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Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

The Turkish Problem

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 1 Octobre 2020, 18:44pm

Catégories : #Génocide, #Religion and Society, #Today's Turkey

or How and why Turkey is made of policies that stand the test of time


[This is a modified version of an essay published on susam-sokak.fr on October 19, 2017. It was further presented in Marseille in the frame of a symposium organized by the Ligue des Droits de l'Homme.

Updated and translated in July 2020]


November 1998, demonstration against the PKK in Lice (Turkish Kurdistan), organized by the authorities. Türkiye, November 17, 1998

November 1998, demonstration against the PKK in Lice (Turkish Kurdistan), organized by the authorities. Türkiye, November 17, 1998

In 2018 did Recep Tayyip Erdogan, either as the Prime Minister or as President, equal Atatürk (1923-1938) in terms of governance time. He already had ruled Turkey longer than the “National Chief“ Ismet Inönü (1938-1950) and much more than Adnan Menderes, the first anti-Kemalist leader, and restorer of a certain religiosity (1950-1960). Outside of these periods of political stability, the governments were rather ephemeral, the Prime Ministers often alternately succeeding each other, the same personalities frequently returning to the forefront, like Erdal Inönü, Süleyman Demirel, Bülent Ecevit, Necmettin Erbakan, Tansu Çiller, or Mesut Yılmaz. Coalitions, defections, reversals, dissolutions, early elections: frequent use of political maneuvers has long been one of the main features of Turkish political life.

But does it change anything in terms of major policy guidelines? At least up to Erdogan, the army, either openly or indirectly, did actually rule the country. If considering the “national issues” (millî dava), i.e. the main problems that paradoxically are widely exempt from the debate, and which together form what I use to call the “mandatory consensus”, almost nothing has changed. Five issues, in particular, are existential for the country, although some of them are not even discussed. They form together what I deem fair to be called “the Turkish problem”.

1 Denying the Genocide

First of all is the 1915 genocide - both the original crime, and its negation.

Vahakn Dadrian and Taner Akçam, in their book published in 2011, provide the state of knowledge about the trials against the organizers of the genocide, held in Istanbul in 1919-1920. They clearly established that the destruction of the Armenian population, its process, and even the rulers' genocidal will were well known. As early as November 1918, the trials were held in the frame of the Ottoman Chamber of Deputies, where testimonies were unveiled and soon published by the newspapers. At that time, before and during the trials, a public debate emerged about the notion which would later be labeled as “crime against humanity”. Anyway, the truth already was known. Certainly, the holding of the trials was largely due to the pressure of the Allies and their occupying forces, especially the British. Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk] himself recognized the extermination of the Armenians by calling it – too kindly – “a shameful act”. But it was because he was not yet sure of the success of his rebellion and because he might still fear from the occupying forces. As soon as he was certain to succeed, he quickly slipped towards an outright negation. And since then, as we know, the Turkish state has stubbornly denied the genocide, and this is a unique case throughout the world.

The genocide, which is by far the most horrific of a series of acts committed against the non-Muslim and non-Turkish population before and after 1915, establishes the core principle, although undeclared, of the republic, which undeniably has been created for a Muslim population, a Muslim millet (religious community) territorialized, geographically corresponding to Anatolia (Asia minor) and whose borders would be those of the National Pact (Mısak-ı Millî, 28 January 1920). This is the beginning of an ethnic/religious cleansing that continues until the 1960s, and even until 1974 if Cyprus is taken into account.

The genocide denial has a political interest, as it unites the population among complicity. In fact, if a culprit usually is excluded from society, no one is excluded when everyone is guilty. This is what Hannah Arendt, referring to Nazi Germany, calls “the organized guilt”. The denial, therefore, exonerates the population of the republic from any responsibility in what happened; moreover, it exonerates it from any lucid examination of the past (what Freud calls “perlaboration”), since “nothing happened”. Therefore, in order to simplify his existence, a Turkish citizen can easily find it in his interest to admit the nonexistence of the genocide.

Since it rejects out of the republic its own founding event, the denial generates a major cognitive dissonance. As a result, the Anatolian reality and diversity are not reflected in the national narrative, elaborated in 1931, which is exclusively the “history of the Turks“, unfolding from Central Asia to the Balkan peninsula, evacuating the history of Anatolia's other peoples, among them the Greeks, the Armenians, the Kurds, the Alevis. There is another major discrepancy between the actual process of nation-building (which consisted in eliminating all non-Muslim populations), and the adoption of the principle of secularism by Mustafa Kemal (which is in real terms, a takeover of Islam by the state). What does actually mean such secularism, proclaimed after most of non-Muslims being eliminated? According to the philosopher Olivier Abel, “secularism is possible only in a multi-denominational society and on the condition that each religion admits that there are several 'languages of God'”. The alleged secularism actually masks the Muslim reality of the nation.

2 The definition of the nation by religion

The idea of “Turkish nation”, as it was expressed by the nationalists at the turn of the XXth century, falls nothing short of a Turco-Muslim nation, and therefore it simultaneously is the cause of, and results from the ethnic/religious cleansing carried out during its building process. This is why genocide is a founding act.

It founded a national hearth (yurt) conceived for a population“purified“ of its so-called “strangers”, namely the non-Muslims, by the way of violence and mass expulsions. For, in 1915, the only way for an Armenian not to be massacred was to become a Muslim. And from 1923 to 1974, the mass expulsions (among them the 1923 “Great Exchange”) were exclusively carried out according religious criteria. The nation's religious essence does not result from an improvisation; it was theorized, among others, by the sociologist Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924), one of the founders of Turkish nationalism whose program book Turkification, Islamization, Modernization was published in 1918. Thus, the results of the genocide have been strengthened by a series of events that definitely “cleared Turkey of its allogeneic elements“ (an expression used by Eugene Pittard, Swiss anthropologist and friend of Atatürk): in 1914, the expulsion of the Greek Orthodox of the Black Sea (Pontus); after the 1915 genocide, the “Great Exchange“ (1923), the expulsion of the Jews from Thrace (1934), the 1955 pogrom of the Greek-Orthodox in Istanbul (1955) followed by a mass expulsion, and the 1974 violent expulsion of the Greek Cypriots from northern Cyprus.

If Mustafa Kemal never openly admitted the nation he had founded was based upon religion, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes publicly did so in Konya in 1956. His statement “The Turkish nation is Muslim“ became one of the slogans of the extreme right, whose ultra-nationalism is strongly tinged with religiosity. The rulers of the country subsequently no longer proclaimed it, but it is repeated in any occasion and to satiety that “Turkey is 99% Muslim“. This latter statement, which apparently expresses a simple truth, unveils a self-pride, whose cause, not expressed, but present in filigree, is the satisfaction of having managed to make coincide Turkey as it exists now with the ideal of the Turkish-Islamic nation. Whenever uttered, this assertion never refers to the reality of a recent past – a multi-ethnic and multi-denominational population – and never specifies that, if “Turkey is 99% Muslim”, it is thanks to a long succession of outbreaks of violence.

At the time when the realization of a Turkish-Islamic nation was about to be accomplished, an ideology has taken force, expressed during the 1970s by a rightist think tank, the “Hearth of the Intellectuals” (Aydınlar Ocagı), which openly proposes a vision of the Turkish nation in conformity with the Islamic ideal (Bursa 2020). According to this ideology of the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis”, Turkey has been along the centuries, both the spearhead and the shield of Islam, and the Turkish national identity can only be fulfilled in Islam.

Allegedly in order to fight communism, the government stemmed from the 1980 military coup promoted the idea. Various important steps were taken to promote Islam; religious education became mandatory in public schools and high schools. In the history textbooks, the Turkish identity has been clearly linked to Islam, its past, its heroes, its Prophet. A sense of belonging to a Turkish-Muslim community appears in the lessons. None of Mustafa Kemal’s measures were abolished, however, but religion openly took its place in public life. During the 1990s, public figures, politicians, party officials, and even military and police high-rank officers began ostensibly to pray in public, in the presence of press photographers, thus displaying visual expressions of the Muslim character of the nation (Copeaux, 1997 and 2011).

On a political level, the rise of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis coincides with the ascent of the Islamist party Refah, which won the major cities in 1994 (Recep Tayyip Erdogan then became mayor of Istanbul), then a relative majority in the National Assembly (December 1995). At times, the Kemalist establishment and the army imposed hindrances, of which the best known are the ultimatum forcing the Refah government to resign (June 1997), and the impeachment of mayor Erdogan (1998), followed by a ten-month sentence. But among the religious-reactionary milieu these measures only brought forth a feeling of being victims of a denial of democracy, and its determination was strengthened.

This process led to the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government in 2002. Therefore, the AKP and Erdogan do not constitute a rupture; their arrival in power is the fulfillment of a political trend that, on the ideological level, dates back at least to Ziya Gökalp and, on the factual level, to the genocide.

3 Pervasive nationalism

Sigmund Freud, in The Future of an Illusion (1927), considers religion as a “universal neurotic compulsion on humanity”, a “welcome, confused hallucination”, but he implicitly invites us to widen his analysis: “Cannot the assumptions which govern our principles of statehood also be called illusions?

If these “illusions” are a kind of neurosis in which one feels better, nationalism could be one of them. As a matter of fact, nationalism provides well-being; it ensures us about our superiority; it includes us in a community that needs us and supposedly loves us. It is charged with some libido, bringing us “a warm and loving breath” (Fichte). In addition, any violence perpetrated in the name of the nation is forgiven. As it is always fueled with a certain account of history, it makes the population proud of the past, it legitimizes contempt and disdain for the Other. It even fosters enmity towards the Other, and, if necessary, it invents the enemy. Therefore, nationalism legitimizes the past, even violent, and provides a guideline and goals for the future. And when nationalism is imbued with religion, as it is often the case, both nation and religion multiply their strength.

Nationalism and violence feed each other. The more the episodes of violence against the Other unfold, the more nationalism must strengthen in order to legitimize them and exonerate the murderers from guilt. Nationalism therefore grows, finds other enemies and generates new violence. It is the very mask of violence.

Hence, nationalism is pervasive in Turkey, where political meetings (whether of the AKP or of the Kemalist CHP) are held in front of human seas red of flags, where slogans are everywhere, even on the slopes of the mountains, and where, above all, nationalism is not an opinion but a mandatory and sacralized virtue, one of the six principles of Atatürk (the “Six Arrows”). Along with the Muslim character of the nation, nationalism itself, as far as I know, has never been questioned by the main political parties and movements since the beginning of the republic, because that would call into question the republic itself.

4 The anti-Kurdish repression

The anti-Kurdish repression has been almost continous since 1921, with an extreme violence including massacres and mass deportations. During the rule of Atatürk only, from 1921 to 1938, military campaigns against the Kurds amounted to about twenty. Later, the same violence has repeatedly recurred from the 1970s and especially 1990s. The 1938 campaign against the Dersim rebellion, with casualties by tens of thousands, a mass deportation et all imaginable violences that it entails, still lives in the collective memory of the Kurds, and of course, in turn, until now, has fueled Kurdish counter-violence for decades.

The 1990's witnessed the destruction of city districts (Lice, 1992); the destruction of villages by the thousands; forced population displacements, causing a massive rural exodus towards the urban centers and the metropolitan areas; countless imprisonments, use of torture, extra-judicial killings, censorship, publication bans, repeatedly party closures, cultural violence (ban of speaking and writing in Kurdish), the militarization of Kurdish regions (state of emergency, security zones, curfew measures). All forms of violence that were used herald the great winter offensive of 2015-2016 against most of the towns run by the HDP (People's Democratic Party, pro-Kurdish), in the South-East. The intensity of the war then reached a new step with a series of urbicides, by razing to the ground whole districts of several Kurdish towns, like the historical centre of Diyarbakır or of Nusaybin. Along the decades, the Turkish state has implemented a colonial-like violence, exactly as did France in Algeria during the 1950s.

In 2013, Erdogan had consented to open a negotiation process with the PKK. He declared then that “it is more difficult to make peace than to make war”. Indeed! Because what actually rules Turkey is the war. War makes governing easier, as it legitimates a brutal control of the society, it facilitates repression by exceptional administrative and legal means (anti-terrorism law, state of exception), and allows for preventive censorship and repression. If “it is not easy to make peace”, it is because these means of control and government should be abandoned if the war would end. And it would be all the more difficult as this war is legitimized by the nationalist vision, and the promoters of negotiation and peace would be accused of treachery. This is perhaps the true reason of the breakdown in the negotiations in 2015.

In short, the anti-Kurdish repression is one of the main constituent part of Turkish policies, not varying by government, all along the period that opens with the Republic.

5 Violence, Turkey's “nocturnal body”

Until the 2000s, the Western chancelleries and mass media considered Turkey as a “democracy”, the only one in the Middle East. In theory, the regime is constitutional, republican, parliamentary. Elections are regularly held, and, since 1945 and apart from the 1980-1983 period, political life consisted of free competition between political parties. In form, it apparently was a democracy. Erdogan himself reached power in conformity with the constitution. His party, the AKP, won the general elections in 2002, 2007, 2011, 2015. But this system is itself limited by legal and constitutional provisions, like the law that hinders a representation in Parliament for a party with less than 10% of votes at the national level.

Anyway, the Republic begins with a long unique party period (1923-1945) and democracy is not among the “Six Arrows" of Kemalism. The first non-Kemalist government (1950-1960), regularly elected but which turned into a semi-dictatorship altogether, was interrupted by a military coup followed by the execution of its leaders. The military coup and its inherent violence became a brutal regulation mode of the political life (1960, 1971, 1980, the “soft coup” of 1997 and the attempt of 2016). Thus, from 1950 on, to speak of limited sequences of democracy would be more appropriate. Within these sequences, the democracy remains formal and limited to a part of the society, the Kurdish regions being almost continuously under a military regime. If democracy exists, it is segmental.

Moreover, the system has its “nocturnal body”, to quote the words of Achille Mbembe. We saw an example of that in 2015. During the general elections held on June 6, 2015, the pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP largely passed the barrier of 10% of the votes (13%, getting 80 MPs). It was a first in the history of the republic, for a pro-Kurdish movement. But it was unacceptable for Erdogan, who chose, by constitutional means, to drag the formation of a government beyond the time limits, thus provoking a new election, called on November 1. This was “legal”. But the “nocturnal body” was put to work by the rampage of physical violence against the HDP, its executives and leaders, its headquarters and local offices, and by intimidating, menacing, and assaulting its supporters. The HDP could not normally campaign, and the results of the November 1 election were less favorable (10,7% for the HDP, getting 59 MPs). Thus, the true winner was violence.

There is a strong “legal” violence too, exerted by the army, the police, the gendarmerie, the “quick reaction forces” (çevik kuvvet), the “special teams” (özel tim), and the thousands of "village guards" armed by the State, who committed countless acts of violence, predation, and trafficking during the 1990s. The police itself regularly uses the most brutal methods of repression and interrogation, including torture. These state forces have exerted extreme violence during the anti-Kurdish campaigns which unfolded from 1921 until now, as well as during the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, including the expulsion of 200,000 Orthodox from the north of the island and the “disappearing” of 1600 people.

Pervasive extra-legal violence adds to the state violence. It is exerted by the tribes, which were strengthened by the warfare in the Southeast and enriched by the trafficking of weapons and drugs; by the mafias, often linked to the tribes. The mafias and the tribal world themselves infuse the police and politics, as brought to light by the Susurluk scandal in November 1996.

And above all, far-right organizations push the logic of nationalism further than does the state, taking the state discourse at its word, and play the role of the armed arm of the state. In particular, extreme rightist gangs have organized pogroms and massacres of Alevis on several occasions (Marash 1978, Çorum 1980, Sivas 1993). Those who constitute an embarrassment to the state or the conception of the nation are eliminated (like Hrant Dink in 2007 and thousands of people - among them many journalists) in the last fifty years).

Such violence, constant and widespread throughout the country, induces a long-term brutalization of society. The traumas caused by the “legal” violence on both the perpetrators and the victims are often evacuated into social, domestic, and private violence.

In short, what governs Turkey is what historian Achille Mbembe calls the “master-desire”, “this movement through which the subject – enveloped on all sides by a specific fantasy (whether of omnipotence, ablation, destruction or persecution, it matters little) – seeks to turn back on itself in the hope of protecting itself from external danger, while other times it reaches outside of itself in order to face the windmills of the imagination that besiege it”.

Police armored in front of the Duruca polling station, near Nusaybin, November 1, 2015. Photo Etienne Copeaux

Police armored in front of the Duruca polling station, near Nusaybin, November 1, 2015. Photo Etienne Copeaux



Abel, Olivier. “Que veut dire la laïcité?”. In CEMOTI, 1990, n° 10, pp. 3-14.

Akçam, Taner and Dadrian, Vahakn N. Judgment at Istanbul: The Armenian Genocide Trials. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2011.

Bursa, Zeynep. "Le Foyer des intellectuels. Sociohistoire d'un club d'influence de droite dans la Turquie du XXe siècle"​. PhD, Paris, EHESS, January 2020.

Copeaux, Etienne. « Le consensus obligatoire ». In Rigoni, Isabelle (éd.), Turquie : Les mille visages. Politique, religion, femmes, immigration. Paris: Syllepse, 2000, pp. 89-104.

Copeaux, Etienne. Espaces et temps der la nation turque. Analyse d'une historiographie nationaliste. Paris: CNRS-Editions, 1997.

Copeaux, Etienne. “Prier ne peut pas faire de mal - 1”. Online: http://www.susam-sokak.fr/article-esquisse-n-20-prier-ne-peut-pas-faire-de-mal-1-88065026.html. November 5, 2011

Copeaux, Etienne. “Prier ne peut pas faire de mal – 2”. Online: http://www.susam-sokak.fr/article-esquisse-n-21-prier-ne-peut-pas-faire-de-mal-2-91606893.html. December 7, 2011.

Fichte, Johann-Gottlieb. “Second speech to the German nation”, in Addresses to the German Nation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of PsychoAnalysis, 1928.

Mbembe, Achille. Politiques de l’inimitié. Paris: La Découverte, 2016. The quotation is an excerpt of the chapter 2, translated by Giovanni Menegalle for radicalphilosophy.com. Online: https://www.radicalphilosophyarchive.com/issue-files/rp200_article_mbembe_society_of_enmity.pdf.

Pittard, Eugène. A travers l’Asie-Mineure. Le visage nouveau de la Turquie. Paris: Société d’Editions Géographiques, Maritimes et Coloniales, 1931.

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