Turkish nationalism

For those of us who generally maintain a contemptuous attitude towards nationalism, Turkey’s flag-waving patriotic worldview can sometimes be difficult to accommodate. Those of us who consider ourselves globalists — believing in the fraternity of all mankind regardless of national borders or ethnic origin — often view petty nationalism as a quaint nineteenth century aberration that would best be left behind.

Suggest that to a Turk and you will likely be shunned and shown the door. We see this playing out in the recent parliamentary elections in Turkey. Much has been made of the fact that the Kurdish HDP won 80 seats in parliament. Much less is made of the fact that the nationalist MHP won the same number, fragmenting the AKP’s traditionally strong base.

It can be difficult for us outsiders to understand why ordinary, decent people would vote for what is basically a fascist movement akin to the BNP or UKIP. But that’s to underestimate the strength of feeling about the Kurdish Peace Process in Turkey, which many Turks strongly oppose. Opposing nationalism is one thing, but understanding its driving impulses is something else. I understand it along the following lines.

Turkey has an army largely built on conscription, not professional soldiers. Most of the 6000 men who have died in the conflict with the PKK over the past 30 years have just been ordinary boys in military service. When a young man, just out of school, is killed in action, grief strikes entire communities and, amplified by the nationalist media, across whole towns and cities.

It’s for this reason that the Peace Process is hugely unpopular with many segments of Turkish society. It is notable that throughout the Peace Process and during the cease fire, the pro-Gülen TV Channel, Samanyolu TV, continued to broadcast its appalling melodramatic weekly serial, Sefkat Tepe, which is a primetime Saturday night drama about brave Turkish soldiers taking on Kurdish militants.

The AK Party were brave — and right in my view — to initiate the Peace Process with the PKK, but it was undoubtedly a miscalculation domestically, which lost them seats. The cynic in me sees the ramping up of tensions with the PKK as a political move to win back those voters. Presidential comments about other minorities before the election were likely the same.

Anecdotally, it’s likely many former AK Party, now MHP voters, disillusioned by their party’s refusal to form a coalition government, will vote for the AK Party again if early elections are called.

I’m doubtful that many Muslims heeded the pro-Gülen movement’s calls to support the CHP, a party traditionally opposed to Muslim values and practice. That too was a domestic miscalculation on the part of the movement, which led them to lose supporters as a result. But I have no doubt that the HDP appealed to young voters, who have only known AK Party rule, and leftists across the board.

I’m not convinced that this election was about Erdogan’s democratic reforms,  though clearly democratic reforms are needed. I would love to see a system like Japan’s which limits the number of terms a leader can stand. By and large it was about dissatisfaction with the Peace Process, on all sides, and in a larger sense, with Turkish nationalism and self-image.

All in all, Turkey is in a state of flux. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but a period of unrest and tension between communities is more than likely.

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