Interview: Errol Babacan
The ideological outlines of the AKP’s neoliberal hegemonic project have been shaped in response to two political challenges. Radical Islamism has been pacified whereas the conflict with the Kurdish movement is still the most serious dynamic of crisis. After the failure of the “democratic opening” to eliminate the influence of the Kurdish movement, the forcible abolition of the latter appears to be the only way for the realization and success of the hegemonic project.
Let us begin with a question regarding the relation between Political Islam and nationalism. We are often confronted with the idea that Political Islam is formulating an alternative to nationalism. Is it plausible to consider Political Islam as a break vis-à-vis nationalism in Turkey?
Cenk Saraçoğlu (CS): In order to provide a plausible answer to this question first of all we need to emphasize a unique characteristic of nationalism. As opposed to various other ideologies, the power of nationalism lies in its being amenable to be articulated to other ideological projects. I use the term articulation here in reference to Ernesto Laclau who defines it as
Political Islam, more specifically the Justice and Development Party AKP, appeared to be a historical chance to overcome Turkish nationalism.
CS: To answer this question, it is very important to go back to the conditions of the year 2002 when the AKP won the national elections and came to power. The 2002 elections were held in a period when the neoliberal economic transformation in Turkey was undergoing a deep crisis of hegemony. This crisis had political and ideological as well as economic manifestations. The never-ending economic crises, the increase in unemployment and economic instability created deep grievances on the part of large sections of society. On the side of the working class but also on the side of some sections of bourgeoisie, which have been negatively affected by sudden devaluations. There was a growing discontent with the market economy and neoliberal institutions. And there was a growing political distrust in the traditional political actors.
It was a time when it was quite difficult to win the consent of working people to the existing political order. The official ideology - i.e. Kemalism - was of no avail to this crisis of hegemony, especially in the presence of such longstanding challenges as radical Islamism and the Kurdish movement.
It was in such a conjuncture that the AKP won the elections and came to power as a brand new party promising change and stability to its electors. It was obvious that such a promise could not be fulfilled without a large-scale transformation of political and ideological structures; which meant constructing a new hegemonic project that could re-establish the broken ties between people and the system. The contours of this hegemonic project have been shaped in process. Today it took such a solid form that we can identify distinctive features.
What is new about this hegemonic project?
CS: It is neoliberalism again under a new hegemonic strategy.
Cihan Tuğal refers to this process as a passive revolution; and this concept is quite useful to get to grips with the nature of this transformation. The transformation undertaken by the AKP is radical on the one hand as it creates drastic changes in the political and ideological levels of society; but at the same time this is a passive revolution because rather than overcoming or at least modifying neoliberal economy it attempts to reconstruct and revitalize it in a new political and ideological context.
Concerning the question about the novelty of this project, one can put emphasis on different dimensions of change. I would like to primarily focus on the ideological restructuring. By ideological restructuring I mean the transformation in the ideas, symbols and sentiments used to manufacture the consent of the people to ongoing neoliberal economic system in Turkey.
Is it still valid to call it nationalism although it seems to be based on religion instead of ethnicity?
CS: It sounds contradictory but this is exactly its distinctive feature. It is a form of “nationalism” and hence it shares some essential features of “generic” nationalism. Like all nationalisms, the AKP’s Islamic-conservative nationalism relies on the following premises: A nation, which is the imagination or construction of people living in a defined territory as “nation”; a “national identity” based on an invented or a real commonality; a “national history” which construes a common past; as well as the notion of a “national interest”, which means that the people forming the nation have some common interests that transcend individual or sectarian interests.
What is distinctive in the Islamic-conservative nationalism is that Islamism and conservatism have an overwhelming effect in construing and shaping these common elements of nationalism. In other words, Islamism and conservatism provides symbolic content for and to a large extent determines the referents of the notions of the mentioned elements of nationalism. This is what makes Islamic-conservative nationalism very different from Kemalist nationalism which had long served as the official ideology of the Turkish state.
Islamic-conservative nationalism and the Turkish-Islamic synthesis which has been promoted as state policy especially after the coup d’etat in 1980?
Kurdistan Workers’ Party
defined the nation in quite different forms ranging from territory and citizenship to race and ethnicity. In all its forms, however, “nation” was a secular entity portrayed as a single organic cultural unit. The national identity was defined in reference to Turkishness. Turkishness was thought as a melting pot in which non-Turkish Muslim ethnic groups in Turkey could be assimilated and integrated into a homogenous “Turkish nation”.
In Islamic-conservative nationalism, “nation” refers to people living within the borders of Turkey and sharing some common cultural and religious beliefs and practices. These common cultural values are typically referring to a Sunni interpretation of Islam: Islamic conservatism. Turkishness was redefined here in such a way that it started to refer to an ethnic identity existing side by side with other ethnic identities such as Kurds, Circussians, Georgians etc. The importance of the Turkishness in defining the national identity was downplayed and replaced by a common culture defined along the lines of Sunni Islam.
In reference to the national history, Kemalist nationalism either addresses the foundation of Turkish Republic as the origin of nation or traces this genesis so far back as to ancient Anatolian civilizations. But in no interpretation of Kemalist nationalism one can see the Ottoman past as the primary marker of the “nation”. The contrary is the case for Islamic-conservative nationalism, though. In this nationalist ideology, “the nation” is supposed to take its form in the Ottoman times and the current society living within the borders of Turkey is the descendant of Anatolian Muslims living in the Ottoman period.
This brings us back to the argument that Islamic-conservative nationalism emerged in response to two political and ideological challenges, radical Islamism and Kurdish nationalism. I would like to go into the Kurdish question which is also a major part of your research interest. Which role did the Kurdish question play for the emergence of this new hegemonic project?
Overall, the hegemonic project aimed to repair the depreciated bonds between state and people with a new ideology. Especially the emphasis on Ottoman glory was important to boost people’s self-confidence that had been impaired during the 1990s and the early 2000s as a result of economic crisis.
The AKP’s emphasis on Sunni-Islamic values and its critique of Kemalist institutions as well as the rigid secularism tamed the challenge of radical Islamism, pacified radical Islamists and integrated them into its hegemonic project. This is roughly to what Cihan Tuğal refers while discussing passive revolution.
In regard to the Kurdish question, something similar can be identified: Islamic-conservative nationalism provided the state with a new strategy of dealing with the Kurdish challenge. The disengagement of the definition of nation from Turkishness and ethnicity enabled the AKP to recognize the presence of Kurdish ethnicity and invite the Kurds to its Islamic-conservative hegemonic project.
But other than the challenge of radical Islamism, which seems to be pacified, the recognition of Kurdish ethnicity under the AKP’s rule doesn’t seem to facilitate a resolution of the conflict. On the contrary, we experience an extreme militarization that is reminiscent of the 1990s. We have also very recently seen how the AKP introduces coercive measures to intimidate democratically elected Kurdish politicians and imprison them together with many thousands of activists. Many Kurds obviously don’t accept this invitation, and the authoritarian-kemalist policies are again put into practice. How do you evaluate this development, as a collapse or a regression?
CS: Many people see the AKP’s current Kurdish policy as a shift in this party’s approach, which - in its first years - had looked more democratic and reformist and more akin to the recognition of the Kurdish identity in Turkey. In this perspective, the AKP adopted a more libertarian approach epitomized by the so-called “Kurdish opening” project; according to this approach it even tended to recognize the Kurdish identity and was ready to grant some rights and freedoms to the Kurdish population; and yet, this approach says, it jettisoned such a “courageous and path-breaking” approach and took up a more authoritarian character of the traditional Turkish state which manifested itself with the current militarization.
I would argue here that despite the continuities in the tactics and methods used to suppress the Kurdish movement, it would be misleading to identify the AKP’s Kurdish outlook as a simple manifestation of the traditional mentality of the Kemalist Turkish state. In the presence of the described radical transformations observed in the realm of ideologies in Turkey, I think, the AKP’s recourse to military measures possesses a qualitatively different character than the militaristic measures used before.
I would go even so far as to argue that it would be more illuminating to seek a continuity not between the Kemalist state and the AKP policies today, but rather in the seemingly more democratic policies of the AKP in its earlier periods and its current authoritarian face. More concretely, I would like to say that the democratic opening project that the AKP introduced 4-5 years ago is not in contradiction but in consonance with recent militaristic measures. Rather than a deviation from the so-called democratic opening and recognition-oriented reforms, the military measures in use today constitute a complementary part and even a necessary element of the AKP’s seemingly democratic opening.
It still sounds odd and contradictory to talk about a project of recognition and opening of a party which is identified as right-wing and nationalist and which is politically responsible for the detaining of thousands of legal activists and civilians.
CS: The AKP’s nationalism and its right-wing position represent an unparalleled position in the realm of ideologies in Turkey. The Islamic-conservative nationalism of the AKP and the vision of nation emanating from this sort of nationalism is of a specific nature that allows the recognition of the Kurds in Turkey as a separate ethnic group and the acknowledgement of such recognized Kurds’ certain cultural rights. At least, at the discursive or propaganda level, the AKP radically criticizes the Kemalist assimilationist and denialist project and overtly mentions and recognizes the presence of Kurdishness as a separate ethnic group. This also reflects on some political reforms, such as the enactment of a state-sponsored Kurdish TV channel or the recognition of Kurdish language courses as elective courses in the state schools, which were quite inconceivable in and at odds with former Kemalist hegemony.
The AKP received many support for these “path-breaking” measures, but now it seems to lose the support of the Kurdish population…
CS: We should remember that in the AKP’s discourse and strategy, this recognition goes hand in hand with a sweeping critique of Kemalism; and through such a critique the pious/religious sensitivities of Sunni-Turkish population and the Kurdish demands for recognition are being tied to each other to form a common Sunni bloc against Kemalist past. This is to say that by situating the recognition of the Kurds within an anti-Kemalist discourse, the AKP has attempted to create a common bond or a common cause to integrate both Turkish and Kurdish Sunni-religious sections of society under its hegemony. This worked to a certain extent but it couldn’t break the influence of the Kurdish Movement on the long run. Both in the 2009 municipality elections and the 2011 general parliamentary elections, the Kurdish movement increased its strength as opposed to the expectations of the AKP. It is telling here that the AKP officials identify the BDP as the “Kemalists of the Kurds”!
However, criticizing the AKP’s reforms as insufficient or irrelevant to Kurdish demands is one thing; but no one can deny that these practices point to a shift in the strategy of the state to deal with the Kurdish problem. This was something impossible for the Kemalist conception of Turkish nationalism and Turkish “nation”.
Are these kind of recognition attempts really so unique? For example, the former right-wing Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel called for recognition of the Kurdish reality in the early 1990s, at the same time the social democratic party SHP had built an election coalition with Kurdish politicians.
CS: Such seemingly “historical” steps could not go beyond sporadic manoeuvres held in the critical phases of the struggle between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state. They did not become a constitutive component of a redefinition of nation and nationalism. They did not emerge as a result of an attempt to forge a radical transformation of official ideology.
What makes the AKP different from some other right-wing parties in Turkey is its attempt to transform the official ideology on the basis of the party ideology; and hence narrow down the gap between the ideology of the party and the state. It is this point that makes ideological transformation under the AKP very important in order to understand its new conception in relation to the Kurdish question.
As Turkishness is losing its centrality in the construction of nation and is relegated to a secondary status vis-à-vis the Sunni-Islamic values, the AKP is able to recognize the Kurdish identity not as a national identity per se but as a cultural sub-group of the nation constructed along the lines of Sunni-Islamic values which are common to both Turks and Kurds. Moreover, the perpetuation and sustainability of Islamic-conservative nationalism is dependent on the recognition of Kurdish identity. In the sense that only when the majority of the Kurds attach themselves to this project, thanks to the temptation of recognition, such vision of nation could be consolidated also in the rest of Turkey. This is because any “separatist” or “nationalist” current gaining popular base among the Kurds subverts the cogency and reliability of Islamic conservative vision of nation. The resurgence of a competing Kurdish national identity could also incite the emergence of a more reactionary and ethnicist understanding of Turkish nationalism, an implicit threat to the Islamic-conservative nationalism. After the failure of the “Kurdish opening” to eliminate the influence of the Kurdish movement, the AKP is currently faced exactly with this problem.
To put it very clearly, this is not the recognition of the Kurds as a nation with self-determination; this is the recognition of their cultural and ethnic difference. In this respect, the AKP’s recognition of Kurdish identity and its nationalist motto “one nation, one flag, one state” is not in contradiction but in harmony with each other, since, here, nation is conceived as a Sunni-Islamic community comprising different ethnic-sub groups. That is why in some other occasions Recep Tayyip Erdoğan added another element into this motto: one religion. One religion guarantees “one nation including different ethnic identities” and hence renders the recognition of Kurdishness as a cultural sub-group unproblematic.
The success of Islamic conservative solution to the Kurdish question, absorbing the Kurds into the AKP’s “nation”, could only be adequately achieved when the influence of the Kurdish movement is confined?
CS: Yes. The reason for this is that a powerful Kurdish movement in the Kurdish region of Turkey impairs the ideological penetration of the AKP into the Kurdish population.
Two historical features of the Kurdish movement pose a great obstacle to the AKP’s project on Kurds. The Kurdish movement has a secular and left-wing orientation providing a secular worldview and a secular perception of Kurdishness, especially for the Kurdish youth, which limits the influence of Islam among the Kurds. And the Kurdish movement construes the Kurdishness not as a mere “ethnicity” but as a nation per se with certain interests and rights, a pretension which collides with the AKP’s recognition of the Kurds as an ethnic variety.
So what we see today is two irreconcilable conceptions of Kurdishness as well as an irresolvable contradiction between two different visions of nation. The AKP is seeking for “one nation” comprising Kurds and Turks as different ethnic groups; here Kurdishness can not constitute any political category of action but can only remain as a folkloric component of “nation”. For the Kurdish movement, however it is obvious that Kurdishness refers to a political and national category. Therefore, in my opinion, a strong Kurdish movement and the AKP with such a politically ambitious agenda cannot coexist peacefully. In the eyes of the AKP the forcible abolition of the Kurdish movement appears to be the only way for the realization and success of the hegemonic project.
Today, the prolongation of the conflict in the region is the most serious dynamic of crisis for the hegemony of the AKP because this also has the potential to weaken the cogency of such vision of nation in the entire Turkey. At that moment, it is quite likely for the AKP to compensate such ideological weakening with more authoritarianism all across Turkey.
The outcome of your analysis is then that under the given power relations a political and peaceful resolution of the conflict within the existing borders of Turkey is fading away rapidly. Moreover, taking into account the uncompromising attitude of the ruling party and the never-ending violent attacks against Kurds in many parts of the country, the separation of Turks and Kurds seems to become inevitable.
CS: Despite the increasing militarization of the conflict and the ascending polarization between Kurds and Turks in Turkey, I think, as socialists, we should still insist on the idea of building a free and equal country which recognizes the Kurds and Turks and all other groups as equal citizens. I think socialists from both Kurds and Turks have a historical responsibility to develop and assert an alternative to the Islamic-conservative nationalism. Such a belated and seemingly obsolete task is more than ever required at this juncture. If this sounds quite unrealistic at this moment, this is because Turkish left is weakest ever in its all history and has not enough power to wield a significant ideological and political influence over Turkish society, let alone claiming for political power.
While the Kurdish movement is potent enough to assert its own political vision and project in Middle East today, the same thing does not hold true for socialist left in Turkey, a situation which obstructs the development of a country-wide socialist alternative for the Kurdish and Turkish working class. This also partly accounts for why the Kurdish movement is oscillating between being an independent national movement in Middle East with its own agenda and being a Turkey-based left-wing dynamic that could contribute to the emancipatory transformation of Turkey.
Dr. Cenk Saraçoğlu is a social scientist at the Baskent University, Ankara. He is working on migration, nationalism, urban transformation and ethnic relations with a particular focus on Turkey. He is a member of the editorial committee of the Turkish academic journal Praksis.
 Cihan Tuğal: Passive Revolution. Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism, Stanford 2009.
 The Nationalist Movement Party MHP is an ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist party.
 The Peace and Democracy Party BDP is overwhelmingly supported by the Kurdish population of Turkey. The accusation of being Kemalist implies elitism, authoritarianism, laicism.