Understanding Turkish Nationalism

by Yasser Latif Hamdani

Further to the Part 2 of Shaheryar Ali’s “Historiography” series, in particular the tangential reference to Turkish Nationalism contained therein, I am sharing a few thoughts for the readers of the Pak Tea House.

Given the importance of the said discussion, it is important to set the record on straight.  Ali’s main thrust is that since Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish Nationalism took an increasingly European character, it was not a kind of Muslim nationalism but an ethnic one or linguistic one.  All of the arguments thus presented have not done anything to reveal the true nature of Turkish nationalism but rather rely on subsequent modernist endeavors of Ataturk and the Kemalist Turkish state to move away from an overtly Islamic identity to whitewash the history and context of Ataturk’s tremendous achievement i.e. leading a multitude of hapless and disoriented Muslim masses to modern nationhood and a republican national state.

There is no doubt that after the Republic of Turkey was a firm fact, Kemal Ataturk set about on a reform agenda that dis-established Islamism gradually from law and the state, a project which reached its completion in 1928.  By substituting Latin alphabet for Arabic, he made an attempt to Europeanize his people and to make them less dependent on Islam.  However this does not overturn the fact that Mustapha Kemal Ataturk was product of an exclusive Muslim nationalist consciousness that has emerged towards the end of the Ottoman Empire which increasingly felt threatened by the growing influence of the “Non-Turks”  i.e. Greek Orthodox Christians,  Armenian Christians etc.   Born in Salonika in 1881,   Kemal Ataturk was by circumstance of birth a Macedonian.   It was his religion and his training as an Ottoman Turk officer that made him part of the Turkish military elite which had grown increasingly wary of foreign interference in Ottoman Empire.  Young Turk Revolution, of which Kemal Ataturk was an insignificant part, was the first expression of the new discontent that Turkish Army officers felt.  Interestingly one of the main ideological inspirations for the Young Turk Revolution came from the works of Syed Ameer Ali,  one of the founders of the Muslim League and Muslim nationalism in South Asia.  Turkey’s defeat in the First World War set the stage for Kemal Ataturk.   Facing humiliation of an unfair treaty, allied occupation and Greek invasion,  Kemal set about mobilizing the Muslims of Anatolia around the slogans of Islam and Jehad against the invading “infidels” .   He established in Ankara a national government and won tremendous victories defeating the Greeks and forcing the allies to re-negotiate a new treaty at Lausanne which legally established the Turkish state in essence prompting his foremost biographer, Andrew Mango, to declare that “Ataturk won his place in history by directing the successful resistance of the Muslim inhabitants of Anatolia” (Page 532, “Ataturk” by Andrew Mango,  1999 – Overlook Press,  Woodstock and New York).

The word “Turk” was virtually indistinguishable from the word Muslim in European imagination.  It had the same sense “Moor” once had in Spain or the word “Saracen” had come to mean in Orientalist literature. (It might have extended beyond Europe. Even in Kasur, Bulleh Shah had famously declared that he was neither a Hindu nor a Turk –Turk meaning Muslim).  It was on this principle that the Treaty of Lausanne set up the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece.  Treaty of Lausanne was the first of its kind as it established “religion as ethnicity” as a legitimate principle in international politics. Zionists in Palestine and Muslim Nationalists in South Asia replicated the same principle two decades later.

Kemal Ataturk himself declared:  “The Turkish Nation is the main component of the Turkish state.  But there are other  components.  They do not have to share the <B>Turkish nation’s Muslim religion</B>.”  In other words,  Ataturk himself was clear that Turkish Nationalism is a form of Muslim Nationalism but he sought to establish a new Turkish nation,  in the same vain that Jinnah after partition tried to inculcate an inclusive Pakistani identity which embraced all communities regardless of religion caste or creed.  Unlike Ataturk, and unfortunately for us, Jinnah died soon after and did not get the opportunity of establishing this new nationalism and complete the transition from group nationalism to territorial nationalism.

Kemal Ataturk’s modernist nationalist impulse right from the beginning was borne out of the discontent that young Muslim Ottomans felt when they saw the Muslim district (Stambul) of Constantinople in darkness but the Non-Muslim district merry with street lamps and cafes and whorehouses.   The Ottoman Empire had implemented the “Millet” System which allowed for considerable judicial and political autonomy to various religious communities.   Thus Muslims of the Ottoman Empire were handicapped not just by their arrogance but also Islamic law which placed restrictions against alcohol, usury etc.  Thus at the turn of the 20th century, Non-Muslim Ottomans prospered while Muslim Ottoman elite (or the “Turks”) saw a steady decline in their fortune.  This had a profound impact on Kemal Ataturk.  The modern age for the Muslim world to which Albert Hourani and Eqbal Ahmad referred to saw the rise of a progressive Muslim nationalism based on reform and modernity.  Eqbal Ahmad had ascribed secular Jinnah’s conversion to Muslim nationalism to this progressive aspect of it. However this progressive Muslim national consciousness was first expressed by Turkish Nationalism.   Contrary to what Ali says in his article, even Kemal Ataturk’s attempts to modernize and westernize Turkey were also an expression of his latent Muslim nationalism.  To him Islam was the religion of the Turks but he sought to modernize and Turkify Islam to better suit the Turkish nation.   Contrary to the claims made by Ali,   Ataturk did not ban Azan in Arabic but tried to replace it with a Turkish version.  In this he was following the ideology and vision of Mehmet Ziya Gokalp, the philosopher held to be the “Father of Turkish Nationalism” and one of the biggest influences on Kemal Ataturk.

Gokalp had written the famous pamphlet “Principles of Turkism”, the bible of Turkish Nationalism.   In this he had defined the Turkish Nation as Turkish speaking Hanafi Sunnis of the region of Anatolia, Muslim in faith and European in civilization.  Gokalp’s grandiose vision was of a Republican Turkey, modern, Sunni Muslim and European, leading a Pan-Islamic and Pan-Turkic alliance of nations towards modernity and civilization. It was he who inspired Allama Iqbal who mentions him in his “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” lectures.  Like Iqbal, Ziya Gokalp was also inspired by Nietzsche and took his “Superman” concept and applied it to the Turk.  Iqbal’s Mard-e-Momin was thus twice removed from Nietzche’s Superman losing its racial teeth.   Ataturk modified Gokalp’s vision by dropping Pan-Islamic and Pan-Turkic ambitions but he remained committed to a modernized and Turkified identity for Muslim of Anatolia.
Shaheryar Ali raises the question if Kemal Ataturk ever invoked religion or made pledges of Quran and Sunnah?   The simple and straightforward answer to that is many times more than say Jinnah ever did.

Ataturk’s speeches between 1917-1922 were replete with references to the Holy Prophet, Islam and Muslims.   Jinnah’s appeal to religion had always been to establish congruence between Modern governance and Muslim cultural ethos.   In contrast Kemal Ataturk used the emotive appeal of Islam to wage his valiant struggle against the invading Greeks.  In his famous speech to the Turkish Parliament in 1928 he explained the need to do so, submitting that at the time an appeal to religion was necessary to secure the future of the Turkish Nation.  Ataturk’s harsh treatment of religion more so after 1928 was also a result of his latent Muslim nationalism for he had begun to see religion had caused Muslims to stay away from trades and commerce and left them backward.   Muslim Nationalism does not require an affirmation of orthodox Islamic identity.   At times, Muslim nationalists may use Islamic symbols to mobilize their people as the Turk Nationalists did in the war of independence and Muslim League during the Pakistan Movement, but at the heart of the Muslim nationalist project is always progress and sovereignty for its constituents.

Thus it made perfect sense that Ataturk moved so forcefully and decisively towards dis-establishing Islam from the state after having used it successfully to mobilize the Turks.


Filed under History, Identity, Islam, Islamism

14 responses to “Understanding Turkish Nationalism

  1. PMA

    Both Turkey and Pakistan derive their national symbolism from their Muslim heritage. Both nations chose to feature Islamic symbol of ‘crescent & star’ on their respective flags.

  2. zak

    Attaturks usage of Islam initially is well known, it is a common between him, King Amanullah and the Shah of Iran. I am surprised it was challenged in the previous article.

  3. YLH


    Ofcourse. But then again the question is whether the Turks got those symbols from Islam or did Islam get it from the Turks?

    In any event, in 1920s it was as much an Islamic symbol as the Fez but unlike that greek headware, Ataturk persisted with the crescent and the star.



  4. PMA

    Islamic symbolism predates Turkish nationalism. Muslim practise of placing crescent atop mosque domes and minarets goes back to medieval days. In modern era most Muslim states, constitutionally secular or not, have chosen ‘crescent & star’ along with green and red colors as national symbols. Just look at their respective national flags.

  5. YLH:

    You need to explain something more – or at least I am a little confused

    Ataturk’s invoking of Islam to mobilise Turks was a strategic move, a calculated political stratagem; however, it does not take away the fact that his essential idea of a Turk state was quite European in character.

    The drive towards modernity was inspired by the European experience; while the material conditions were missing in Turkey?

  6. zak

    A side point on the story of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish nationalism is the story of Enver Pasha..as well as the massive displacement of Turkish people in the population exchange that followed. The Turkic “mohajirs”

  7. PMA

    zak: Interesting you mention Turkic (read Muslim) ‘mohajars’ of Turkey. These Muslim families of South-eastern Europe have horrific personal stories to tell. But equally disturbing are the personal stories of the Anatolian Greek Orthodox families that were pushed out of their homes. This was a religion based ‘ethnic cleansing’ that was later repeated in other parts of the world. How is that Turkey is 97% Muslim today….a land that was Christian only few centuries before Muslim arrival? There is a difference between a polity that organically evolves as a multi-cultural secular society and an ‘ethnically cleansed’ country that adopts secularism as its manifesto. Both Turkey and Greece are constitutionally secular countries minus their Muslim/Christian populations.

    When it comes to Turkey-Greece historic conflict and the role religion played on both sides, I am afraid our Pakistani friend Shaheryar Ali has no clue what he is talking about.

  8. YLH



    However the Turkish identity was exclusively a Muslim identity.

  9. YLH

    PS. I think the main issue here (and the relevance of it is) the similarity between the Pakistan demand and Turkish national question.

    Zak and PMA have done a very good job explaining it much better than I have.

  10. YLH


    That is a very important point.

    Even in the first category …multi-religious state organically becoming secular, there might be a subcategory of a once homogenous society becoming organically multicultural through adoption of secularism. US, France and United Kingdom (this last one being secular in principle) are examples of this.

    There are to my mind three countries where already existing warring communities were brought together under secular systems:

    1. USSR

    2. Yugoslavia

    3. India

    India alone has survived largely because of its 85 percent Hindu majority cutting across other divides.

    The first two were doomed to fail because were totalitarian commie regimes.

  11. As a layperson, Orhan Pamuk’s writings have proved very helpful to my understanding of the Turkish identity issue. His novel “Snow” is particularly significant as is Freely’s “Enlightenment”.

    You can check out these two novels here:



  12. YLH

    Turkish identity is dynamic and Pamuk is a great writer.

    However we are discussing Turkish identity as it existed at the end of the first world war.

  13. YLH

    PS. PMA,

    Turkey is actually 99 percent Muslim whereas the same region in 1921 had huge Christian population.

  14. YLH

    Sherry… you are requested to please respond here.