Turkey's toxic nationalism poisons democracy

Turkey's toxic nationalism poisons democracy
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Erdogan thrives on a divisive ideology that undermines minority rights and fuels authoritarianism.

by Mehmet S. Kaya

Turkey's recent elections sent alarming nationalist signals, stoking fears in Europe of growing authoritarianism. While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated power, the opposition also pandered to a toxic Turkish nationalism that demonizes minorities, mainly Kurds. This divisive ideology has deep roots in Turkey's flawed founding under Ataturk. His totalitarian vision to impose a singular Turkish identity set the stage for an illiberal state that denies equality.

The EU has repeatedly warned that Kemalist nationalism contradicts democracy and human rights, an obstacle to Turkey's accession. But the political parties ignore this and attack the EU instead. Turkey still reveres Ataturk's repressive nation-building, unlike Spain, which confronted Franco's poisonous legacy. Minorities faced severe repression under him and his successor, İnonu, creating a climate of fear.

Erdogan cynically exploits nationalism by uniting Islamists and ultra-nationalists against the opposition. He has labeled even moderate Kurds as terrorist sympathizers, whipping up anti-Kurdish sentiment to win votes. While not as extreme as the Ataturk era, this shows how easily nationalism can become a political weapon.

New nationalist figures such as Sinan Ogan and Umit Ozdağ also emerged, echoing older supremacist ideologies by referring to themselves as ancestral Turks, despite their immigrant roots. This growing neo-nationalist faction traffics in chauvinism and hostility toward Kurds. But mainstream parties echo similar positions, scapegoating the Kurds' struggle for rights as terrorism.

Such toxic nationalism has no place in a liberal democracy. Turkey rejects principles such as equal citizenship that uphold minority rights. Its state ideology imposes a singular Turkish identity and oppresses Kurds in seeking cultural recognition. This breeds grievances that fuel conflict and instability, while the EU calls for inclusive reforms go unheeded.

Kemalists insist that secular nationalism has enabled modernization and is necessary to support democracy. But Turkey's secularism has also been enforced authoritatively. Democracies like Britain secularized organically, without state imposition. And secular states like Syria have not democratized. While the separation of religion and state is positive, Turkey's rigid, intolerant nationalism undermines pluralism.

Scandinavian nationalism differs significantly from Turkish nationalism. It expresses pride in an egalitarian welfare state that provides opportunity, not ethnic supremacy. But Turkish nationalism feeds on inciting hatred of minorities and glorifying past oppression, such as the Dersim massacres. Seeking access to power to dominate others, not to uplift citizens, it clings to a chauvinist ideology that is now strangling Turkey's democracy.

Turkey's founding national narrative must be re-examined through a human rights lens. Politicians must stop manipulating toxic Turkish nationalism for electoral gain and promote an inclusive civic nationalism befitting a democracy. Otherwise, Turkey will remain haunted by the ghosts of Atatürk's intolerant vision, sacrificing diversity and freedom as it drifts toward authoritarianism.

*This article was first published in Art Gerçek on August 17. It has been shortened and translated into English for Gercek News readers.