An Intellectual History of Turkish Nationalism

Between Turkish Ethnicity and Islamic Identity

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Umut Uzer
Utah Series in Middle East Studies
  • Salt Lake City, UT: 
    University of Utah Press
    , April
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The development of Turkish nationalism has long been a popular topic of study for scholars within and beyond Turkey. Heir to the multicultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has a complicated history of ethnic, cultural, and religious politics that has provided fertile ground for studies examining the process of nation formation. These studies, by scholars such as Soner Çağaptay, Hugh Poulton, and Carter Vaughn Findley among others, have often focused on the interrelationship between different strands of nationalist thought, emphasizing how secular, religious, and cultural movements all competed and intertwined to form the modern nation of Turkey today. 

Umut Uzer’s An Intellectual History of Turkish Nationalism: Between Turkish Ethnicity and Islamic Identity seeks to join this crowded company, providing a detailed historical look at the various intellectual currents that drove different interpretations of what, exactly, the Turkish nation should look like. For Uzer, the three most important varieties of Turkish nationalism are what he terms “Kemalist,” “Ethnic,” and “Cultural” (3), a division that maps relatively closely onto the secular, ethnic, and religious division other scholars have made. Here, Uzer provides a detailed textual analysis, examining the writings and public statements of intellectuals and statesmen from each of these perspectives. Uzer traces these intellectual trends from their origins in the tumultuous last decades of the Ottoman Empire through the creation of the modern Republic of Turkey. This fine-grained approach combines the rigor of textual analysis with the scope of a longue durée analysis in a way that proves fruitful, allowing Uzer to connect modern political ideas and events to the intellectual forbears that set the conditions under which the Turkish political system continues to operate. 

The book is divided into five substantive chapters, each of which examines a different ideational trend in Turkish nationalist thought. Chapter 1 traces the process by which national ideals replaced the fading dream of an overarching Ottomanism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Uzer points to three main factors as critical to abandonment of Ottomanism and the development of national consciousness in Turkey: 1) independence movements that placed an emphasis on ethnicity, religion, and nationality; 2) linguistic and historical studies in Europe and the Ottoman Empire itself emphasizing a distinct sense of Turkish identity; and 3) the immigration of highly educated Turks from Central Asia and the fringes of the Turkish world into Anatolia itself (2). Under the influence of new ideas of national identity and self-determination, first emanating from Europe and then elaborated on by Turkish intellectuals, a new Turkey that would be of, by, and for Turks themselves seemed the only logical move forward. Chapter 2 examines the intellectual contributions of Ziya Gōlap and Yusuf Akçura, the twin pillars of nationalist thought who would come to define much of the idea of Turkishness around which the movement would coalesce. Though they differed in their emphases—Akçura favored a definition of Turkishness centered around race and ethnicity while Gökalp privileged religion and culture—their works were instrumental in steering ideological currents toward embracing the idea of a new bounded and exclusionary form of nation-state. 

Chapter 3 switches gears to examine the development of Kemalist ideas of the nation, an ideology centered upon secularism, state power, and a move towards civic and territorial definitions of the nation. Chapter 4 explores a competing version of nationalist thought that, drawing on earlier work in the vein of Akçura, emphasized ethnicity as the core of Turkish national identity. Here Uzer explores figures who pursued ethnic exclusionism with zeal, taking a racist perspective that argued for a racially pure Turkish ethnicity as the logical and desired conclusion of nationalist politics. Scholars of religion are likely to be most interested in chapter 5, which addresses the rise of conservative nationalism, a movement rooted in the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, a perspective that viewed Islam as the central organizing characteristic around which the nation should form. Uzer argues that this movement transformed Turkish nationalism from an essentially radical and revolutionary movement to one rooted in older and traditional ideals of religion as a means of social cohesion and solidarity. This movement is also notable, Uzer argues, in that it is echoed by the religious emphasis of modern Turkey’s Justice and Development Party which, under the leadership of now-President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has dominated Turkish politics for the last two decades. 

The book’s strengths lie in Uzer’s obvious command of a wide variety of primary sources from all points of the Turkish nationalist spectrum, many of which are inaccessible to English-speaking audiences. Though pivotal figures such as Gökalp and Akçura are relatively well known to Western scholars, Uzer brings to light a range of voices and perspectives that rarely feature in Anglophone studies. This wealth of material provides fascinating insight into many of the lesser known but still influential figures who helped shape the Turkish nation.

This strength, however, leads directly to one of the book’s most frustrating flaws. While Uzer’s grasp of the intricacies of ideological thought is superb, the discussion of one intellectual after another quickly becomes rote. Uzer introduces a wide variety of figures but does so in a way that lacks any sort of connective fiber, central narrative, or theoretical core that might help to contextualize the individual figures’ thoughts. Instead, the introduction of each figure consists of a description and summary of their work before Uzer moves on to the next figure in line. The very short introduction and conclusion seem like a missed opportunity to develop a deeper and more meaningful analysis that could incorporate Uzer’s textual analysis into a larger theory of Turkish nationalism.

In sum, Uzer’s introduction of new voices and new sources into the study of Turkish nationalism is welcomed. Scholars interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the diversity of nationalist thought during and after the transition from Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic will find much of value here. Those interested in a more theoretical or explanatory text tracing the larger picture of Turkish nationalism, however, are likely to find that other volumes already on the market better fit their needs. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gregory J. Goalwin is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Aurora University.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Umut Uzer is associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Istanbul Technical University. He is the author of Identity and Turkish Foreign Policy: The Kemalist Influence in Cyprus and the Caucasus.


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