As the structure of the Turkish right is shifting, it is difficult to determine its nature. While most Islamists refuse to call themselves ‘right-wing’, the right remains an umbrella notion that includes Islamism, conservatism, nationalism and religiosity. As the writer and academic Tarık Çelenk puts it: understanding right-wing politics can allow for a better conception of Turkish political history. As most people in Turkey tend to be rightwing, it is crucial to understand this category. Hence the following interview.
Q: Before delving into Turkish right-wing politics, let us consider the notions of right and belonging to it in a Turkish context. Though it is difficult to provide a standard description of this political group as it is scattered, how would you describe it?
Tarık Çelenk: Attempting to define the Turkish right according to international literature would be wrongheaded. First of all, the Turkish right is not always bent on protecting values and traditions in the usual sense of the word ‘conservatism.’ Besides, the working class often supports the right rather than the left. The nature of the current Turkish right can be traced back to the 1970s. Back then, both the right and the left fought viciously against each other in an armed struggled that culminated in the 1980 coup.
During that time, while Islamist nationalists and conservative democrats stressed their respective differences, they were united under the “Nationalist Front” and adopted a joint political stance against the left. The latter bloc was made up of those who considered themselves progressive, secularists, Kemalists and revolutionists.
Whilst writing my book, a respected academic and politician suggested I call it the ‘local and national position’ rather than the ‘Turkish right.’ Whatever you want to call it, one can read Turkey’s political-social history for the past 200 years through two umbrella definitions for both the right and the left.
Q: What you’re saying is that though the Turkish right goes back to a historical foundation, this foundation differs from its current reality. Could you elaborate a little?
Tarık Çelenk: Generally speaking, the Turkish right has to do with advocating the continuation of the Turkish state, Sunni Islam and Sufism. It emphasizes that these elements have prevailed for 1,000 years and should continue to prevail. Yet the reality of these phenomena is at odds with the philosophy of the Turkish right. First of all, the historical imperial Turkish states all bore cosmopolitan features. In contrast, the Turkish right’s nationalism is marked by an exclusionist approach and collective narcissism. In Europe, nationalism came about as an ideology of the bourgeois class in city-states.
In Turkish political history, on the other hand, nationalism emerged through the relationship between the state and the rural regions. In the 19th century, European nationalism was in line with the interests of the bourgeois class. Yet in Turkey, nationalism has coincided with the interests of the peasantry. In that sense, the Turkish right should shift to a conciliatory and healthier form of cultural nationalism. While the Turkish right reveres the state, it sees no problem in capturing it and engaging in clientelism. Again, this reality is at odds with its own ideals.
Q: How would you characterize the relationship between the right Islamism? Are you implying that Islamism and nationalism go hand in hand?
Tarık Çelenk: This stems from the modernization and popularization of Islamism. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Islamists were very different to what they are now. Despite that, Islamism back then sought local intellectuals and a solution to the Ottoman Empire’s woes. Many well-educated urban elites adhered to it. It was a political stance, as was nationalism.
When the Turkish republic was established as a secular and national state, Islamism became redundant. While Turkish Islamism has undergone many transformations, it remained confined to rural areas. Eventually, common concerns and interests seem to have united Islamism, nationalism and ultra-nationalism under one banner.
Ultimately, I’d like to point out that as a religion, Islam should be universal. The national orthodox churches of Serbian and Russia are largely the product of nationalism. Mosques and Islamic institutions should, in theory, aspire to universality. For nationalizing them would undermine their spirituality. A localized religion would lose its metaphysical meaning.
Q: In the book, you say that a lumpen peasantry has captured Islamism while the concerns of the rural people have been camouflaged under the banner of Islam. Is that right?
Tarık Çelenk: Under Ottoman rule, Anatolia always remained rural. Efforts by the Turkish Republic to transform the rural regions failed. With the rural exodus, cities turned into giant villages and the nationalist/Islamist mentality moved from the countryside to the city. What Adrenalin is to the human body, religion and nationalism are to society. I believe the lumpen Islamist/nationalist mentality has largely to do with survival anxiety. This is something politicians have capitalized on through populism.
Q: What about the relationship between ethnic nationalism and pan-Turkism and the right as a whole?
Tarık Çelenk: The main reason why the Turkish right has not been able to develop a methodology and discipline of its own is because it is dogmatic. Though rural national bourgeois revolution occurred in Anatolia, the Anatolian tigers behind it never had an intellectual leader to support and promote their ideals.
Q: What you’re saying is that the right is reluctant to transform and it is for this reason that it could never catch movement.
Tarık Çelenk: In rightwing neighborhoods, opinion leaders never hailed from middle-class and well-educated families. They were all poor youths of Anatolia. For years, foreign schools offering solid education were regarded with fear. Ironically, all good writers came out of these schools.
Since the 1970s, those right-wing people from Anatolian towns never learned to become individuals. They never had the intellectual infrastructure and ethics. There’s also a serious peer, or neighborhood pressure exerted on some valuable intellectuals on the nationalist wing of the Turkish right. Those under pressure prefer to remain silent rather than discuss certain topics.
Q: One has the impression that the Turkish right lacks a principled stance, and this precludes systemic thinking.
Tarık Çelenk: The Turkish right has long suffered from the so-called Sèvres Syndrome according to which minorities have always acted a fifth columns for foreign powers. With this mindset, it is difficult to adopt a universal moral stance.
Q: The current right and conservatives see the West as an enemy of Islam. How do you evaluate this?
Tarık Çelenk: We have emphasized the rural character of the Turkish right. For those who lack self-confidence, the good always belongs to them while the bad always lies in the outside world. In rural group identities and ideologies, there is no gray area. There is black and white, villains and heroes.
Today, we live in post-truth era where perceptions dominate. But again, it may not be adequate to explain this psychology with right populism and the incapacity to fathom grey areas. As Muslims were offended by globalization and Israel, they developed new psychological reactions to their beleaguered position.
Q: How do you envisage the future of the Turkish right? How could it deal with its problems?
Tarık Çelenk: First of all, it should tackle its lack of self-confidence and face all the realities of Turkish and Islamic history. For instance, it should really be honest with regards to the Kurdish issue and the Armenian trauma. It should also do away with its constant heroic and epic narratives. In fact, this boastful rhetoric only lends credence to the counter-theses. The Turkish right should examine our past truthfully and relinquish its fear that facts will undermine Muslim-Turkish identity. Through the cosmopolitan and equal nature of Turkishness as well as through the universal-focused Sufism, the Turkish right should aspire to humanity as a whole.
Who is Tarık Çelenk?
Born in eastern province of Erzurum in 1961, Tarık Çelenk graduated from Istanbul Technical University in Electronics. Çelenk served in the navy from 1982 to 1999 when he resigned as a major. He then worked in the private sector and served as in the executive committee of İSKİ, the Water Works Department of the Municipality Istanbul. Çelenk also served as the executive of the thinktank Ekopolitik between 2005 and 2011. Later still, he was the editor-in-chief of Vakıfbak Culture Publishing. Tarık Çelenk is the author of several books including “The Thought Atlas of the Turkish Right.”