In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Breaking with longstanding traditions of the empire, he abolished the caliphate and embraced a form of Turkish nationalism that was as progressive as it was revolutionary, one that separated mosque from state and treated men and women as equal.
Fast-forward to the present day: As the modern state of Turkey approaches its centenary and with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidating dictatorial control, the Justice and Development Party leader has turned Kemalism (as Atatürk's ideology became known) into a conservative ideology glorifying Ottomanism and Islamism.
Uzer breaks new ground with a comprehensive intellectual history of this evolution and transformation of Kemalism. Beginning with the rise of Turkish nationalism in the late nineteenth century, Uzer argues that this phenomenon occurred largely in reaction to the rise of other nationalist movements—such as in Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania—struggling to free themselves of the Ottoman yoke. Soon Turkish émigrés from Russia and a renewed intellectual interest about the language and history of the Turks coalesced to create a template upon which Turkish intellectuals built.
Uzer details the names and works not only of those who sought to catalyze a Turkish enlightenment but also the Islamists who opposed it. His comparison of the ideas of Yusuf Akçura and Ziya Gökalp, two formative Turkish nationalist intellectuals who influenced Atatürk and his contemporaries, is especially important: They differed in their emphasis on ethnicity (Akçura) or culture (Gökalp). Herein lies a problem that still persists: If culture is the main foundation for nationalism, then a Turkish state might be more connected to the mosque, given how much Turkish culture arose from the matrix of Islam.
Uzer demonstrates that the question of religion in the state was far less settled in Kemalist discourse than many U.S. policymakers have long believed. Analysts assumed Kemalism meant a strict separation of mosque and state, but there was always more debate about a greater role for Islam than many in the West realized. In practice, this meant greater wiggle room for a politician like Erdoğan.
Atatürk may have been the towering figure of the movement, but he was never alone. The contributions of other writers and intellectuals that propelled Kemalism's rise and assisted in its evolution are duly noted. Uzer also shows that what was not a leftist movement in its origins became one in the years after Atatürk's death as intellectuals tried to synthesize Kemalism and socialism. A more troubling aspect of Kemalism was how some thinkers used ethnic, nationalist ideals to justify exclusion of other communities or promote Turkish racial supremacy.
If there is one flaw with the work, it is that Uzer, at times, writes like an academic. Nevertheless, An Intellectual History of Turkish Nationalism is a valuable addition to the corpus of works on Turkey.