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Report: Turkey Nationalism on Upsurge Again

FILE - Banners with pictures of modern Turkey's founder Ataturk and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan are pictured during the opening ceremony of Recep Tayyip Erdogan Imam Hatip School in Istanbul, Turkey, Sep. 29, 2017.

Turkey is undergoing a new nationalist wave led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) concludes.

The report and the findings of polls and focus groups conducted in Turkey late last year conclude that Erdogan is trying to craft a new nationalism.

"He is doing this with his political rhetoric, but he is also drawing on a genuine upswelling of nationalism from the Turkish populists" Max Hoffman, one of the report's authors, told VOA.

Hoffman said this new nationalism includes "real hostility towards the West, particularly the U.S., but also Germany and Europe. Correlated to that, there is widespread hostility towards Syrian refugees and to some extent, other immigrants to Turkey."

Ali Cınar, president of the Turkish Heritage Organization, said the main reason for the anti-U.S. attitude in Turkey is the anger against Washington for not extraditing U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and for supporting the Syrian Kurdish militia group YPG in the war against Islamic State.

FILE - U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen is seen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, July 29, 2016.
FILE - U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen is seen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, July 29, 2016.

"Everybody in Turkey, both government and opposition, are sensitive about these two issues and they are in consensus. So it's wrong to see this as AK Party's [the ruling party in Turkey] cause and this is the biggest mistake some other countries are making," Cinar said.

"I don't think the main reason for the increase in nationalist rhetoric in Turkey is clearly reflected in the report," he added. "Also, it's not clear to me how realistically the report has reached to a conclusion that there were sharp divides about the overall direction of the country."

Since the 1920s, the Turkish republic has set its course toward more secular nationalism. But the report says the new nationalism brought by Erdogan is "assertively Muslim, fiercely independent; distrusting of outsiders; and skeptical of other nations and global elites, which it perceives to hold Turkey back."

Although a considerable number of Turks believe Islam has a central role in their national identity, there's also wide support for Turkey to remain secular.

"There is a component within the ruling party AKP, of about 35 percent, who put Islamic messages at the core," said Hoffman, adding that the rest of the party "OK with this religious rhetoric, but they also believe that Turkey is a secular state."

FILE - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during a rally in Bursa, Turkey, Jan. 21, 2018.
FILE - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during a rally in Bursa, Turkey, Jan. 21, 2018.

"They feel Erdogan is fulfilling Ataturk's legacy by being more independent and stronger vis-a-vis the West, and by charting [the country's] own course and being a strong leader just looking after Turkey's interests," he said. "And you could call them the 'Turkey Firsters'" — a reference to U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign slogan.

With nationalism rising, anti-Westernism is also finding deeper roots in Turkey. The CAP poll found only 10 percent of Turks have a favorable view of the United States, and 83 percent have a negative view. The total favorability rate for Europe is 21 percent.

Hoffman said "neither the West nor even Erdogan really want a clear break, but what this public opinion and this anger does is it narrows the options that leaders on both sides have."`

He said U.S.-Turkish relations are close to the breaking point, but "whether or not that break really happens is primarily in Erdogan's hands."


Elaborating further, the author said if Turkey's military operation against the YPG in Syria's northwest Afrin region is expanded into Manbij, where U.S. forces are deployed, then Washington may be forced to make "difficult choices."

Describing the Afrin operation as "the common action by the Turkish people against terror and the PKK that has killed 40,000 people in Turkey", Cinar said it was wrong to read the nationalism in Turkey as "extreme", since nationalism is on the rise in Europe as well and the fact that President Trump also used nationalist rhetoric in his election campaign.

Hoffman also played down the possibility of another right-wing challenger taking Erdogan's place because Erdogan himself garnered most of the support of the right-wing electorate.

"So all of the issues that a right-wing challenger might use to sort of run to the right of Erdogan and appeal to nationalist voters Erdogan himself has now done to head off that challenge," he said.

According to the Center for American Progress report, if Turks were to vote this Sunday, 49 percent of them would choose the governing AKP while the closest contender would only get half of that percentage.