Turkism, Islamism, and Totalitarianism

It is a sad irony of history that Turkey, which started to experience a Turkist nationalism unburdened by timidity following the population exchange, is weighed by this historical burden and still struggles with differences that it cannot reconcile.

Another page in history has marked its centennial anniversary. A century has passed since the agreement between Turkey and Greece on January 30, which envisaged a "forced population exchange.” We are talking about an agreement that is impossible to even think about today, but which could not be easily justified even in its own time. It is unnecessary to even make the reminder that under today's laws and especially within human rights doctrine, the forced migration of people is included in the scope of crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing and even genocide. This is the way it is today, but under what conditions was this agreement signed and put into practice a century ago?

The agreement can be compared with the provision for the “voluntary exchange of populations” included in the Treaty of Neuilly signed on November 27, 1919 between Bulgaria and Greece after the First World War. A fundamental difference between these two agreements is that the population transfer envisaged in the Neuilly agreement between Bulgaria and Greece was to take place upon the voluntary application of minority members in both countries. The population exchange between Turkey and Greece, on the other hand, did not take place on a voluntary basis, but by both countries forcing their own citizens. This agreement took its place in history as one between two states, and negotiated through the international organization of the time, the League of Nations, and became a part of international law in this respect.


This agreement has important dimensions that demand attention at this point of time when we are trying to envision the second century of the Turkish Republic. Undoubtedly, it is clear that the Exchange Agreement, on which much research has been done, has caused great humanitarian tragedies, forcing the Greek population in Turkey and the Muslim population in Greece to leave their respective homelands. Thus, it is truly worth questioning how the two states could impose such a treatment on their own citizens.

Among the prominent reasons in the literature on the subject, the following are emphasized: (1) It is known that during the National Struggle for Independence, and especially towards its end, around one million Greek citizens migrated from Anatolia to Greece. The Greek government, especially Venizelos, who had adopted a goal of having a homogeneous Greek/Greek Orthodox population since the years of the First World War, did not hesitate to accept this exchange. With the exchange, it became easier to make Greek citizens out of people who were all Ottoman citizens and of whom a significant part had already immigrated to Greece. (2) For Turkey, the exchange was considered an appropriate opportunity to ensure the homogenization of the population along the axis of Islam. We know that the League of Nations and England, which was the dominant power in international relations at that time, also encouraged this exchange for their own reasons.

The point I want to focus on here is Turkey's ideological position, which is the source of its attitude towards the population exchange. Addressing the issue in this month's (January 2023) issue of the Journal of Social History, Y. Dogan Cetinkaya demonstrates quite convincingly why it would be appropriate to call this ideology "Muslim Nationalism.” I will not elaborate here on the arguments of this valuable work. However, I intend to provide a bird's-eye view of the continuity and breaking points in the pre-exchange and post-exchange periods through the point of view of "nationalism" as a political ideology,


Firstly, nationalism. If it is necessary to provide a description, nationalism describes a political ideology that aims to unite the "nation,” conceived of as a homogeneous cultural entity, and the state, as a monolithic power organization, and if such a union does not exist, it aims to build it.

In the context of the reforms that intensified in the second half of the 19th century, we can determine that the Ottoman Empire, which faced the separatist movements of non-Muslim elements and went through a disintegration process, had a strong central power organization despite all kinds of weakening. Modernized and strengthened by the Tanzimat and afterwards, the central power apparatus’s relationship with its society consisting of different ethnic and religious groups was based on trying to create an Ottoman identity that could pull these differences together in the time leading up to and following the first constitutional period.

We can say that there is a timid nationalist ideology behind this approach which tried to unite differences, which also gave its name to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). We can say that the "timidity" in question here stemmed from the tension between preserving the imperial structure, which continued to house different ethnic and religious groups, and carrying out this preservation work in a "nation-state" format in terms of CUP policy. At times referred to as “hidden Turkism” in the literature, this "timid nationalism,” somewhat paradoxically, can be traced all the way back to the Second and to the reign of Abdulhamid II when analyzed from a different perspective. Selim Deringil, one of the important historians of the period, emphasizes in his work titled “Power and Its Symbols,” that the Ottoman identity, “packaged” with Islamic terminology, that was trying to be established in order to protect the empire from disintegration during the reign of Abdulhamid gradually took on a "Turkist" character.

In this respect, prior to the population exchange, the idea of ​​a state based on an "Ottoman identity" (“Ottomanism”) which even influenced the 1876 Constitution, and which emerged from among the political ideologies flourishing in the new environment created by the Tanzimat reforms was the harbinger of an ideology that was the mixture of "Islamism" and "Turkism.” In the environment when the CUP came to power, and especially during the First World War, Islam and a Muslim identity, which as Çetinkaya emphasizes increasingly came to be used synonymously, were now the basis of a new, homogeneous cultural identity. It should not be surprising that in the eastward turn of the Ottoman Empire, which had lost its Balkan lands, the CUP’s conceptualization of the nation as a homogeneous cultural entity on the basis of "religion" (Islam) in accordance with the classical historical acquis of the Ottoman Empire. In other words, during the First World War, the CUP decided to throw off its timidity completely and to form Anatolia, the largest of the country's remaining lands, as the land of the Muslims. The 1915 Genocide is the most painful consequence of this decision, and one which still awaits acknowledgement and settlement.

The population then took its place in history as the second biggest part of this Islamization move. Thus, the homogeneous cultural entity required by the new Turkish State, a small part of which consisted of Eastern Thrace and a large part of Anatolian lands, as a nation-state was determined on the basis of the Muslim element. In 1914, before the exchange and the genocide, the rate of non-Muslim peoples in Anatolia was over 20% according to the state’s statistics. This decreased to 2% after the exchange, and over time has dropped to a point at which the number can today be expressed in terms of thousandths.


It is clear to see that the population of Turkey has experienced a rapid homogenization process based on religion. The founding basis of this homogenization is "Islam" or "being Muslim.” From this point of view, we can look at the Exchange Agreement, and the events leading up to and following it, as a phase of "Muslim Nationalism.” In this respect, Cetinkaya's approach in his article seems apt to me. Another statement of Cetinkaya that he expressed while emphasizing this point is also correct. He claims that the political emphases on Islam or being Muslim during that period were not a "strategic requirement" employed during and immediately after the National Struggle, as is assumed in the mainstream literature. I agree with this assessment, and I think it sheds light on the process leading to the current authoritarian regime and the dimension that shows this regimes true color.

According to Cetinkaya, who supports his argument with references to Zurcher, who states that Islam is a "core identity," and to Cagaptay, who underlines that Islam is an "indispensable" quality for Turkish citizenship, the practices of the Kemalist era based on a radical secularism approach represented the “Turkification and secularization of a population that had already been homogenized on the basis of [Islam].” True, but perhaps an addition can be made. The Parliamentary Committee, which negotiating in Lausanne where the Exchange Agreement was signed and where the final peace treaty was to be signed approximately six months later, proposed that they would only accept "religious minorities" but never linguistic minorities or ethnic minorities, and they have always been “proud” of achieving this.

This meant that there would no longer be a distinction between Muslims based on "language differences" and that all Muslims would be homogenized on the basis of "Turkish" and therefore on the basis of Turkishness. In other words, Muslim nationalism also contained a “Turkist” vein from the very beginning. In this respect, the Turkification policies of the Kemalist one-party period and afterwards signified a new regime of oppression on the foundation of a homogenization achieved on the basis of Islam. In the multi-party period, in the process of "reforming" Muslim homogeneity to Turkish homogeneity, developments that would not "harm" the goals of Turkification and secularization took place. These developments are a type of nationalism known as the "Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” which experienced its first summit with the September 12 coup and the consequent 1982 Constitution, and its second summit in 2017 with the subsequent Presidential regime.

In summary, with the Exchange Agreement, the second major step was taken towards the homogenization of Anatolia on the basis of religion. It is a sad irony of history that Turkey, which started to experience the Turkism phase of nationalism that had rid itself of timidity following the exchange, is weighed by this historical burden and still struggles with differences that it cannot reconcile. I hope I have made it clear that the state paradigm under the dominance of Turkish-Islamic nationalism, which has its roots in the Abulhamid II period and which has persisted to this day on the back of the genocide and population exchange, will never be able to achieve the ethnic and religious homogeneity at which it aims. The most important proof of this is the public visibility of the Kurdish problem and the Alevi problem, which are still in need of an urgent solution. The result of an insistence on this kind of nationalism will only be a full-blown totalitarian regime.

*Levent Koker: Koker is a graduate of Ankara Faculty of Law (1980) and completed his PhD in Political Science at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Ankara (1987). He became Associate Professor of Political Theories (1990) and Professor of General Public Law (1996) at Gazi University. He had roles as part of the faculty at universities such as METU, Bilkent, Atilim, and Near East. In 1997, he became the Founding Dean of the Near East University’s Faculty of Law. He worked as a visiting researcher at Oxford, Princeton, New School for Social Research, and Northwestern (2017-18). He was suspended from his role at the Near East University for making the statement "We will not be a party to this crime" together with the Academics for Peace (2016). He is the author of the books Modernization, Kemalism, and Democracy, Two Different Politics, Democracy, Criticism, and Turkey.

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