Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks

Book Review

Reviewer: Ahmet Gencturk, (Panteion University, Greece)

Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2013 ISBN: 9780691155180
Author's page: Jenny White

Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks

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Since the popularisation of neo-liberalism in the late 1970’s the centricity of the nation-state has faced a comprehensive challenge. A key criticism holds that the nation-state is, by its very nature, incompatible with the concept of democracy since it seeks to create homogenous political communities. Adopting a more Western understanding of nation-state building, late (19th and early 20th century) Ottoman and, later, Kemalists followed a top-down approach. Islamism, which stands in fundamental opposition to Ottoman / Kemalist efforts is the subject of White’s work.  

A main quality of the work is the author’s personal experiences in Turkey, as student and scholar, which allowed her to develop connections from almost every socio-economic stratum in Turkish society. She utilised these well in arranging both formal and informal meetings, interviews, house-visits, and with them, insights. White blends her deep knowledge of anthropological theories with field experiences. This book is truly unique.

White argues that some historical dynamics played a role in the formation of the Kemalist ideology’s perceptions of non-Muslim minorities, non-Turkish but Muslim ethnicities, the role of Islam and a deep distrust towards the West. She rightfully argues that the sufferings of the Balkan Muslims, and their forced deportation to Turkey between 1878 and 1912, drastically influenced Kemalist cadres many of whom were also from the Balkans. She also asserts that European powers often intervened in the Ottoman Empire’s internal affairs under the pretext of safeguarding Christian minorities in 19th century and this played reinforced Kemalism’s wariness toward both the Western world and Turkey’s Christian minorities.

Another fascinating insight is White’s depiction of the shallowness of Turkey’s secular, upper-middle class – the White Turks as White puts it – can be in their understanding of being modern. By listening to any genre of Western music, by drinking whiskey instead of raki (a traditional Turkish spirit) one can claim to being modern and despises the others who do not have same dietary or musical tastes. As result, the secular Turkish upper class is perceived as ‘comprador bourgeoisie’ by the majority of the society and existing divisions in the society transform into polarisation.

As White discussed in the book, since the Islamist Justice and Development Party came to power (2002), there has been a reinvigorated interest in Turkey’s Ottoman heritage though Turkish Islamists have consistently deployed pro-Ottoman sentiments since this was the “golden age” of the Caliphate when the Ottoman Empire represented the true form of Islam, maintained an efficient administrative system, had tolerance for diversity and was on par or even more advanced than many in the West. The Islamist re-imagination of the Ottomans serves two major purposes: it is deployed as the most important instrument of the Islamist Kulturkampf waged against Kemalism and is essential in the construction of the Muslim nationalism, as White coined in the book.

On a critical note, the book falls short in discussing whether this new Muslim nationalism concept, with its strong references to the Islam and Ottoman heritage, can be an emancipating alternative to Kemalism, which White criticised harshly. In addition to the fact that Turkish society consists of numerous ethnicities, theoretical understanding and the practices of the Islam vary greatly. Under such conditions, any kind of non-secular solution is unlikely succeed to create a new comprehension of civic citizenship.

Since this book was published in 2013, Turkey has witnessed some important developments such as the anti-governmental Gezi protests in the summer of 2013, the presidential elections in 2014 that elevated Islamist PM Erdoğan to the presidency with enhanced powers, a serious deterioration in relations with the EU, the US and major Arab countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Nevertheless, this book remains relevant to understanding the complex nature of Turkish society, the role of Islam in it, and the nation-state building experience in Turkey. Thus, the book is strongly suggested to scholars and students of Turkish studies as well as those who interested in an unprejudiced, truly scientific research on the fault lines in contemporary Turkish society.

2020 - Volume 14 Issue 2