to the Kemalist period when there was not even acknowledgement of Ottoman Armenians, some might consider this a significant change in the rhetoric. Not really. Stating that Ottoman Armenians died because of the First World War is not different than the official nationalist narrative of “this was not a genocide; they have died on the way while they were displaced” because it still does not acknowledge the role that the Ottoman pashas played when they ordered to kill the Armenians.
This is where ‘new Turkey’ should come in. A new Turkey is one where these two issues, amongst so many others, should be approached differently. It should not be one where derogatory phrases such as “kılıç artığı” are uttered frequently by leaders and where non-Turkish and non-Muslim groups are treated the same way as they were during the Kemalist period. As long as AKP, or any other government, follows the old, Kemalist tradition on these key topics, we cannot possibly be talking about a ‘new Turkey’ but only the continuation of old Turkey with different actors.
 See the research report done by Eurobarometer (Spring 2008) to see the institutions that Turkish society trusts the most http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb69/eb_69_first_en.pdf (accessed May 2020)
Exclusively written for NAT (News About Turkey) by: Dr. Ceren Şengül
Dr. Ceren Şengül is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Centre Maurice Halbwachs
(École Normale Supérieure) working on different expressions of belonging amongst the second-generation immigrants from Turkey. She is also one of the managing editors for the journal Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. She graduated with a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Edinburgh in 2016. Her first book, Customized Forms of Kurdishness in Turkey: State Rhetoric, Locality, and Language Use, based on her Ph.D. thesis, was published by Lexington Books in 2018. She has also taught and convened various modules in Sociology at all undergraduate levels at the University of Edinburgh and Istanbul Okan University”. Follow her: Twitter: @csengul86