Turkey’s Nationalist Drift, in the Words of Hannah Arendt
Riccardo Cristiano 19 November 2019

A renowned professor of international relations, Cengiz Aktar has worked for both the UN and the EU. Most importantly, he’s been one of the closest Turkish intellectuals to Hrant Dink, a journalist of Armenian descent assassinated in Istanbul back in 2007. It was on that occasion that Mr. Aktar released his appeal: a demand for forgiveness by Armenians for the collective indifference of his own country to the Great Catastrophe suffered by Ottoman Armenians in 1915.


Mr. Aktar, in 2013 already you argued in an interview with Reset DOC that the problem for Turkey was Mr. Erdoğan, not his party, the AKP. Was it him who created this explosive Turkish mixture by combining his own authoritarianism with the already authoritarian nationalism in Turkey?

Cengiz Aktar – Photo: Internazionale/Flickr

I remember very well what I told Reset on that occasion and I would like to start from there because as we know things change, but it is worth remembering that at the beginning of the millennium the AKP was a truly reforming party, it was a political party with a collegial leadership and in fact the first years led to unthinkable reforms, much more than those of Ataturk. Even then, however, we saw that in Mr. Erdoğan there was an authoritarian tendency, and so what was feared then, today has become reality, the picture has changed, and we are in an authoritarian system. For me the best analysis of the relationship between masses and power is that of Hannah Arendt: since there is no totalitarianism without the consent of the masses, the most serious finding is that such a system derives from the consensus of the masses, a consensus that exceeds the political one. Just like the one Erdoğan recorded in the subsequent elections. What is emerging dangerously and evidently, is a totalitarian magma that is made of religious ideas and nationalism. Let’s look at the recent, terrible developments on the Syrian front, the Syrian war waged mainly against the Kurds. The choice of war made by Mr. Erdoğan has a consensus of 80% of the Turks, maybe more. And those who follow him don’t all support what is called political Islam, they don’t all choose his idea of ​​Islam, they may not even be Muslims in reality, but they are nationalists. Here we can say today that political Islam in Turkey has succeeded in adopting the totalitarian political attitude of the Twentieth Century nationalists of the Union and Progress party. There too, the journey was long but led to the genocide of the Armenians, with a vision that included racism.

It is that vision that was and still is today at the base of the ethnic-religious cleansing that is invoked as it was in the name of homogeneity. Let’s look at the results back then. The Ottoman complexity has disappeared and Turkey is the most religiously homogeneous country in the entire Middle East: even in Iran, Muslims are not 99% of the population like here. But the homogenization (of which the Christians paid the price) today is no longer enough, it must be sectarian, thus discriminating against the Alevis (ten million non-Sunni citizens) and the Kurds (non-Turks). They are the two great inhomogeneous people left in a country that had chosen the path of a language and religion to feel homogeneous and continuing along the same road must tighten the cords and move on to sectarian homogeneity, that is Sunni.


We are here at the Kurdish question. Could there be the danger that speaking generically of the Kurdish question, in terms of solidarity with the Kurds, endorses the idea of ​​supporting another ethnic state, which is perhaps not what is intended to be?

But how else to do it? How can one otherwise express solidarity with a population that certainly needs it? It is a political duty. Perhaps the important point to stress is that here we support the experiment of Rojava, which is not a Kurdish state, but an experiment of federal self-government that includes Turcomans, Arabs, Assyrians and many others. That of Rojava was a non-ethnic experiment and in my opinion, it is first and foremost this plural character that has irritated many here and certainly Mr. Erdoğan, who thinks and reasons politically in terms of a One Man Show. The example we tried to experiment in Rojava is the political attempt to create what we would call the experiment of a dignified life, a road that has no alternative in all the countries of the area that are ethnically and religiously complex.


In this regard, how was the Declaration on Human Brotherhood of Abu Dhabi, signed in February 2019 by Pope Francis and by the imam of al-Azhar Sheik al-Tayyeb, acknowledged by Turkish Islam and the Turkish society? Your idea of Rojava is indeed their idea of states founded on common citizenship, in the name of a secular law, with which to feel like brothers in the same country. It is another idea of what a nation is, going far away from the Ottoman idea of millet: “people” are not religious ethnic groups, but territorial.

I don’t think I disappoint or surprise anyone by answering that what happened in Abu Dhabi for the Turks and for Turkish Islam is as if it had not happened. No one has talked about it here. It will not be surprising because it is known all over the world that one of the countries with the highest percentage of Muslims in the world, Turkey, does not have a single known Muslim thinker or theologian. They do not participate in conferences, meetings or dialogues because they are not interested – they are parochial, isolated. At the time of the Ottoman Empire this was not the case and so it is clear that this is the result of the Kemalist revolution, it is a product of the nationalization of religion by Ataturk. Even the laity in this country is parochial, even the laity have not grasped the value of Abu Dhabi. A “normal” Turkish layperson never challenges the Kemalist dogma of language and “nation” as a basis for the State, which now integrates with the idea of ​​a confession thanks to Mr. Erdoğan. Take the main opposition party usually defined as secular, the CHP. Someone there may be ready to change the underlying ideology of the party, but the litmus test is international politics and I exclude disagreements over Mr. Erdoğan’s foreign and nationalist policies. The proof is that they support him in this new Syrian war. As you know, right now, the United States voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. I know that Turkish nationalism has done everything to prevent this outcome. And in the coming days, I can swear to you that no one will criticize the loud official voice of Turkey that will come against the United States for this decision.


Photo: @gozlukluf

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