Revisiting the ‘National Animus’: Understanding Nationalism and Militarism in Turkey

It is worth questioning the reasons why Turkish nationalists (both national socialists and conservatives) in Turkey are prone to deploying the military in dealing with minority and Kurdish issues and why they show a tendency to speak of the “enemies” of the Turkish nation.

BY HUSREV TABAK | December 30th, 2012

As I have personally experienced many times, both academic and everyday political conversations with nationalists on minority issues tend to diverge into either talk of deploying the military or the presence of Turkey’s historical enemies. Similarly, raising critiques on the army’s disproportionate use of power or on republican-era policies that facilitated such problems make the commentator a foe, if not an enemy, of “Turkishness” and the “Turkish nation” in the eyes of nationalists. There appears to be a long-internalized and embedded rhetoric in Turkish nationalist discourse that thrives on the presence of “enemies” and on the necessity to use military force in dealing with the issues related to those enemies. The trails of this rhetoric can be traced back to the domestic politics of the late republican era.

The Turkish nationalist intellectual circles of the mid-20th century were actively debating irredentist Turkism as a survival strategy for not only Turkey but also Turkish populations abroad. The Turkish nationalist intellectuals of those days held strictly that Turkism and Turkish nationalism hinge on the legendary heroic warriorship of the Turkish nation. Thus, Turkey’s international pacifism at the time was in contradiction to the “warrior” nature of the Turkish nation and concomitantly paralyzing the willingness and eagerness of the Turkish nation to go to battle. The Turkish nation had to be ready for war and, accordingly, pacifism was a core menace to the nationalist belief. Therefore — as Fethi Tevet, Nejdet Sançar, Hıfzı Oğuz Bekata, Reha O. Türkkan, Nihal Atsız, Hüseyin N. Orkun and Yusuf Ziya Ortaç wrote extensively on — to maintain the readiness, keenness and motivation for warriorship within the Turkish nation, the “national animus” that had long been suffocated in those times needed to be rejuvenated. The presence and maintenance of the national animus was subsequently regarded as a remedy to overcome the unwanted pacifism. Perhaps the oppressive and ferocious militarist measures taken by the nationalists in republic governments were due to the national animus at work.

Creating a discourse of militarism

It is my belief that it was this mentality that produced a language and provided various vocabularies for Turkish nationalists to embark on, incentivize and justify lawful or unlawful militarism in Turkey since then.

The consequence was, for instance, the lauding of unlawful efforts of the deep state (derin devlet), police special ops teams (polis özel harekat) and the gendarmerie intelligence organization (JİTEM) in the mid-1990s. Such actors committed public criminal acts, murdering hundreds of Kurds in the Southeast, yet Turkish nationalist circles in response were, if not happy, certainly not questioning the rightfulness of those atrocious acts. By the same token, a world of evidence still could not convince them of the presence of an unlawful organization known as Ergenekon. And it was because of the aforementioned mentality that the murderer of Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist, was also heroized. This Turk of Armenian descent, along with Kurdish citizens, was a “traitor” who had to be destroyed and erased from existence on the altar of the Turkish nation, at all costs. The nationalists were willingly and eagerly upholding this task. And the national animus was active and targeting the traitors.

Another example would be a recent incident: the death of 34 civilians in Uludere, in southeast Turkey, on Dec. 28, 2011. The incident occurred when F-16s fired at Kurdish smugglers erroneously. They were thought to be (or the security forces were informed that they were) militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The result was the death of citizens of Kurdish descent, all of whom were civilians. It was a very sorrowful incident, yet the more upsetting and unpleasant issue was how so-called nationalists conceived and interpreted the incident. For instance, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli remarked that “the state did what has to be done. It was a rightful act, and a 1 percent possibility of facing a terrorist attack is more than enough for the army to eliminate the suspected targets. Therefore, the Turkish army acted rightfully in the incident.” This stance is not merely held by the MHP; social media was full of discussions and comments glorifying the military operation those days. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) interior minister alike defended the act.

Similar concerns arose when the Peace and Democracy Party’s (BDP) deputies joined a hunger strike embarked upon by imprisoned members of the PKK, demanding improvements on the Kurdish issue in early November of this year. For instance, the editor-in-chief of the national-socialist journal Türk Solu called for all involved to “let the strikers die.” To the editor, the strikers were PKK supporters and had long deserved to die, and the hunger strike was a clear and clean-cut way to get rid of them. He sarcastically invited other BDP members and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to participate in the strike and publicly declared his support for the protest. What we see here is certainly a form of militarism, one that sees the death of both militaristic and political participants of the Kurdish movement as a remedy for solving the Kurdish issue.

In the reactions by nationalists to all these events, the justifications and legitimizations were not engendered by temporary inspiration, nor spawned by a state of reaction. They were due to the constructed and reconstructed “national animus” suggested by mid-20th century Turkish nationalist intellectuals.

Politically speaking, altogether, the Turkish nationalist wing (spanning the MHP, the Rights and Equality Party [HEPAR] and segments of the AKP) concentrates its anger, resentment and hatred on the PKK and the BDP (and other minorities who ask for their rights). In the same vein, when we listen to retired Turkish generals such as Ramiz İlker and Osman Pamukoğlu (also leaders of HEPAR), we see an antagonism against the PKK and the BDP in exactly the same tone that the MHP, Türk Solu or other nationalists enjoy. They code formal Kurdish (or minority) presence in the country as a threat to the Turkish state or even the existence of the Turkish nation.

Endorsing the concept of national animus

So, how should this problem be handled? Turkish nationalists prominently address the “legendary heroic warriorship of the Turkish nation” in dealing with the enemy. To engender and stimulate this warriorship, it appears that the concept of national animus is underscored. Consequently, militarism or the use of the army in dealing with societal issues is legitimized.

This explains why Turkish nationalists hinge on militarism. The national animus sparks the “legendary heroic warriorship of the Turkish nation” and accordingly militarism. Here, the nationalist stance, discourse, policymaking, etc., rely on a target for anger, hatred, enmity and antagonism and one which will keep those feelings alive. This holds true for contemporary Turkish nationalists, although Alparslan Türkeş, the founding father of the MHP, denounced the concept of national animus and argued that Turkish nationalism is antagonistic towards those defined as the “others.” At this juncture, we see that concepts of the legendary heroic warriorship of the Turkish nation, the maintenance of national animus and the militarism involved in invigorating the national animus mutually constitute and reinforce each other in nationalist discourse.

In conclusion, whether or not the contemporary nationalists deliberately hold onto the legacy of mid-20th century Turkish nationalists, it is obviously beyond doubt that they share in the basic platform expressed above. Subsequently, these basic principles continue to constitute and shape the daily discourse of Turkish nationalists, thus providing justification for “just and rightful” military acts against the “traitors” of the country.

*Husrev Tabak is the Deputy Director-General of CESRAN International,
** The article first appeared at Today’s Zaman.
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