Talking Turkey


Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has a "Talk of the Town" comment in The New Yorker about his pending trial for daring to speak publicly about the Armenian genocide. Pamuk is puzzled by the "paradox" of a nation so committed to becoming European simultaneously gripped by the sort of "virulent and intolerant nationalism" that gave rise to his persecution—and Pamuk is, as he notes, scarcely alone among his countrymen on this score. He posits that elites who've experienced a "rapid rise in their fortunes by assuming the idiom and the attitudes of the West" adopt an ultra-nationalist pose to reaffirm their authenticity as Turks and defuse criticism from "the people."

Maybe that's right—Pamuk's obviously in a better position to judge than I. But I find myself thinking of Olivier Roy's analysis of the globalization/traditionalism dynamic from Globalized Islam, which rejects the popular model of salafist jihadis as reacting against globalization, revealing them instead as a product of the process. The analysis doesn't cross-apply perfectly—Islam presents itself as a borderless ideology binding a global Ummah in a way that Turkish nationalism doesn't, so the reactive model is an intutively better fit in the latter case. Still, I wonder how accurate is the portrait of a robustly "authentic" Turkish hoi polloi casting a suspicious eye at increasingly alien-seeming elites. Nationalist fervor hits its peak when shared identities are felt to be threatened—but the most profound threats are internal: The threat constituted by group members' own ambivalence about their identity. So is it elites defensive against more traditional, nationalist masses, or might it be that the masses themselves are demanding nationalist affirmation precisely because what it will mean to "be Turkish" in coming years is starting to seem more uncertain? Obviously, I have no idea—but I'd be interested in thoughts from anyone out there who knows Turkey well. Whichever it is, as more countries outside the traditional "West" become more fully integrated in a global culture and economy, we'll probably see a good deal of both dynamics playing out.