By Doğu Ergil
November 18, 2014
Identities are an awesome phenomenon. People may choose identities, but they also find themselves in identity “cocoons” as they join or are born into social groups. Identities are relatively lasting but they change over time. Their importance may increase or decrease according to the circumstances.
An identity acquires acute importance when it is faced with an existential danger. Its defense becomes a life-and-death matter. This is the time when the identity-group demands the utmost sacrifice from its members.
What is our collective (national) identity? It is officially defined as Turkish and Muslim. When the constitutive ideology of the republic was Turkish nationalism, Turkishness was expressed loudly; being a Muslim was only whispered.
Success of nationalism depends on the effectiveness of the national state in providing progress, welfare, high living standards, social consensus and respect for the nation among other nations. States that fail to realize these expectations are called failing states. They cannot hold their nations together. Libya, Iraq and Syria are such states.
There are also frail states like Egypt and Lebanon that can hardly maintain the integrity of the nation and economic sustenance. They face the danger of disorder.
Failing and frail states may have big state apparati and relatively large armies, but as long as they fail to provide justice, participation or inclusion for diverse groups in politics and a functioning economy they are bound to face dissolution.
Sub-state identities then fill the gap and gain power and prominence. This is a fact because people need to cling onto life, feel secure and act in concert with others. They need protective and functional social cocoons.
The evolution of the Turkish national identity has followed the same course. The ruling elite decided on a policy of injecting the Turkish youth, who increasingly sympathized with the left, with Islam in order to curb the danger of Communism in the late 1960s. The “Turk-Islam synthesis” is the project of the strategy of distancing the Turkish youth from leftist inclinations.
The “Turk-Islam synthesis” was a de facto reality when the Turks adopted Islam a thousand years ago. However, with the policy becoming officially adopted, the balance has shifted, with more weight being placed on (Sunni) Islam, making it an Islam-Turkish synthesis. The chemistry of Turkish politics has never been the same since then.
The basic assumption of the so called “synthesis” was that pious people, especially the Sunnis, are obedient to the state. If religion is emphasized further their docility would be the guarantee of public peace and order. Step by step Islamic principles and an Islamic way of life were introduced into the public sphere. The ruling cadres thought that in this way, keeping the state secular but Islamizing the society, their rule would be extended.
Politicizing Islam to reinforce the secular state was an oxymoron, and the basis for the making of a secular ruling elite that no longer rule Turkey. Simultaneously, a similar project was put into effect internationally with encroaching Soviet influence extending from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf. So called “moderate Islam” was supported by the West against more independent national political movements over Communism.
Building a “Green Belt” strategy to contain Soviet influence was also a political project using religion for political and strategic ends. Like Frankenstein's creature, what was left behind was neither religion nor politics, but a dangerous combination of both: a Holy War, which hated its creator.
Muslims who were disgruntled in every corner of the world, excluded and exploited by tyrants in their home countries, used their religious bond to build a political community of the disenchanted. They reject both their history, which they believed to be stained and perverted by colonialism, and their rulers, who distanced them from the values and practices of the Prophet.
They want to roll back history and everything associated with it. This is politics alright, but sanctified by religion, so that is no longer a faith but a political force. Its inventors and now practitioners have no respect for religion.