work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Ziya Gökalp, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the two Emile Durkheims

06.21.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

All too often the political divides in Turkey are simplified into a crude division into a secularist/republican (Kemalist) camp and an Islamic/Islamist camp, with the only complication allowed for being the conflict around Kurdish minority rights. What has been long ignored was that both these camps share a set of outlooks that they inherited from the late Ottoman Empire and early Republican period and that they are close enough to lend plausibility to “Turkish Islamic synthesis” with which a group of right wing intellectuals sought to establish as a broad national compromise in the 1980s. What is also often ignored is that in both camps an increased exposure to globalised and cosmopolitan fields of practice has inspired the emergence of a more liberal outlook that found a room for manoeuvre in the interstices created by the deadlock between growing Islamist movements and Kemalist elites. The AKP had managed to secure electoral success not just by connecting to marginalised Islamic populations moving from central Anatolia to the big cities and by support from the new Islamic business elites – they also attracted to votes of liberal Muslims and anti-Kemalist secularists by unprecedentedly pro-European, pro-human rights and pro-Kurdish policies.

For some time now secular and religious liberals have been moving away from Erdoğan, citing an increasingly authoritarian style and morally prescriptive intrusions into personal lifestyles. Is he showing his true “Islamist” colours now? Partly – the intrusions around abortion rights and alcohol consumption certainly are religiously inspired. But the style and mis-understanding of “democracy” is that of his Kemalist predecessors. For post-Islamist Mustafa Akyol the problem is not that Erdoğan is “too Islamic” but that he is “too Turkish” (at 00:15 – comment starts around 00:13), referring to a certain paternalistic/collectivist and anti-liberal pattern that is enshrined in the legacy of Kemalist republican thought as formulated by Ziya Gökalp (and it may not be a total coincidence that it was a quote from a Ziya Gökalp poem that earned Erdoğan a spell in prison).  Erdoğan’s insistence that as elected leader he represents the people’s will and hence can ignore any protests very much is in the tradition of Kemalist principles devletçilik (statism) and halkçılık (populism). As Spencer (1958) analysed, these principles as developed by Gökalp have been inspired by a reading of Durkheim’s sociology – following a misunderstanding that remained common into the 1950s and 60s, namely that Durkheim proposed that in the absence of traditional religious bonds only a strong national identity as new conscience collective can safeguard the continuity of social life:

 ‘But it must be recalled that Durkheim gave complete priority to society and dismissed the worth of the individual. The Turks have retained this concept, and argued that collective action is not arbitrary and is not to be couched in Hegelian dialectic. Statism in Turkey is construed as the manifestation of the collective will.’ (Spencer 1958: 653)

That Durkheim is not only a methodological collectivist but also a political individualist has been too much to digest for most early and mid 20th century readers. But he certainly was. So both the masses commandeered by Erdoğan and the masses of protestors for Gezi have a claim to being Durkheimians. Which of the two Durkheimisms will prevail in Turkey remains to be seen – my money’s still on a cosmopolitan cult of the individual. One reason is that the powers of collectivist Durkheimism, both among the old Kemalist elites and in the new Islamic elites share Gökalp’s idea of economic/technological modernisation that is to leave the social/cultural core of Turkish or Muslim life unaffected:

‘… Westernization created serious difficulties for the Ottoman Turks, and solutions ranged from the Westernized constitutional guarantees of the Tanzimat era to the policies of resistance and isolation for Abdülhamit II. Ziya set himself the task of providing a sociological rationale for the acceptance of Western ideas by the Turks. The solution he proposed was both simple and naïve: given the organic unity and integrity of Turkish society and the spirit of  Turkish culture, the nation is in a position to accept Western civilization in full. At this point Ziya returned to an application of the distinction of Tönnies. Civilization is not culture, but a supercultural development. Nations can share in the same civilization, as he conceived it, but by doing so they may forfeit their cultural integrity. Hence the Turks must retain their culture, but at the same time take over the benefits of Western civilization (Duda 1948: 99). How this is to be done is not clear from Ziya’s writings.’ (Spencer 1958: 651)

This idea of technological Westernisation paired up with social conservatism has been tried and tested and failed in many places –  it has failed even where the social conservatism was pursued with much more rigour than in the Turkish case – as Elmusa (1997) shows for Saudi Arabia. The microelectronic revolution has sustained a leaderless resistance at Gezi that allowed the collective expression of people who, in the end, only shared the fervent commitment to each other’s individual freedom

 Everyone is enjoying the camaraderie and freedom. No one is being patronizing and everybody is wearing their colours of life free of restraint. While the Anticapitalist Muslims perform their prayers, atheists keep watch around them. The Kurds dance their halay, Alevis whirl in their ritual dance, semah, Turks chant military marches. Socialists, LGBTs, fans of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray teams roll up their sleeves together, have fun together and keep an eye on each other. Everyone’s freedom is guarded by everyone else.[1]

They are “Durkheimian” in that (like, by the way, old Marx) a) they are intuitively aware that all individuality is a social construct, is only possible as outcome of social interaction – they are collectivist in their methods and b) they are politically individualistic in that they not only care for their own rights of personal development and freedom of expression but that of everybody else as well.


Elmusa, Sharif S. (1997): ‘Faust Without the Devil? The Interplay of Technology and Culture in Saudi Arabia’, in: Middle East Journal, Vol.51, No.3, pp.345-57

Spencer, Robert F. (1958): ‘Culture Process and Intellectual Current: Durkheim and Atatürk’, in: American Anthropologist, New SeriesI, Vol.60, No.4, pp.640-57

[1] Burhan Sönmez: The Aesthetics of Resistance, translated by Duygu Tekgül, orig. in BirGün

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