The Sacred and Its Discontents: On Jenny White’s “Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks”

By Kaya GençJuly 12, 2014

Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks by Jenny White

IN MARCH 2014, two weeks before mayoral elections, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) released a campaign ad on national television. The three-minute video features a massive Turkish flag that a shady looking man in a dark suit attempts to take down by way of cutting its cords. The mysterious introduction is followed by a scene depicting people's response to the dastardly attack on their country’s sacred symbol. On realizing that their national flag is collapsing, citizens of different ages, ideologies, and geographical locations, as if at a signal, run to its defense and make a human flagpole to stop it from hitting the ground. The feelings evoked by the images are heightened by a soundtrack featuring the Turkish Prime Minister's voice as he reads the country's national anthem in order to give political context to the CGI-produced scenes on display. For those familiar with what the Turkish flag entails, the message of the ad is abundantly clear: the country is under attack and the Turkish people have to take action to protect its unity. 

In an unexpected move, the country's Radio and Television Council banned the ad. Their motivation was that political parties are not allowed to use national symbols such as the Turkish flag and the national anthem for propaganda purposes. In a rather Hegelian moment of double negation, government officials promised to ban the ban, but by then hundreds of thousands had already seen it on YouTube

Two weeks after the flagpole ad debate, the ruling party won the elections and got 45.6 percent of the vote. Its success remained a mystery for many, but those who had read Jenny White's excellent book, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, could see it coming. White makes a number of nuanced arguments, most significantly about the secularization of Turkish Islam and what she terms the sanctification of its secular sphere. She hints at a continuous struggle, between different camps, to claim and redefine certain political values. 

On the face of it, Turkey's competing mainstream ideologies are small in number: just two. The country's secular-nationalists (right-Kemalists, left-Kemalists, and Turkish nationalists) have been fighting against the Islamic-conservatives (Islamists, members of smaller religious orders, and the entrepreneurially minded conservatives) from time immemorial. An alternative fault line is often drawn between the competing traditions (or heritages) of Turkey's founding party (People's Republican Party) and the party that first opposed it (Progressive Republican Party). According to this divide, nationalists and republicans belong to the former camp, to which conservatives and free-market liberals form an opposition. The left, meanwhile, seems divided between two camps, with its "secular-nationalist" and "liberal-multiculturalist" sub-compartments. 

Once we realize the existence of this fault line in Turkish politics, we have all that is needed to start deconstructing it. Both camps use and dispose of political values in a constant struggle to outmaneuver one another, making it increasingly difficult for the analyst and observer to establish what the politics of those ostensibly different camps really are. For example, according to White the binary opposition between the religious and the secular camps is not as clear-cut as it initially appears. She writes:

Religion in Turkey has become secularized and the secular sphere sacralized, resulting in a struggle over the definition of what is sacred, accompanied by accusations of blasphemy (phrased as disloyalty to the nation and even treason). Individual choice — the choice to be şuurlu, a "consciously" believing Muslim, as opposed to blindly following tradition — has become highly valued as a sign of Muslim modernity. Islamic practice increasingly has come to be expressed as participation in economic networks and through a commodified lifestyle of self-consciously Muslim fashion and leisure. Meanwhile, Kemalist secularism has taken on aspects of the sacred.

To discuss this reversal of cultural values and show how religion could have a Weberian association with a certain entrepreneurial mood, White paints a picture of the complexities behind Turkey's competing political discourses. The camps described above may have different approaches to nationalism, but they also have many things in common. The motif of the flag, for example, symbolizes both "secular nationalism" and what White refers to as "Muslim nationalism." But beyond the flag, particularly when it comes to race and religion, Turkey's competing nationalisms have a number of not very easily reconcilable differences.


To understand the roots of these differences over the meaning of nationalism, White looks at Turkey's history, which she divides into three eras. The country's first republic begins with the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923, and is best represented by the single-party rule that continued until the first democratic elections in 1946. The era was difficult, especially for Kurds and pious citizens and dissidents who could not fit into the definition of the national identity as fashioned and enforced by the state. The state had encouraged a uniform identity —  a white, nationalist-statist, and secular Turk — for all citizens. This didn’t go unopposed.

The 1960 military coup against the elected Prime-Minister Adnan Menderes and his Democrat Party marks the beginning of the second republic, during which another military coup would take place in 1971, when "revolutionary" army officials forced the elected government to resign. Unsurprisingly, the third republic begins with yet another military coup in 1980; this reversed the country's cultural and political values to their “factory settings,” delegitimizing all ideologies with the exception of one: the state ideology.

According to White, the rise of the Muslim nationalist identity is closely related to the specific climate of politicization during the third republic, which saw dramatic changes and challenges to Turkey's political life. People's reaction to repeated military coups had come in the form of the Motherland Party (ANAP), which opened "Turkey's insular, state-led economy to competition in the world market." With the liberalization of the economy, the political sphere also underwent a period of differentiation, which resulted in the rise of Islamist parties. Islam's incorporation into school books and the opening of preacher training schools contributed to the increased popularity of Islamic politics. But as last year's power struggle between AKP and different religious orders showed, the Islamic sphere is, and has long been, far from monolithic.

White describes the new Muslim nationalist as "a pious Muslim Turk whose subjectivity and vision for the future is shaped by an imperial Ottoman past overlaid onto a republican state framework, but divorced from the Kemalist state project." The modernizing Kemalist project is based on a nation-state model that incorporates European cultural values and sees the secular-modern nationalist subject as its ideal. Its Muslim-nationalist alternative offers a radical reinterpretation of all aspects of the established culture and politics "not necessarily according to Islamic principles (although Islamic ethics and imagery may play a role), much less Islamic law (in which few Turks have any expertise), but according to a distinctively Turkish post-imperial sensibility."

It is this "post-imperial sensibility" and people's different understandings of the legacy of the Ottoman Empire that produce the main divide between different interpretations of nationalism.


To discuss different reactions to the "post-imperial sensibility" and show Turkey's competing nationalisms, White interviews citizens from various cultural backgrounds, with dramatically different ideas about what the Turkish nation means. She sees national identity as something “performed” by subjects. For example, one of her interviewees, a secular-nationalist, performs Turkish nationalism as an exclusionary form of identity. He argues that the Turks had had a shaman culture of their own in the past, but were forced into accepting Islam by the Arabs. Accordingly, the interviewee sees the use of Arab language, cultural codes, and business partnerships as deviations from the country's Turkic norms. Upon seeing working-class women dressed in long coats, with their heads enveloped in scarves, he says: "This isn't Turkish culture, those covered women ... It's Arab culture. We're shamanic."

On the conservative-Islamic side of the nationalist divide, the nation has a different definition. It is interpreted mostly in relation to the Ottoman-inspired idea of ümmet (the nation of Islam), which has primarily a religious, rather than racial, meaning. Ümmet is extra-territorial in that it can be extended to those born outside national borders, in countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. 

But this new post-imperial sensibility fails to translate into a practical national identity. Among countless attempts to reinterpret the notion of national identity, "Turkishness" (Türkiyelilik) has been one of the most debated. White notes how the term "downplays ethnic and religious differences" (it is not based on religion, race, or nation, but on country itself). She also reminds us that the term has been an "unpopular neologism" that has not really caught on; in a survey over national identity, only 2.3 percent of respondents defined themselves as Türkiyeli.

Islamists have attempted to redefine nationalism in different ways, most recently through "democratic opening" reforms in 2009, as well as through appeals to the Kurds as “fellow Muslims.” Those reforms helped restore the official use of the Kurdish language, led to the opening of a state-run Kurdish television channel and legalized political campaigning in Kurdish.


Nevertheless, such liberal measures in political rhetoric and democratic reforms have been contradicted in practice, with a lack of proper legislation to ensure rights for the country's large Alevi population. Police continue to deal with dissent and public protests in a rather heavy-handed manner. The violence is not confined to the public sphere: dozens of women whose only sin is to demand a divorce from their husbands are murdered every year. Women's representation in formal politics remain below world standards. Hate speech and hate crimes against LGBT persons often goes unpunished. 

This is what White refers to as a "discrepancy between liberal impulse and illiberal practice." Thanks to these shortcomings, secular nationalists see their worst fears about Islamists confirmed. White notes how those fears are tied into one ultimate goal: that the Muslim nationalists no longer need "to curry favour with outsiders" (that is, the EU, to which Turkey's full membership now seems quite uncertain) helps reveal their "true motive, which is to undermine democracy and replace it with shari'a law." This thoroughgoing fear of the other (the introduction of shari'a law for secular nationalists; the total repression of conservative values for Muslim nationalists) contributes most to the differentiated understandings of nationalism.

Interestingly, both ideological camps have their internal contradictions, which White takes pains to reveal. For example, four out of every ten people who have voted for the AKP define themselves as Atatürkists/Kemalists. On the other hand, a big majority of secular nationalists are pious observers of Islamic customs and, at the same time, ardent critics of Western values and political liberalism. During the 1990s, secular nationalist opinion leaders were the biggest bashers of the European Union, which they accused of having conspired to produce an Islamist revival in the country. Lately, secular nationalists have dramatically changed their position vis-à-vis the EU, and so have Islamists who are using some of the Eurosceptics’ arguments. 

"In a society characterized by powerful group identities and norms, belief in the desirability of individual liberty almost inevitably collides with collective norms," White writes. She gives two examples. In one, she meets pious Turks who choose to be Muslim (şuurlu Müslüman) because it is a consciously chosen identity, and yet they can also "deny choice to his or her daughter who wishes to unveil in order to train for a profession." Meanwhile, a secular young woman with ostensibly European-liberal ethical standards can be "intolerant of women wearing headscarves, of Jews, or of the open expression of Kurdish ethnicity."

White describes how Muslim nationalism "is largely based on a cultural Turkism, rather than blood-based Turkish ethnicity, and imagines the nation as having more flexible Ottoman imperial boundaries, rather than historically embattled republican borders." On the other hand, secular nationalists are not un-Islamic: both secularists and şuurlu Muslim nationalists agree that to be Turkish is to be Muslim. "Both desire to be modern, and each faction in its own way wishes to connect to the West. Both emphasize cultural and ideological purity." Furthermore, both nationalisms associate sexual purity with national purity, making it "difficult for women to imagine a place for themselves within the nation, as mothers of martyrs or as citizens perhaps, but not as national subjects." This is because whether it is about a Muslim or a secular, “nationalist” is a "masculine term with which few women are able or willing to affiliate." 

White does a good job at describing how Islamists have reversed from the business-friendly, Euroskeptic Milli Görüş line to its original program (which, during the two years following the publication of White's book, has arguably moved nearer to the Milli Görüşline). She is equally successful at pointing to another important divide in the country: that between the so-called "Black Turks" and "White Turks." She describes how the former "have become confident enough to fuel a highly visible Muslim cultural renaissance. These days women in fashionable Islamic dress drive SUVs from their gated communities to upscale shops … that had previously been the province of secular elites."


The seismic shifts in the values of mainstream ideologies over the two years after her book’s publication seem to confirm White's views on nationalist identity in general and Turkish nationalist identities in particular. Judging by the events of the past year, nationalism seems indeed to be a performative identity. In the eyes of many commentators, last year's environmental protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park, as well as the conservative electorate's response to those protests, have ended up being attempts at redefining concepts of citizenship and nationalism. Tens of thousands of protesters marched on the streets of Istanbul and numerous other cities, carrying Turkish flags: the same symbol of nationalism used in the flagpole ad. Perhaps, at the end of the day, the fight between nationalisms boils down to who gets to define the symbolism of the flag. Right now it looks as if it is up for grabs.


Kaya Genç is a novelist, essayist, and doctoral candidate from Istanbul.

LARB Contributor

Kaya Genç is the author of three books from Bloomsbury Publishing: The Lion and the Nightingale (2019), Under the Shadow (2016), and An Istanbul Anthology (2015). He has contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement, and essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The New Republic, Time, Newsweek, and the London Review of Books. The Atlantic picked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s “best works of journalism in 2014” list. A critic for Artforum and Art in America, and a contributing editor at Index on Censorship, Kaya gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and appeared live on flagship programs including the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week. He has been a speaker at Edinburgh, Jaipur, and Ways with Words book festivals, and holds a PhD in English literature. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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