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Turkey’s Nationalist Agenda for Seizing Cultural Hegemony

Waging a Cultural War

A seventy-year-old monumental cultural center at the heart of Istanbul is being torn down while a new mosque is hastily being erected directly across from it. The president of Turkey celebrated the bulldozing of the emblematic structure with a cry addressing his imagined archenemy, the Gezi protesters, in the first person : “Rant and rave, [but] we demolished it !”

The impoverishment of social life and degeneration of interpersonal trust in Turkey are unlikely to end anytime soon. The government takes pride in announcing that they are determined to re-design social life in Turkey in order to protect citizens from the bad habits of joy, entertainment, and amusement. Recklessly interfering in the private lives of citizens, from intimate relationships to dress codes, the government acknowledges that it has nonetheless been unable to seize full control of cultural space. On several occasions, the president himself expressed his disappointment in the government’s achievements in the areas of education and culture. In a memorable speech last May, he put it bluntly : “We have been in power for fourteen years, but we still have problems with ruling in the social and cultural field.” Perhaps the venue, more than his choice of words, sheds light on the kind of audience he wishes to address. The speech was delivered to the general assembly of an “educational and cultural" foundation heavily backed by the government and known for its nationalist-moral orientation. It is no secret that the government and government-operated civil society organizations (CSOs) have long pledged to nurture a generation of religious youth. This alliance has been designed to endow youth with a set of nationalist-moral principles bolstered by a devout social network in order to produce cultural hegemony.

So far, however, the alliance has only managed to push young people away from the social and cultural sphere whenever culture implies allegedly alien values, convictions, or behaviors. Their ideological project is nothing more than instilling a national ideal based on disdain for everything other than what is designated as native, national, and religious. This nationalist ideal comes to life through a huge collection of social, educational, and cultural “consciousness raising” programs established by the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Ministry of National Education, and the Presidency of Religious Affairs. However, there is no mention of the opinions or positions of the target group. The impact of such mass indoctrination, even for the purpose of political propaganda, is simply lacking. Interestingly, absence of relevant data sheds some light on the nature of the field of incubation they have created : The youth—at least those exposed to the doctrine—are being drawn away from their peers, as well as from other youth around the world.

Regardless of what the “youth participation” activity might be, the theme is always one of national and religio-moral values (milli ve manevi değerler) amalgamated with heroic stories of the glorious victories of “our” ancestors who were always eager to die for “our” land. The harvest of these activities has yet to be seen. The present state of affairs offers little tangible evidence of a model for youth prosperity or flourishing in the educational and cultural sphere, particularly since the primary emphasis remains on the figure of the youth as martyr. The amalgam of activities run by the state and state-sponsored institutions all support the core principle of Turkey’s constitution : Sacrifice yourself for the sake of the state’s survival !

But how exactly is a religious generation of the highest nationalist moral standard created ? What methods are understood to germinate fresh sprouts out of ancient seeds ? What is the nature of the material replacing the secular curricula, material that is expected to cure the ailments caused by alien knowledge from Western cultures ? How do the prospective hegemons expect to triumph in the cultural sphere ?

Over the past fifteen years, the number of religious imam-hatip schools (covering secondary education) has increased seven-fold, with one in every six students presently in religious schooling. Gender segregation has expanded, mostly under the guise of vocational training. Taken together with the increase in the number of divinity faculties, from seventeen to over a hundred, and the accelerated boost in the budget of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, it is safe to say that the drive to seize cultural hegemony is stronger than ever before. A recent coup de grâce came when texts on evolution were excluded from Turkish secondary school curricula, postponing the teaching of evolution hypothetically to post-secondary study. Anything originating outside of Turkish-Muslim [1] milieu is systematically being cast off in favor of a puritanical podium upon which to resurrect an ancient civilization deemed superior to all other nations. A detailed account of this drive for hegemony is only truly possible through exhaustive research on education and training programs across all government bodies as well as the civil society organizations they partner with, locally and globally. Nonetheless, since the youth is the primary target group, a quick review of projects being conducted by the Ministry of Youth and Sports (MYS) gives a fairly good idea of the scope of the ambition.

Creating the Native-Foreign Divide

Out of nearly a hundred projects listed on the MYS’s web page, half of them could readily be classified under the nationalist-religious-moralist category. This does not mean that the remaining half are neutral or endorse liberal social-educational-cultural learning or exchange. On the contrary, the overarching theme of these projects is to encourage the native and discourage the foreign. The word “foreign” is the key term standing in as a euphemism for the “enemy,” and it therefore serves to differentiate the native. The activities of the MYS, and the alliance in general, define the borders of the nationalist-religious-moral category not only by favoring nativity but also, more specifically, by discrediting foreignness and foreigners. In this framing, anyone who is not identified with the native category is deemed foreign, regardless of citizenship status or socio-cultural background. In other words, foreignness does not only apply to foreigners outside the borders of the Republic of Turkey, but to its own citizens who might like to think or live on liberal, democratic, or secular terms.

The project of indoctrination gained momentum right after the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016. The ministry immediately started a campaign named “This is Experience Speaking : The Heroes within Us,” targeting the youth audience. The program brought together young people with the “heroes” who took to the streets to resist the coup on the night of the attempt. The program was ostensibly intended to share and transfer the experiences of “the heroes who fought for democracy.” The campaign has been realized in all eighty one of Turkey’s provinces. Central and local authorities, military officers, bar association presidents, and government-operated CSOs are among the leading supporters of the campaign. It is worth noting that universities played an active role in the campaign : in more than half of the provinces, universities either hosted the events, or the rectors of those universities participated in the events.

The campaign also involved site visits to generate a sharper image and a deeper meaning regarding the coup attempt. In terms of its extent and duration, the campaign was the largest scale mobilization program in the history of youth activities in Turkey. Ultimately, the activity was designed to compel youth to identify with the anti-coup demonstrators and to disidentify with the rest. In other words, the image that the campaign aimed to create was that anyone who does not actively resist or fully identify with the anti-coup demonstrators is a foreign body, a non-native, and thus, a threat to the state.

Expropriating Civil Society

The MYS is, in fact, duplicating methods (but not the organizational structure) that have been used by independent CSOs. Normally, CSOs are supposed to offer best practices for governments to replicate and disseminate. However, in the Turkish case, the MYS took the lead and provided the CSOs with best practices to follow. Other state institutions, too, put every effort into embellishing their repertoires of civic participation with educational and cultural activities that serve as youth indoctrination programs. Thus, the indoctrination policy not only provided the top-down justification for government-operated CSOs to propagate the nationalist-moral program ; it also furnished the government with bottom-up initiatives to boost the pledge.

By forcing all educational and cultural perspectives through a native and national (yerli ve milli) prism, the present government’s attempt to manufacture cultural hegemony is tantamount to the destruction of the social and cultural life of the country. The role reversal of state and society is striking—far from serving the people, the government appropriates social life to produce a citizenry that will serve the state. In light of this reversal, it is hardly surprising that this project has a legal basis. The present government is able to pursue cultural hegemony not only through their share of the popular vote, but also by virtue of Article 58 of the Constitution, which provides the state, at least implicitly, with the “lawful” ratification to take necessary measures to ensure the unobjectionable moral and scientific education of the youth. Short and versatile, Article 58 accommodates two complementary objectives : The state is tasked with ensuring the “education and development” of youth to ensure that they can withstand ideas that threaten “the indivisible totality of the state.” Accordingly, Article 58 also enjoins the “protection” of youth from infirmities like alcohol, drug use, or gambling, as they could hamper their preparedness. Notably, “ignorance” is cited under the latter category of vices to protect youth against, rather than the former category of education and development. The constitutional text does not bother to guarantee a quality education. Instead, the constitution ordains vigilant training against ideas that oppose the state’s official discourses. Ignorance is synonymous with a failure to pledge absolute loyalty to the state.

In its socio-historical context, Article 58 is the direct opposite of raising and educating self-governing youth who may freely choose their own ways of life. The programs launched by the MYS are truly consistent with the state’s duties under Article 58 [2] of the Turkish Constitution. Outrageously, the public authority in Turkey asks people to set their autonomy aside and assume the obligations assigned by the collective mandate implied by Article 58.. The state condemns any qualification deemed to serve a body other than itself. The transformation of the citizen into a state-sanctioned agent with no autonomy lays bare the fact that freedom of expression has been entirely ineffectual in Turkey’s veiled democracy. Not only has Article 58 outlived previous coups and constitutional amendments ; it also maintains its status despite the fact that much of the Constitution has been de facto suspended due to the state of emergency (olağanüstü hal, or OHAL, in effect since the failed coup of 15 July 2016), and de jure altered by the 16 April 2017 presidential referendum. Though the last traces of an already weak rule of law have been totally eliminated in Turkey, Article 58 survived.

Article 58 is so ironically powerful that it can be mobilized to undermine the rest of the Constitution. No constitutional provision other than Article 58 better explains the grounds of the president’s numerous brazen violations of the Constitution, most recently in his efforts to retract the right to education for the Bosphorus University students who were protesting celebrations of Turkey’s cross-border military operations. It was no big surprise that his rage against the protesters followed the president’s recent speech to the Bosphorus University Alumni and his complaints that Bosphorus University – one of the last few examples of a public institution committed to liberal education – does not lean on the values and virtues of the nation and the homeland. Once again, the youth who rejected the religious, nativist, and nationalist prescriptions of Article 58 were declared enemies of the state, no matter how peaceful their autonomous protest.


[1The experiences of Muslims in Turkey by the adherers of nationalistic-religious-moralistic worldview should be taken as an authentic category. They hardly see an incompatibility between being Turkish or Muslim. Indeed, the view that Turkish means Muslim and Muslim means Turkish is getting more and more salient.

[2“The state shall take measures to ensure the nurture and development of youth, in the light of positive science and in line with the principles and revolutions of Atatürk, against the ideas aiming at the annihilation of the indivisible totality of the state with its homeland and nation. The state shall take necessary measures to protect youth from alcohol and drug addiction, from crime, gambling, and similar vices, and from ignorance.” Disclaimer : The translation of the Article 58, here, is by the author, for informative purposes, and may not reflect the official account.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.