Prof. Jenny White attending the “Turkish Studies from an Interdisciplinary Perspective” Symposium, which took place on 7 and 14 May 2014 in Georgetown and Stockholm.
Prof. Jenny White attending the “Turkish Studies from an Interdisciplinary Perspective” Symposium, which took place on 7 and 14 May 2014 in Georgetown and Stockholm.


When I arrived at SUITS last November, fika, the daily coffee ritual, ensured that we emerged from our offices, blinking like moles, to interact in the candlelight that challenged the early darkness. I gave a public talk at that time based on the book I had just published, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks. A few weeks ago in June, I gave another talk about the new project that SUITS has given me the opportunity this year to research and develop, an intimate history of Turkey’s 1970s near-civil war, an extraordinarily violent period that gave rise to the 1980 coup and shaped today’s political currents. I was moved to write about this period because I was interested to see whether some of the central characteristics of contemporary Turkish society that emerged in my recent book have roots in the past. Can we point to an underlying cultural logic that repeatedly frames Turkish social and political life through the generations and regardless of the labels — like left/right, or Kemalist/Islamist — given to the current issues of the day? Over a total of a month in Turkey, I carried out thirty-two extensive interviews with a variety of people who lived through this period, both activist leaders and followers, male and female, urban and rural, providing a kind of “history from below”. I plan to contextualize these within a historical and economic timeline of events and a reading of the secondary literature that I have collected.

I recently presented my preliminary findings at a conference on the 1960s and 1970s in Turkey that was held at the University of Hamburg. I was interested in exploring the cultural logic of factionalism, which seems to be a consistent feature of Turkish social and political life and emerged as a consistent thread in the interviews. In the 1970s, ideologically defined groups engaged in street warfare that, at one point, killed an average of thirty civilians a day. These groups themselves split over what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, gunning for each other in turn. Hostile group formation in public life, that is, polarization and fracturing into antagonistic groups or "sides", is characterized by a deeply felt hatred that seems to increase in intensity the closer the antagonists were previously and the more similar their ideas and values. The current war between the ruling AKP and their previous ally, Fethullah Gülen's Hizmet movement, is a recent case in point. The generation of youth that took part in the Gezi protests in 2013 seem to challenge this cultural logic by their explicit rejection of political structure and ideologies, and their openness to mixing and hybridity. Yet quite a few people today are asking whether the street violence of the 1970s could happen again, given today's intense polarization. To answer that, we need a better understanding of the cultural roots and social drivers of violent factionalism in the 1970s.

An analytical article and a book chapter are planned, as well as a book that will take a creative approach to representing some of the rich and textured material in the interviews. While at SUITS, I put the finishing touches on a recently published book chapter, “Muslimhood and Post-Islamist Power”, and finished the afterword about the Gezi protests for the second edition of my Muslim Nationalism book in English and Turkish translation. I reviewed book and journal manuscripts, gave seven talks, one in the British House of Commons, and numerous international media interviews, including in The Economist. In all, I was kept afloat by strong fika coffee and the camaraderie and support of my colleagues.

Jenny White is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies SUITS and Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, USA.