Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Turkish Nationalism: Constructive or Destructive?

by Brett Barkley

“It is impossible to advance just by selling plants and fruits. We need an industry.” Such was the impassioned rallying cry in 1960 of Cemal Gürsel, the Turkish army officer and fourth President of Turkey who seized power in the coup of that same year. That industry was the automobile industry. If Turkey could build its own car—with Turkish engineers and Turkish parts—they could prove to the world that they deserved a place on the world stage, and amidst such envisioned success, national pride lifted and solidified behind the newly empowered government.

This is the true story brought to life by the 2008 Turkish film, Devrim Arabaları—i.e. Cars of the Revolution—screened at UIUC on March 5 as part of the LCTL Film Series. It is a story in the history of Turkey that I had not heard before, but its themes of nationalism and of a do-it-ourselves mentality are very familiar. Therein are attitudes that at once propel Turkey onto the world stage in this era of nation-states but at the same time complicate its relations with the international community.

Devrim, the first Turkish car, still on exhibit today in Eskişehir
Image Source

If it were not for this nationalistic ambition that first coalesced under the leadership of Atatürk, the Republic of Turkey as we know it today might not exist—left to be diced up like the rest of the Middle East after World War I. (Many Turkish youth still think so fondly of Atatürk that they tatoo his insignia on their arms.) Likewise, EU candidacy status probably would not have been possible if not for the economic achievement that partially stems from such ambition.

However, it is the same nationalistic fervor that has perhaps slowed its path to EU accession. Consider the persistence of the Kurdish issue or discrimination of other racial minorities, such as the Roma. Conflict over the Kurdish language has received a lot of press (it was recently approved as a medium of instruction in private schools), but lesser known issues include the far-reaching urban renewal projects in Istanbul that continue to displace thousands of Kurds and Romas.

Turkey is also one of the few remaining countries in the world to still have a ‘geographical limitation’ immigration policy related to the status of refugees. This, in effect, means Turkey only legally accepts immigrants coming from European countries and only receives asylum seekers on a very temporary basis. Without full documentation as a legal refugee, daily life of the already oppressed is made that much more difficult (e.g. in finding gainful employment). These policies, indeed, extend to current Syrian refugees, whom are only recognized under temporary protection status—not as “refugees” according to legal definition of the word. To be fair, the efforts of the Turkish government to provide for temporary needs of Syrian refugees have been commendable; they have built some of the most pristine refugee camps ever seen. Still, Turkey has refused to allow all but a few international NGOs into the country and has accepted very little in-kind assistance from UNHCR while decrying the international community for not monetarily funding Syrian relief efforts more generously.

In many ways, the Turkish government has seemingly confronted such contentious issues with much of the same attitude exuded in the quest to build the first Turkish car: ‘thanks for your help, but we’ll take it from here.’ Only a few Turkish cars were ever built, and it is not clear whether the same modus operandi, when projected onto current issues discussed above, will be any more sustainable in helping Turkey achieve its many aspirations.

Brett Barkley is a joint Master’s Candidate in the Departments of Agricultural & Consumer Economics and Urban & Regional Planning. He is currently a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellow with the European Union Center, studying Turkish. His research includes the impact of the EU accession process on environmental policy in Turkey, particularly as it relates to the management of transboundary waters.


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