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Turkey, Israel, and the victory of religious nationalism
Secular nationalists and minorities can't get along well enough to unseat religious-nationalist rulers.
Turkey’s presidential election was a disappointment for the opposition and a tentative win for twenty-year incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While neither side won outright yesterday, Erdoğan eeked out a slight edge over challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, with ultra-nationalist third-party leader Sinan Oğan taking a surprisingly large share of the vote.
Unless recounts change these results, the election will likely go to a runoff on May 28. Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu will need to win over Oğan, whose campaign has focused on “sending the Syrians back” and cracking down on Kurdish nationalism. If it wasn’t clear already what Oğan’s politics are, his ticket is called the Ancestor Alliance.
The trajectory of Turkish politics had been remarkably similar to Israeli politics over the past couple years. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like Erdoğan, has ruled his country for decades at the head of a religious-nationalist coalition. And both leaders have recently faced their greatest challenge yet: a broad coalition of liberals, secular nationalists, and religious dissenters who believe that democracy itself is threatened by strongman rule.
The Israeli opposition itself has picked up on the similarities. (See the banner image.) The secular nationalist Blue and White Party even put Netanyahu’s words in Erdoğan’s mouth — literally! — for one campaign ad:
I’ve recently written about the connections between the Kurdish and Palestinian questions before. The similarities run deeper than just two ethnic groups fighting for independence. The nature of the states ruling over Kurds and Palestinians is quite similar, as the recent elections show.
Turkey and Israel were both founded by nationalist revolutionaries, fighting against external enemies while working internally to stamp out traditions that they believed had weakened the nation. Those revolutionaries ruled for a generation, and left behind a strongly secular institutional culture.
Netanyahu and Erdoğan came to power through a sort of counter-revolution, presenting themselves as the voice of the authentic majority against an arrogant, Europeanized minority.
But they did not promise a return to the old ways. Instead, Netanyahu and Erdoğan found a winning formula in religious nationalism. Both leaders showed that the pious masses could wrap themselves in the flag even more tightly than the secular elites. And both focused on religion as a matter of identity, without pushing too hard for the sort of lifestyle restrictions that might alienate casual supporters.
Of course, there are important differences. Turkish identity is based on a dominant language and religion, so the “Kurdish question” for Turkey has meant assimilating the Kurds who live within the country’s borders. Judaism is much harder to convert to, Jews are a historic minority in the Holy Land, and Israel does not have defined borders, so the “Palestinian question” for Israel has been meant maximizing Israeli territory while minimizing the number of Palestinians that Israel has to absorb.
And needless to say, Turks and Jews have a very different history as peoples. The founding generation of Israel witnessed a genocide against their compatriots in Europe, and Israel tries very hard to keep that memory alive, sometimes placing today’s Palestinians in the role of European genocidaires. The founding generation of modern Turkey itself committed a genocide against Armenians, and Turkey tries very hard to erase that memory.
But in terms of electoral politics, the dynamic of Palestinians in Israel and Kurds in Turkey is pretty similar. Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship are twenty percent of Israel’s population, about the same proportion as Turkey’s Kurdish minority. At the same time, Kurdish citizens of Turkey and Palestinian citizens of Israel live under a much more securitized regime than the rest of the country.
And when the Turkish state wants to flex its muscles, it can bomb and besiege foreign Kurds in Iraq and Syria, just as Israel can bomb and besiege stateless Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The opposition is left in a bind. Kurdish or Palestinian voters are a tantalizing prize, a large bloc that the opposition needs and that itself has every reason to deny the government a victory. But the concessions that Kurds and Palestinians want would also alienate secular nationalists, who sometimes demand an even harder line than the ruling religious nationalists.
Turkey’s opposition leaders, including Kılıçdaroğlu, tried to outdo Erdoğan in their support for the Turkish invasions of Syria in 2018 and 2019. Blue and White leader and retired general Benny Gantz bragged about his body count in Gaza when running against Netanyahu in 2019.
In fact, religious nationalists have sometimes managed to outflank their secular counterparts on minority outreach. Erdoğan once ran as the peace candidate, allowing unprecedented Kurdish cultural rights and opening negotiations with the insurgency, on grounds that Turks and Kurds are all Muslim brothers. He changed course once Kurdish voters denied him a majority in the 2015 election.
Netanyahu attempted to court Palestinian Islamists in the 2021 election, with LGBT issues as the common ground between Muslim and Jewish conservatives. When Netanyahu briefly lost power in 2021 and 2022, rival religious nationalist Naftali Bennett brought the local Muslim Brotherhood branch into his government. It was the first Palestinian party ever to serve as a formal partner in a ruling Israeli coalition.
Such an alliance worked because of Israel’s parliamentary system. Parties compete for votes first, then form coalitions to elect a prime minister. The messy balancing act within the opposition can wait until after voters already cast their ballots. On the other hand, parties can withdraw their support at any time. Netanyahu returned to power after less than two years, because Bennett's coalition blew up over the issue of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.
Turkey has had direct presidential elections since 2017, which forces the opposition to do its coalition-building up front, if it wants to gain a simple majority and avoid a runoff. Kılıçdaroğlu, a social democrat from the Alevi religious minority, was chosen to lead the opposition as part of an awkward compromise. His running mate Meral Akşener is a far-right secular nationalist. The main Kurdish party supported the coalition as an outside ally rather than a full partner.
Erdoğan played with these tensions, trying to paint Kılıçdaroğlu as a partner of Kurdish terrorists. If Kılıçdaroğlu attempts to burnish his nationalist credentials, he risks pushing Kurdish voters to sit out the election. On the other hand, Erdoğan can present himself as the safe choice for nationalists — and any public fighting within the opposition furthers his argument. Those dynamics will be even more important in the runoff election, now that ultra-nationalists have proven themselves to be the swing vote.
After all, the same tactic worked for Netanyahu.
Post-script: There’s another little-known similarity between Turkey and Israel, which goes a long way in explaining why their nationalisms both took similar paths.
The late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic took in a massive number of Muslim refugees from the Balkans and the Caucasus. Some estimate that a third of Turks have muhacir roots. Just like early Israeli nationalism, early Turkish nationalism sought to convince displaced people to lay down their roots in a new land.
That’s certainly the case for Akşener, the ultra-nationalist. Her parents were refugees from Greece.
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