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In the Turkish Context, the Term Conservatism Creates More Problems of Categorization than It Solves…

İlker Aytürk interviewed by Zeynep Bursa, Béatrice Garapon and Dilek Sarmis
İlker Aytürk
Zeynep Bursa, Béatrice Garapon and Dilek Sarmis

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1For the past ten years, your research interests shifted towards the study of what we call Turkish conservatives and conservative movements during the Cold War years. Why did you make this move? What got you interested in this new field of research?

2There is a long and a short answer to your question. But to cut the long story short, around 2007 and 2008 I was increasingly skeptical of the dominant narrative in academic circles at the time, the narrative that suggested that Turkey was on a path of speedy democratization and that the pioneer of democratization could be singled out as the Justice and Development Party and its leader Tayyip Erdoğan. For a couple of years, I felt very alone surrounded by colleagues, who treated anyone who dared to challenge this narrative as an old school Kemalist. This was true for colleagues both in Turkey and abroad. During my sabbatical year in the USA in the 2011-2012 academic year, I heard so much praise for Erdoğan. I recall a lunch meeting with a former chairperson of MESA – a well-known leftist in the American academia – who was visibly upset with me because I criticized Erdoğan’s education policy. It was a very different atmosphere, I have to say, which lasted until Gezi, and then, almost overnight, academic and international public opinion changed radically. So radically in fact, it was shocking to see how people vacillated from singing praises of Erdoğan’s leadership to being his vocal critics. It was during those couple of years, between 2007 and 2013 to be precise, when I was feeling as an outcast, that I shifted to this new field of research. The political and academic atmosphere was definitely a factor. I admit it was the most important factor. While shifting to a new field, my two research interests overlapped. First, I was terribly interested in the Turkish right – please pay attention, I’d rather use the terms right and right-wingers instead of conservatism and conservatives, but we will get to this later – and there was very little academic research on them. And, second, almost all the important movers and shakers in Turkish politics at the time – and not much has changed since – had gone through their political socialization during the Cold War years. Today, there is a growing literature on Cold War Turkey, but at the time, the topic hardly existed. And so I began doing research on the Turkish right during the Cold War years.

3You said you do not prefer to use the term conservatism. Why is that?

4Of course, there is nothing wrong with the term, but personally I find it difficult to define. It is a very slippery concept. Where to begin… Well, you know there is a conservative definition of conservatism as opposed to a more general definition, to begin with. Conservatives refuse to call conservatism an ideology. They argue that ideologies – starting with liberalism, but also socialism and the like – are rigid templates of thought, or attempts by intellectuals to forcibly change the traditional world in which we live. Conservatism, according to conservatives, is a mentality of resistance against involuntary changes that are superimposed from above; it is neither rigid, nor a template. They see it as a pragmatic strategy of maintaining the traditional order. They always present the conservative outlook as the natural order of things.

5Now this is one definition of the concept. On the other hand, there is the more general, the more agreed-upon definition in the history of political thought and that is to consider conservatism an ideology. Just like other ideologies, conservatism, too, is a set of action-oriented ideas. In political science, we contend that all ideologies: a) begin with a criticism of the existing socio-political order, b) promise to replace the existing system with a “good society”, a utopia, and c) provide a road map for reaching that utopia. Just like others, conservatism, too, was born out of complaint about and a reaction to the existing order, i.e., the liberal order that was in the making in Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Conservative ideologues, just like others, described a utopia of a golden age of the traditional world. And finally, depending on the specific context in which they worked, they formulated conservative policies.

6As you may see, there is already some confusion in the definition of the concept. But that’s not all.

7Yes, how about the Turkish context? How do you define conservatism in the Turkish context? Where do the difficulties of research on conservatism lie?

8If we follow the logic of the same definition, then we must associate conservatism in the Ottoman-Turkish context with reaction to rapid and overwhelming change. That would necessarily stretch the temporal boundaries of the concept at least to the beginnings of the Tanzimat in 1839, if not earlier, and make the Young Ottomans as one of the earliest conservatives, for instance.

9Exactly, if you trace the history of Turkish conservatism, what are the turning points for you? It’s worth making a digression on this at this point.

10Let me mark the turning points and at the same time try to explain why I believe conservatism is not a very helpful concept in the Turkish context.

11Tanzimat is definitely a milestone. And the Young Ottomans are generally considered the spokesmen of a conservative reaction against the super-Westernization of the Tanzimat pashas. But were they really conservative? Didn’t they also call for significant reforms? Do we today remember the likes of Namık Kemal and Ziya Paşa as conservatives or as pioneers of change? The latter I guess.

12For the next turning point, we need to wait until 1908-1909, the Unionist intervention, the fall of Abdülhamid II and parliamentary reforms, which effectively sidelined the sultan as the chief executive and transformed the regime into a full parliamentary monarchy, at least on paper. Between 1908 and 1913, the CUP gradually emerged as an authoritarian actor and finally captured government power by a coup in 1913. The main opposition against the CUP was the Freedom and Accord Party, which started out as a liberal party – they were also known as the Liberal Entente – but after 1918, they supported the most conservative Damad Ferid Governments and Sultan Mehmed VI. So how are we to classify the Freedom and Accord? As liberals or as conservatives?

13Next, 1923 is definitely another turning point, because it commenced the most rapid and profound wave of reforms that transformed what remained of the Ottoman Empire into a westernizing, secular nation-state. As expected, Mustafa Kemal’s rise to power and his determination to control the pace and content of reforms single-handedly drove a wedge between him and some of his former colleagues in the Ankara Government, who had fought together during the Turkish War of Independence. Mustafa Kemal’s critics were joined by some members of the CUP underground and together they formed the Progressive Republican Party (PRP) as the main opposition party. If one reads the PRP program only, one may get the wrong impression that it belonged to a very liberal party. However, there were many conservative figures under the PRP umbrella and the party grassroots was largely composed of conservative voters. One more time, we are faced with the same dilemma: Was the PRP a liberal or a conservative party?

14One may emphasize other turning points since the establishment of the republic, but I want to point at one last. And that is 2002, the general elections which brought the Justice and Development Party (JDP) to power. The JDP openly identified as a “conservative democrat” party, much in the way of Christian Democrats in Europe, but it also claimed to be a party of change. Actually, especially between 2005 and 2013, prominent members of the JDP toyed with the idea of JDP being a leftist party and mocked first Deniz Baykal and then Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, for not being true leftists. There was even talk – intended as anti-RPP propaganda of course – of the JDP replacing the RPP in the Socialist International. That kind of smack talk has pretty much disappeared since Gezi, but even today most of the political observers distinguish between the JDP as a “conservative democrat” party until Gezi and the JDP as a far-right party since. So, how useful is “conservatism” in describing the entire tenure of the JDP in power? Does it even match the early phase of the JDP or not?

15In other words, you believe that the concept “conservatism” creates problems in understanding actors, movements and parties that are often and routinely called “conservative”?

16Yes, and so far I have described only one part of the problem. Another important issue is described by Tanıl Bora, in a seminal book he published in 1998, titled Türk Sağının Üç Hali (The Three States of the Turkish Right). Similar to the three states of the matter, Bora disentangles nationalism, conservatism and Islamism as three states of the Turkish right, studies them one by one, and most importantly for us, he equates conservatism with the gas state. Conservatism, he argues, provides to the right-wing bloc of ideas “a style and an air”, an atmosphere of thought, but little in the way of content, substance and concrete policies.

17The vast majority of the so-called “conservative” actors, movements and parties are actually better described as nationalist, or Islamist, or right-wing. Conservatism is one of the ingredients in their ideological make-up, but it is rarely the dominant one. Conservatism, with few exceptions, is overshadowed by other ideological characteristics, which give more color to those actors, movements and parties.

18I hope I have been able to explain my reluctance to use this term. I think it creates more problems of categorization than it solves.

19What’s your terminology of choice then? What do you recommend using in place of “conservative” and “conservatism”?

20I don’t mean to abandon “conservatism” altogether. I think conservatism is still a useful concept to describe a small but influential group of right-wing, elite intellectuals of the Cold War period, I mean the likes of Mümtaz Turhan, Samiha Ayverdi, Münevver Ayaşlı, Erol Güngör, Ali Fuat Başgil, and Nurettin Topçu, just to mention a few of them.

21As for the more comprehensive term, I definitely prefer using the terms “right” and “right-wing” in place of conservatism and conservative. And I define the right in the broadest sense possible, following the definition by the Italian historian and philosopher Norberto Bobbio. According to Bobbio, right-wing parties, movements and individuals either reject or are uncomfortable with political, legal and social equality. The far right denies or attempts to deny political and legal equality to its opponents by discriminating against ethnic, religious, sectarian, immigrant or gender groups. The center right, on the other hand, usually takes issue with social equality, that is to say, a more egalitarian distribution of resources and income. Turkish nationalists, Islamists, conservatives, neo-liberals, virtually all such groups that I can think of are covered by this definition. It’s more comprehensive and serves us better.

22To the extent that you are prepared to use the term, then, do you think that there are characteristics specific to the history of conservatism in Turkey?

23Certainly. The most distinguishing characteristic of Turkish conservatism is its intimate relation with Islam. In other words, there is no secular Turkish conservatism. All conservatives in Turkey – or in the Ottoman Empire before – employed Islam as dogma, or as a value system, or as a cultural-historical repertory to comprehend and shape the contemporary world. To varying degrees of course. But I cannot recall a Turkish conservative, who refrained from making a reference to Islam.

24So do you think that Islam was always the first/main element in the definition of Turkish conservatism?

25I am not sure about “the first” or “the main”, but, without doubt, Islam was and continues to be one of the main elements of Turkish conservatism.

26Do you think there might be other core themes (women, nationalism…) and what would be their relevance for the study of conservatism?

27This is an interesting question. Let me begin with nationalism and refer one more time to Tanıl Bora’s states of the Turkish right. Bora clearly gives the pride of place to nationalism in the ideological make-up of the Turkish right. He calls nationalism the “grammar” of the right and then goes on to highlight its role above other ingredients. I agree with Bora about the significance of nationalism, but I would not go as far as he did. There is so much diversity within the Turkish right and so many variations among right-wingers that I find it difficult to evaluate the relative importance of one over the other. Actually, trying to establish a hierarchy between the two does not enthuse me either. What I find truly thought-provoking is the creative tension – I am tempted to say creative antagonism – between nationalism and Islam in the Turkish context. As representatives of two far-right movements in Turkey, nationalists and political Islamists had always been rivals. Instances of nationalist-Islamist cooperation – as the one we are going through right now – are very rare. From a purely scholarly perspective, the dynamics of competition between nationalists and Islamists over hearts and minds of the Turkish far-right and center-right voters had been very productive. Much of what if of interest today to scholars of Turkish political history, history of ideas and right-wing politics is a by-product of that competition. To give you just one example, remember when Tayyip Erdoğan was elected president in 2015 and one of his first acts in office was to order sixteen members of the presidential bodyguard to dress up in the so-called uniforms of sixteen Turkic states. Although he was ridiculed for this, it was actually a brilliant political move on Erdoğan’s part, because, let’s not forget, he pushed for the presidential system in order to unite all branches of the Turkish right under one umbrella. He aimed or hoped to fuse Islamism and nationalism – which ultimately did not work it seems.

28The other theme you brought up, women, or shall we say, gender question is also interesting. To be frank, you are spot on. Turkish conservatives may occasionally disagree on what they want to conserve, but there is a wide consensus among most conservatives I know or have been following about maintaining traditional gender roles. Among so many other themes, you can hardly find another which attracts so much conservative attention. Their aversion to LGBTI+ rights and equality is part of this consensus. But even more striking is the determination to assign traditional roles to women.

29One may ask why gender matters more to them than many other issues. My only explanation is that particularly the Islamists, or shall we say Islamist opinion leaders who are middle-age and above, distinguish very carefully between public and private spheres. In the public sphere, which is their realm of men, they had become active participants since the 1980s. In the 1990s, they formed or joined governments, got involved in public and foreign policy-making. Those were also the years that witnessed the rise of an Islamic banking system and companies. Men’s participation in the public sphere, to an unprecedented degree for the first time, required an adjustment of sharia and traditional Islamic perspectives to the modern world. They established and even deepened bilateral ties with the Western world and Israel, were forced to give up Islamist dreams of building an Islamic political system. In the economic sphere, they joined the middle class and allowed riba/faiz under some disguise. All in all, joining the public sphere as decision-makers meant they had to compromise. Indeed, they compromised on all those issues so that male Islamists could join in the public sphere as movers and shakers. Therefore, the household is the last refuge of the Islamist. So much has been corrupted in the outside world – and they recognize their own role in this corruption – that they make sure that the rot does not reach the sanctus sanctorum, the private sphere of the household. They compromised over statecraft, foreign policy, and economy, but maybe because of that, they reify the traditional character of the household and gender relations within the family.

30Do you think that conservatism should be distinguished as a separate ideology, like nationalism or Islamism? What would be the links and common features to those “ideologies”?

31As I have said before, if we isolate conservatism as a distinct ideology, then I believe it would be appropriate to use it only to describe a small group of right-wing intellectuals of Cold War Turkey. In their case, conservatism has great explanatory value. Because those intellectual elites made criticism of rapid and revolutionary change the center piece of their ideology. The common thread that unites their oeuvres is their commitment to conserving all or some of the values of the lost Ottoman-Turkish past. In their case, conservatism is indeed a distinguishing characteristic, which overshadows other, nationalist or religious commitments.

32So much so that those conservative intellectuals were also fierce critics of center-right governments, as well. A common fallacy in modern Turkish studies is to associate change with the Kemalists and the early republic only. Center-right governments of the DP (1950-1960), the AP (1965-1971), the ANAP and DYP (1983-1996), and the AKP until 2007 were also very important agents of change. Among other voter blocs, they were mainly representing the interests of first or second-generation immigrants in major metropolitan areas. Their voters demanded change. They demanded integration into the urban fabric and economy, they demanded respect for their village or small-town values. The center-right parties also invested heavily in infrastructure and industrialization. To the conservative intellectuals, all those center-right policies represented a challenge no less dangerous than those posed by the Kemalist reformers. Two generations of conservative intellectuals criticized Menderes, Demirel, Özal and early Erdoğan for concentrating only on material development and not doing much in the way of conserving traditional values. “Right-wing critics of right-wing governments”, as I call it, is a very fruitful area of research and has hardly been tapped by researchers so far.

33Now, back to your question, I believe that, with the exception of the conservative intellectual elites, it would be extremely misleading to identify all Turkish right-wingers as conservatives. The vast majority of Turkish nationalists, Islamists or the center-right tradition were and are conservative only selectively. Actually, many of their policies – if not the most – are change-oriented.

34As a follow up to this, is it relevant to drastically distinguish Kemalism and conservatism? Is conservatism a characteristic of only what you call the right-wing?

35You might well know that since the 1960s – shall we say after Kemal Tahir and İdris Küçükömer – there is a tendency in the Turkish literature to erase the boundaries between the left and right, to collapse the two terms into one, or in some cases to use the terms left and right interchangeably. A corollary to this tendency is to speak of conservative Kemalists and conservative leftists/Marxists, on the one hand, and to refer to Erdoğan and his AKP as a leftist party, on the other. Remember Küçükömer’s infamous dictum that “in Turkey, the left is right and the right is left.”

36I strongly disagree with both tendencies. To speak of two conservative traditions, one Kemalist/leftist and the other, anti-Kemalist and anti-leftist is very confusing and is one of the reasons why conservatism has become a misnomer in Turkish intellectual history.

37I do recognize the fact that there was a conservative faction within the CHP during the single-party period (Esendal, Günaltay, Sirer, Banguoğlu and the like) and also during the 1960s (the future CGP). Even in their case, those so-called conservative factions were thorough Kemalists; disagreements between them and the more radical, secular and westernizing factions were not great or unbridgeable.

38I would go as far as to say – and I don’t think I am terribly off the mark here – that conservatism and the far right in Turkey are fundamentally a reaction to Ottoman-Turkish modernization, from the Tanzimat to this day. Ignoring this fact and referring to the Kemalists or the CHP as conservatives, or the AKP as a left-wing party is an intellectual fantasy that ill-serves the historian of ideas.

39Finally, taking into consideration Turkey’s conservative heritage, where would you place or how would you contextualize the current political power in Turkey?

40Until recently we used to refer to AKP governments, but the proper term to use since 2015, I believe, is the Erdoğan Administration. 2022 marks Erdoğan’s twentieth year in power. This is no mean feat, altogether it makes one-fifth of the entire republican period and five years more than Atatürk’s term in power. All of the early republican period was approximately 27 years. This gives us a good perspective to understand Erdoğan’s transformative power over the republic. If there will be a change of government in 2023—and that’s a big if—proportions of that change will be even greater than what Turkey underwent in 1950. The Democrats and the CHP disagreed over economic policy and, to a certain extent, over foreign policy, but there was no Kulturkampf that pitted one against the other. Contemporary Turkey, however, resembles more and more les deux France of the fin-de-siècle.

41It would be incorrect to classify Erdoğan and his party simply as conservative actors. Erdoğan, like so many other so-called conservative actors before him, is only selectively conservative: Starting from 2007, but certainly since 2010, he is becoming more and more intransigent regarding women’s rights, gender, family, and foreign policy. But, while, to give one example, he continuously pays lip service to Turkey’s Ottoman heritage and vows to preserve it, Turkish cities underwent tremendous change and expansion during the past 20 years with irreparable loss to the traditional urban fabric. İstanbul has become a city of skyscrapers, which now compete with minarets and domes that used to dominate the skyline. The new TOKİ high-rise buildings in the heart of downtown Bursa destroyed the city’s legendary silhouette, which hadn’t changed since the fifteenth century. Likewise, Erdoğan’s desperate calls for a conservative, “native” art and architecture has so far resulted in either controversial art events (the Yeditepe Biennial) or monumental kitsch buildings such as the 107,1 metres tall minarets of the Çamlıca Camii (an allusion to the Battle of Manzikert in 1071) or the Ay Yıldız Project in Ankara. Selective use of conservative motifs is of course a very common populist strategy.

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Electronic reference

İlker Aytürk, In the Turkish Context, the Term Conservatism Creates More Problems of Categorization than It Solves… European Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 33 | 2021, Online since 30 March 2021, connection on 05 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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İlker Aytürk

Bilkent University, Ankara

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