Turkey is an ancient power.
When analysts write about the Middle East, they often include Turkey alongside Egypt and Iran as nations with a pre-colonial history. After all, these countries are inheritors of great civilizations, unlike some post-World War I contrivances such as Jordan, Syria or Iraq.
It’s true that Europeans did not conjure Turkey by drawing it on a map. But the country is a product of the imagination of one man: Mustafa Kemal, known more commonly as Atatürk, or Father Turk. He created an ethno-national state where one had never existed in a central part of what had been a multi-ethnic and multicultural Ottoman Empire. To be successful, Atatürk and his associates had to alter the values and allegiances of the inhabitants of Anatolia. In place of a predominantly Muslim community loyal to leaders who derived their political and religious legitimacy from Islam, Atatürk suffused his state-building project with myths about Turkish ethnicity, language, and the linkage between Turks and the land.
Henceforth, from the time of the republic’s founding in 1923, the people of Anatolia were to be Turks, devoted to a nation-state whose prestige and authority came from its Turkishness and its adherence to progressive ideals and science, which drove the reforms of the early republican era, including abolishing the Ottoman alphabet, dictating the way Turks should dress and undermining religion as a source of authority. Yet many of these measures failed to embed themselves in the minds of all Turks, so their success depended on the use of force and coercion.
Over the past nine decades, Turks have developed a sense of Turkishness. But this sense is vulnerable to destabilization and fragmentation in ways more commonly associated with countries in other parts of the Middle East. This is precisely why the idea of Kurdish cultural autonomy or recognition of the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in Anatolia in 1915 as genocide is so sensitive in Turkey’s political discourse.