How New Is Turkey’s ‘New Nationalism’?

President Erdoğan has clearly expanded the place of Islam in Turkish society, but today's Turkish nationalism has deep historical roots.

A pro-Erdoğan supporter holds a Turkish flag during a protest in Istanbul, July 2016. (GettyAris Messinis)
A pro-Erdoğan supporter holds a Turkish flag during a protest in Istanbul, July 2016. (GettyAris Messinis)

This column is part of a series of commentaries from scholars of Turkey reflecting on polling data provided by the Center for American Progress. The poll’s findings are summarized here and here, and you can find further commentaries from a range of experts here.

For both Turkey’s allies in the West and the beleaguered domestic opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic rule, there is a powerful sense that Turkey has gone off the rails—that the old certainties of Turkish identity are fundamentally changing. If traditional Turkish foreign and domestic policies were notable for their aversion to risk, Erdoğan seems determined to remake Turkey and its place in the world. In many ways, Islam has been central to this effort.

It is hard to imagine, for example, any previous Turkish leader employing the four-fingered rabia salute, as Erdoğan frequently does, in an apparent nod of fellowship with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But this is a part of the new, more public role of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs and Erdoğan’s frequent efforts to push Turkey into a leadership role in the wider Muslim world. These changes are profound and deeply rooted in long-term realities of Turkish political culture. And, as the Center for American Progress’ survey suggests, support for these changes extends far beyond the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) political base.

Turkish nationalism is complicatedly sectarian

In part, at least, the sense of the newness of Turkey’s present is derived from a caricatured understanding of Turkey’s past as militantly secular and resolutely pro-Western. In fact, the core elements of Turkish national identity today have been part and parcel of Turkish nationalism since the republic’s beginning. At its core, Turkish nationalism was initially constituted as a response to Ottoman imperial collapse. Its birth was intimately tied to Muslims’ flight from former Balkan territories and, to a lesser degree, from the Russian Empire, into Anatolia, on the one hand, and the destruction or expulsion of non-Muslim populations during the last years of the empire and through the end of the Turkish War of Independence on the other.*

At its core, Turkish nationalism was always sectarian in nature. That the early republic was antagonistic to actual religiosity did not make this less so; just as early Zionists hoped to create a new, secular Jew, early Turkish nationalists assumed a common religious identity—Islam—even if they were anxious to wean their population from what they commonly viewed as outdated forms of religious practice.

Because of this, the secularism of the Turkish Republic has several important nuances. First, non-Muslims have consistently been seen as “native foreigners”—at best tolerated, but largely distrusted. Successive waves of popular and state repression have made the non-Muslims populations politically marginal and, with the exception of the Armenians, unlikely to survive as functioning communities beyond this century. Excluding recent immigrants from abroad who almost never have a path to citizenship, there are perhaps 60,000 Armenians in Turkey today—though this population is bolstered by migration from the Armenian Republic—25,000 Syrian Orthodox; 3,000 Chaldean Christians; 2,000 Greek Orthodox Christians; and 17,000 Jews. In all, these non-Muslim communities constitute about 0.1 percent of the total population.

Second, Turkey has consistently attempted to nationalize Islam, primarily through the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Mosques in Turkey are state-owned, their imams are state functionaries, and the Friday sermons are written by a state bureaucracy based in Ankara.  Although this has often been orchestrated by state officials to domesticate and peripheralize Islam, it has also meant that the institutions of Islam have been an important component of state power for successive governments. Further, it has made divergent forms of Islam, ranging from tarikat, or religious brotherhoods, to the Alevi, subject to varying forms of discrimination and repression.

Third, the Turkish state has always been happy to utilize Islamic imagery as part of its nationalist symbolism. It is evident in the crescent and star that adorn Turkey’s flag and in the language of service; those slain in the service of the state are “martyrs,” while those fighting in foreign wars are “gazis.” This has been particularly true since 1980, when the Turkish military embraced a “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” as a bulwark against the twin threats of Marxism and the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.** In this light, the AKP represents less a dramatic break with a secular past than an intensification of a long-standing pattern.

Polling data highlight the nuances of Turkey’s nationalism

The strength of this Turkish-Islamic nationalism is evident in the polling data presented in CAP’s recent reports. With the important exception of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which, in a sense, ran on a postnationalist platform, large numbers of voters across the political spectrum voice a common sense of self. Ninety-one percent of AKP voters, 94 percent of Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters, and 97 percent of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) voters say that being a Turk is important for them. Speaking Turkish and “being born in Turkey” are similarly seen as key to Turkish identity across a wide swath of the political spectrum. Nearly 95 percent of AKP voters see being Muslim as core to their identity, as do 91 percent of CHP voters and 94 percent of MHP voters.

Support for democracy, freedom of speech, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—the founder of the Turkish Republic—are consistently and markedly strong. Across the political spectrum, most Turkish citizens believe Turkey to be “a natural leader of the Muslim world.” What differences exist within the broad Turkish mainstream are largely about intensity and emphasis, not the core content. Yet there are differences: 92 percent of AKP voters and 88 percent of MHP voters agree with the statement “Islam plays a central role in my life and is essential to my understanding of Turkish identity,” while only 71 percent of CHP voters do. A strong statement in favor of Turkey as a secular state, one which “respects people of all religious backgrounds to practice their faiths with no official state religion,” had majority support from all parties, but more than one-third of AKP supporters disagreed, while only 13 percent of CHP supporters did.

The sharp political divides that many commentators have noted in Turkish politics are evident in the survey data. It is apparent less in the values that Turkish citizens espouse than in their sense of how the government implements those values. Eighty-six percent of CHP voters, 69 percent of HDP voters, and 63 percent of MHP voters believe that “the political reforms first brought to Turkey by Atatürk are under assault,” while only 33 percent of AKP voters believe this is so. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of AKP voters believe that “Turkey under Erdoğan is fulfilling Atatürk’s ideal of a strong and independent nation”; 42 percent of MHP voters, 23 percent of HDP voters, and 23 percent of CHP voters believe this is true.


As revolutionary as President Erdoğan’s leadership has been, a large part of his success has derived from framing his reforms around shared basic assumptions about the nature of Turkish identity. His invocation of religion is done in a new tone and with new accents, but it plays upon long-standing Turkish nationalist rhythms. Particularly in foreign policy, it is clear that his sense of a wider Muslim world and Turkey’s role in leading it is heartfelt and often determinative. In domestic politics, he delights in playing the culture wars against his opponents. Erdoğan’s frequent use of milli in speeches dances around the term’s dual meaning of religious and national community. In doing so, rather than rejecting the most basic elements of Turkish nationalism, he has both embraced and transmuted them for what he claims will be “the new Turkey.”

Howard Eissenstat is an associate professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

* Author’s note: For more information, see Howard Eissenstat, “Metaphors of Race and Discourse of Nation: Racial Theory and State Nationalism in the First Decades of the Turkish Republic.” In Paul Spickard, ed., Race and Nation: Ethnic Systems in the Modern World (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 239–256.

** Author’s note: For more information, see Sam Kaplan, “Din-u-Devlet All over Again? The Politics of Military Secularism and Religious Militarism in Turkey following the 1980 Coup,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (34) (1) (2002), pp. 113–127.

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Howard Eissenstat