Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey, Ihsan Yilmaz

Reviewed by Ahmet T. Kuru


Turkey has recently transformed itself from a secular democracy under military tutelage into a popular Islamist regime under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In his new book, Ihsan Yilmaz argues that these two regimes share many similarities, though Turkey's secularists and Islamists perceive each other as almost polar opposites. At the center of these similarities exists the Turkish state's long-standing citizenship policy, which focuses on eliminating diverse identities. The Turkish state's obsession with creating a religiously and ethnically homogenous society, according to Yilmaz, is the main reason for the robustness of its authoritarianism.

In Creating the Desired Citizen, Yilmaz emphasizes three main similarities between Turkey's secularists and Islamists. First, each of the two groups follows a cult of personality—Atatürk for secularists and Erdogan for Islamists. Second, both groups have certain nonrational motivations, including fears, conspiracy theories, and restorative nostalgia, that affect their policy preferences. Finally, both groups want to homogenize society, though each has its own notion of the ideal citizen.

Between 2002 and 2012, Erdogan established alliances with Gülenists, Kurds, and liberal intellectuals. In the last decade, however, he has formed alliances with ultranationalist secularists and labeled all Gülenists, many Kurdish nationalists, and numerous liberal intellectuals as terrorists. Erdogan's recent partnership with certain secularists is puzzling, but Yilmaz's analysis explains it effectively. This partnership is based on secularists' and Islamists' overlapping projects to create desired citizens and their shared hostility toward Gülenists, Kurdish activists, liberal intellectuals, and the West.

Nonetheless, this is also a trembling partnership. As Yilmaz points out, secularists and Islamists have contradictory perspectives on the desired citizens. The secularists' ideal citizens are Turkish (Kurds should be assimilated) and Sunni Muslim (non-Muslims and Alevis constitute a problem), and they adopt a secular way of life (conservative Muslims who do not drink alcohol are reactionary). The Islamists' ideal citizens are also Turkish and Sunni Muslim, but they are supposed to embrace a conservative lifestyle, for example, by not drinking alcohol.

A case that reflects these two different perspectives is the status of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which controls Turkey's more than 80,000 mosques. Until recently, secularists tried to use the Diyanet as an instrument of their policy to restrict the public role of Islam. They also employed it in preaching national unity and obedience to the state. Under Erdogan's presidency, however, the Diyanet gained a more assertive status in publicly promoting a conservative lifestyle and supporting the government's political agenda. Analyzing the last two decades' Friday sermons recited in mosques, Yilmaz documents how the Diyanet has recently emphasized conquest, militarism, and martyrdom.

I have two main criticisms of this timely and important book. First, it focuses exclusively on the Turkish case. Instead, Yilmaz could have put Turkey in a broader context by comparing and contrasting it with some other countries. Yilmaz's previous publications show his knowledge about several Western and non-Western cases. The lack of a comparative dimension in this book, therefore, appears to be a missed opportunity. Second, although I agree with certain similarities between Atatürkism and Erdoganism, I still wanted to see an emphasis on one major difference between them: Atatürk left behind an ideology, mostly based on nationalism, secularism, and the pursuit of Western modernization, as well as certain institutions, including a political party (the Republican People's Party) and a military esprit de corps. Erdogan's regime, however, is so pragmatic and shortsighted that it is not likely to leave an ideology or a set of institutions as a long-term legacy.

Creating the Desired Citizen successfully analyzes how citizenship has been used as an instrument of the state's social engineering policy in Turkey. It is a must-read for students of Turkish politics.

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