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Analyses

Nationalist metanarrative and false sub-narratives in Turkey

sevres
©Archives de la Cité  |   Semnarea Tratatului de la Sèvres

Turkey represents a special case for the study of false narratives because its national education, politics, media and social life have been marked for generations by conspiracy theories in nationalist keynote. One of the oldest of them is the so-called "Sèvres syndrome". It refers to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres by which the winners of the First World War formally recognised the end of the Ottoman Empire and divided its territory, while also creating the then independent states of Armenia and Kurdistan in eastern Anatolia. The Turks were only left with a small territory in central Anatolia, which was to become the basis for their war of national liberation (1919-1923) under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne concluded that war and recognised the new Turkish Republic within territorial boundaries approximately coinciding with the current ones. However, the Turks never actually freed themselves from the "Sèvres syndrome", i.e. the collective fear of territorial loss and the undermining of Turkish national unity and sovereignty by European and world powers.

            This siege mentality has permeated all strata of the Turkish society and serves as a sort of foundational metanarrative for nationalist patriotism, which is situated at the heart of domestic politics and foreign policy (Karaosmanoğlu 2000; Guida 2008). The standard-bearer of this type of siege nationalism is said to be the so-called "deep state" (derin devlet), i.e. the democratically unchecked networks of bureaucrats, especially in the security sectors, that have controlled policy-making in the Turkish state for generations. Most local political parties cultivate this siege nationalism to various degrees, but the Nationalist Action Party (Millietçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) is generally considered the main political representative of the deep state networks.

            A particularity of the deep state in Turkey is that, building on an Ottoman legacy, it has always worked hand in hand with criminal gangs and drug traffickers, this collaboration intensifying in the dirty war against Kurdish separatism over the last half a century or so (Gingeras 2011; 2017; Söyler 2015). In other words, the siege paranoia of state nationalism in Turkey holds a moral ground so high that it can justify any action, including cooperation between the state and criminal gangs, toward the destruction of perceived enemies. One of my contributions to this programme will provide details about this issue, but a methodological clarification is necessary at this point. The analysis takes into account but moves beyond the theory, validated long ago, about the intellectual falsity of nationalism because the nation itself is merely an imagined community (Anderson 2006). My claim is that, in the Turkish case, the nationalist metanarrative is false in the sense that it is not actually a political ideology designed for political competition with other ideologies in multi-party politics. The Turkish nationalist metanarrative is rather a narrative of state power and authority, instrumentalised not in the service of the national community of citizens, as it claims, but in the securitisation of the state against citizens.

            Securitisation, a concept that will recur many times in this series, is defined by its theorists as the speech-act of a securitizing actor declaring that a valued referent object (what needs to be protected) is under an identified threat. A successful securitisation is one that is accepted and supported by its public, that is, the target society of the respective speech act (Buzan et al. 1998: 31; Wæver 2011: 468). To this end, securitizing actors must (1) convincingly identify existential threats to the valued referent object as to legitimize emergency action, (2) undertake emergency action addressing the respective security issue and, in this way, (3) affect the units in the environment of the securitization process 'by breaking free of rules', i.e. democratic rules (Buzan et al. 1998: 26). The outcome is invariably a metanarrative of national security that needs little if any factual support, and is "exceptionally" unchecked because it justifies exceptional policies and measures that escape democratic control by virtue of being understood as existential responses to existential threats.

            Given its long tradition and its roots in an era difficult to explore factually, the "Sèvres syndrome" lays at the heart of the metanarrative of national securitization in Turkey, which escapes objective scrutiny while, concomitantly, serving as logical and legitimising basis for other related sub-narratives. This explains why it has survived to feed the siege mentality and security policies in Turkey throughout the Cold War against a broad variety of "threats". Under the republican regime, after the Greeks and Armenians diminished dramatically in numbers, the most prominent threats have been identified as the leftist groups (especially during the Cold War) and minorities, in particular the Muslim religious sect of the Alevis and Kurdish separatism and the PKK.

            Although the Alevis and Kurds represent around 25% of the country's population, Ankara does not recognise legally the existence of minorities other than the numerically insignificant Orthodox (Greek, Armenian, etc.) and Jewish populations. Turkish nationalist politicians and the media treat the concept of minority rights with suspicion as potentially dividing the country and the nation. This conception is intimately related to the "Sèvres syndrome" metanarrative and has been encoded in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and in all constitutions of the Turkish Republic. Indeed, all Turkish charters since 1924 recognise only the non-Muslims (but not the Alevis) as minorities, based on a minimalistic interpretation of minority provisions in the Lausanne Treaty. Although different, the Alevis are assimilated to the majority Sunni Muslims, while the Kurds are treated as Muslims, hence assimilated to the Turkish ethnic majority although their language, with numerous dialects, is fundamentally different from Turkish. Starting with the 1961 constitution, all charters proclaim the ‘nationalistic’ character of the Republic and its indivisibility ‘comprising the territory and nation’, with Turkish as sole official language. Accordingly, the exercise of rights and freedoms is conditioned on it not challenging the monolithic definition of the state and nation. This constitutional logic has survived all reforms within the context of the country's process of accession to European Union (EU) membership (Özbudun and Gençkaya 2009).

            One of the most enduring Turkish sub-narratives of securitisation, building on the "Sèvres syndrome" metanarrative, is about minorities and particularly Kurdish separatism and terrorism. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎, PKK) is internationally recognised as a terrorist organisation (except by Russia and a few other entities). However, the state laws on terrorism in Turkey are notoriously vague, a fact underlined as a major issue in all annual reports of the European Commission on the country's progress toward EU membership. Due to such vagueness, in judicial and policing practice, terrorism-related cases are often opened against political parties and politicians, or human and minority rights activists.

            Countless Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin have been prosecuted and imprisoned for membership of and/or aiding PKK and various PKK affiliates over the last decades. One should also not forget to add here the tens of thousands of Turkish and Kurdish people who have lost their lives in the armed conflict between the state and the PKK. Nationalist politicians in most political parties and the mainstream media also promote a nationalist discourse in this logic of conflict, which often targets minorities in general and the Kurds in particular. My specific analysis of sub-narratives under this category will thus focus on (1) explaining the official discourse concerning minorities and Kurdish separatism and (2) explaining the main reasons why such discourse is at least partially false, with reference to a few specific and epitomic cases. Such analytical effort has become particularly relevant after the current pro-Kurdish party, Peoples' Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) and the PKK abandoned formally the idea of secessionism many years ago, in 1995, to gradually advance instead the goal of democratic autonomy for Kurds in Turkey (Gunes 2011: 90).

            The metanarrative building on the "Sèvres syndrome" is also the basis of the nationalist discourse of the current regime, under President Erdoğan, with variations detailed in my contributions to this programme. Overall, those variations represent mostly false sub-narratives that have gradually evolved to focus primarily on the securitisation of the regime itself as embodiment of the state. This fits to some extent with the traditional nationalist metanarrative's obsession with the primacy and survival of the state that, in Hegelian keynote, has always been seen as superior to individual citizens and their rights. The Erdoğan regime added to it the so-called neo-Ottoman vision in foreign policy, which has constructed the sub-narrative about Turkey's higher power status in the broader region, i.e. Europe, the Black Sea and the Caucasus, eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East (including Pakistan), and Muslim Africa. At the heart of this sub-narrative is a conception of Turkish national identity, stressing Islam and the Ottoman past.

            This has roots in Necmettin Erbakan's essentially anti-Kemalist and anti-Western movement, founded in 1969 under the name of National Vision, or National Outlook (Millî Görüş), which claims to have millions of followers across Turkey and Europe (Jenkins 2008: 111-212). Erbakan's particularly anti-European views were notorious. Criticising Turkey's efforts to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1970s, he stated that, 'the children of this great [Turkish] nation cannot be assimilated in a Christian pot [EEC], its sovereign rights and liberties cannot be abolished by a Christian community. Turkey's future and interests can only be served and protected with the formation of a Muslim Common Market in which cultural and historical ties are strong' (Cayhan 1997: 89). Under the Erdoğan regime, this Turkish expression of political Islam was harmonised with overt sympathies for the similarly anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood in a sort of sovereignist-Islamic stance that underlies much of Ankara's foreign policy actions throughout the last decade. At the heart of those actions is a nationalist sub-narrative postulating that (1) Turkey is legitimately a major player in its broader region, that (2) Turkey has the capacity of acting as such player and that (3) Turkey's regional ambitions are hindered by the traditional Western ties cultivated by the Kemalist, secular republic. Hence, a reorientation is needed toward the East. All these assumptions are essentially false, as demonstrated in the dedicated section in this series. However, having been structured in the so-called Blue Fatherland (Mavi Vatan) doctrine, they continue to guide Turkish foreign policy for the time being.

            Under this category of sub-narratives designed to securitise the Erdoğan regime, we shall also explore some conceived to strengthen its authoritarian control of the Turkish state per se. The essentially false assumption underlying all these sub-narratives is that the "new Turkey" (yeni Türkiye) under the rule of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (Adalet Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) is working better than the former, Kemalist Turkey. The assumption is based on the claims that (1) the new Turkey is more democratic and just, (2) more inclusive of identities previously excluded, that is, the conservative Muslims, and (3) more efficiently run under the presidential system. This sub-narrative is one of securitization because it presents the regime as perpetually under threat from foreign powers (especially the United States and Europe/European Union) or from internal enemies, such as the Fetullah Gülen movement, the opposition parties, or the PKK-HDP. As expected, all these enemies are to blame in case the regime fails to deliver on any of its promises, hence the courtrooms and prisons are filled with them. With reference to a few relevant cases, I shall demonstrate the falsity of the three statements above, hence the falsity of the sub-narrative about Erdoğan's  "new Turkey" working better under his regime.

            In conclusion, the section in this programme about false narratives in Turkey will examine selected cases grouped in two major categories. The first is the category of false narratives concerning the relation between the Turkish state and minorities, in particular the large and challenging Kurdish minority. The sensitivity of this relation represents a fertile ground for a myriad of false assumptions and public narratives, which aim not at addressing the respective minority and its factual problems, but at securitising the state against it. The second category is that of false narratives designed to securitise the regime against external threats (foreign policy) and internal enemies (domestic regime securitization). Like in many other cases, this type of discourses feed on nationalism (not patriotism). In the specific case of Turkey, the particularity is that the discourse about the securitization of the regime feeds massively on a very old political culture and metanarrative prioritising and securitising the state against its own citizens. The examples employed in analysis will demonstrate the falsity of some of the key narratives and sub-narratives at work in this broader scheme.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities, London: Verso.

Buzan, B., O. Wæver, and J. de Wilde (1998) Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Boulder:             Lynne Rienner.

Cayhan, E. (1997) Dünden Bugüne Türkiye-Avrupa Birliği İlişkileri ve Siyasal

            Partilerin Konuya Bakışı [Turkey-European Union relations and the Positioning of             Political Parties from Yesterday to Today], Istanbul: Boyut Kitaplari.

Gingeras, R. (2011) "In the Hunt for the 'Sultans of Smack': Dope, Gangsters and the       Construction of the Turkish Deep State", The Middle East Journal, 65(3), 426-441.

Gingeras, R. (2017) Heroin, Organized Crime and the Making of Modern Turkey, Oxford: Oxford           University Press.

Guida, M. (2008) "The Sèvres Syndrome and 'Komplo' Theories in the Islamist and Secular           Press", Turkish Studies, 9(1), 37-52.

Gunes, C. (2011) The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey: From Protest to Resistance,             London: Routledge.

Jenkins, G. (2008) Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? New York and            Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Karaosmanoğlu, A. (2000) "The Evolution of the National Security Culture and the Military in     Turkey", Journal of International Affairs, 54(1), 199-216.

Özbudun, E. and Ö.F. Gençkaya (2009) Democratization and the Politics of Constitution-making in Turkey, Budapest and New York: Central European University Press.

Söyler, M. (2015) The Turkish Deep State: State Consolidation, Civil-Military Relations and          Democracy, London and New York: Routledge.

Wæver, O. (2011) "Politics, security, theory", Security Dialogue 42(4-5), 465-480.

Tags: Erdoğan, Atatürk, Treaty of Sèvres, Islamism, Turkey

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