In the last decade, Turkey has entered multiple processes at once, including liberalization, globalization, Islamization, and polarization. As pressure for a more progressive and inclusive society has intensified, so too have pre-existing patriarchal, conservative, and authoritarian tendencies been consolidated.
The dominant discourse of Kemalism, militarism, nationalism, and secularism that has characterized the Turkish narrative are all being simultaneously challenged. In their place, other communal values that focus on Islam in lieu of ethnic purity and individualistic desires have emerged.
As these complex sets of transformations are taking place, the only certainty is that the monopoly on discourses has become diffused. Whether Islamist, secularist, feminist, or nationalist, the old elites have much less control over public discussions. As communication technologies and the global phenomenon of individualism enter Turkey, many young people are finding platforms to express their opinions and identities.
As Turkey breaks old taboos and alters its national epistemology, it has become a perfect case study of how citizens continuously construct and reconstruct national identity. In her book Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, Professor Jenny White aims to explore this phenomenon, approaching Turkey from an angle that dissects the various components of Turkishness.
The new Muslim nationalists are members of a small but increasingly visible group. They are pious, and not shy about expressing their religiosity publicly. Their lives are guided by an Islamic morality, and their understanding of Turkey is based less on a territorial or nationalist view and more on an individualistic and borderless outlook. However, similar to their secular counterparts, their mindset is equally based on blood and patriarchy, and an authoritarian sense of social engineering.
White aims to depict this emerging group as a challenge to Turkish public identity that had been constructed since the formation of the Turkish Republic. Rather than making normative claims about the Muslim Nationalists and their vision for Turkey, she chooses to analyze them and how they leave the secular Turkish mind fearful of the future of “their” Turkey.
By analyzing transformation in the Turkish psyche over the past two decades, White addresses broader themes mirrored in the Middle East. The tension between modernity and tradition, the effects of globalization on ideology, monopolies over discourses, and community alliances are among the broader regional themes highlighted in the book.
The meaning of nationalism, especially in terms of ethnic, cultural, and racial purity, is the book’s focal point. Through the example of Turkey, White also analyzes phenomena, such as social engineering through education, media and local social pressures, and the meaning of democracy to different sectors of society.
Lastly, White reserves a considerable section of her book to explore the issue of gender and the body. The author highlights how women have been disadvantaged by both secular and Islamic nationalism, and identifies the importance of the female body as a symbol of Turkish honour, Islamic chastity, and, through clothing (such as the headscarf), a representation of political leanings. Reflective of her insightful analysis, White also touches upon the significance of the male body, and explores the relationship between male blood and racial purity, as well as the role of military service in representing national strength.
To draw out the book’s various themes, White includes stories of individuals from distinct backgrounds, providing insight into the psyche of different types of Turkish citizens. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that while these stories serve to highlight significant themes, White neither claims nor should the reader assume that these individuals are representative of their groups.
White’s book highlights points of fracture in Turkish society, exploring the symbols and issues that reflect different understandings of Turkey and Turkish culture. Such symbols range from the headscarf and the Turkish flag to alcohol.
Economic factors are included in White’s analysis, including (un)employment and economic liberalization. White discusses the emergence of the Anatolian Tigers, – a group of relatively traditional and conservative businessmen from central Anatolia- and traces their relationship to the shift in Turkey’s dominant public discourse. As is the case everywhere in the world, with increased economic power comes heightened visibility and, for those on the fringes, a greater opportunity to become part of mainstream society. Accordingly, as the Anatolian Tigers gained more economic power, they used this strength to open schools and media outlets that represented their lifestyle and morality.
To put social and epistemological changes in context, the book describes significant political developments in Turkish history – for example, showing how Turkey’s efforts to join the EU, as well as Turkish understandings of Europe, have impacted the “Turkish mind”. In Turkey, accession to the EU symbolizes democratization, including civil and political rights and equality. However, different minds with distinct backgrounds and ideologies view these terms differently. As each sector of society aims to use the idealization of the EU to further their own exclusive rights, the EU becomes identified with those specific rights -such as the wearing of the headscarf- and the desire of other parts of Turkish society to enter the EU decreases. This is an example of how broader concepts in Turkey (such as democracy) are always connected to people’s specific visions for Turkish society.
An important portion of White’s book touches upon the youth, and how their minds and epistemological boundaries are shaped, as well as the social and familial expectations on their shoulders. Through this discussion, White is able to underline the importance of education and family upbringing in the creation of Turkish society.
Through specific stories and detailed explanations, White has managed to connect broad themes with Turkish realities. Her skills as an anthropologist make her book a unique analysis of recent developments in Turkish public discourse and psyche that links specifically Turkish examples and topics to general concepts, such as fear, shame and honour. By identifying these emotions, White demonstrates the connections between political ideologies, individual desires, and communal affiliations. She provides extensive interviews and first-hand observations from her subjects, providing the reader with insight into the diverse concerns and visions of Turkey’s people.
What makes White’s effort so special is that her topics are entrenched in the politics of the country, while simultaneously revealing a picture of Turkish society and psyche. In Turkey’s dynamic political context, it is quite difficult to conceptualize the numerous interests and preoccupations of the Turkish people.
In sum, Jenny White has provided readers with insightful and nuanced access to the complexities of Turkish society and a first look at a newly emerging class of individualist Muslim nationalists.
*Zeynep Kosereisoglu is pursuing an MA in Near and Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London. Her academic interests mostly focus on democratization processes in Middle Eastern states.