Black Turks, White Turks  
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

In our last post, we briefly discussed the early history of modern Turkey. If, as we argued, there are indeed powerful continuities between Ottoman institutions and those of the early Turkish Republic, then the continuities between the early years of the republic and today shouldn’t surprise anybody. 

In the interim, Turkey swept aside one-party rule and had periods of fairly competitive democratic elections. But this has always been in the shadow of three social processes inherited from the early republic: a powerful military, weak state institutions with little independence from those controlling the government, and deep divisions within society.

One aspect of these divisions, which has been particularly defining for recent history of Turkey, was pithily captured by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan when he said (see here): 

In this country there is a segregation of Black Turks and White Turks. Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks. 

White Turks here are the well-educated, well-to-do Kemalist elites fashioning themselves on (some of) Atatürk’s ideas. They are often associated with state bureaucracy and the military. Black Turks are those that the White Turks see as low-educated, lower-class and either still peasants or unable to have shaken off their peasant heritage. 

Even if the terminology of Black and White Turks entered the Turkish lexicon only recently, to understand what Tayyip Erdoğan meant we should go back to the divisions and fault lines that had already become apparent in the Ottoman society in the 19th century. 

Religion — Islam — played a central role in Ottoman society, which comprised mostly of agricultural workers, with limited education. As we discussed in Why Nations Fail, the central state went to pains to limit dissemination of information as part of its control of society. Though for several centuries the central state was able to dominate religious practice and thought, including the religious scholars, the ulema, religious belief inevitably has its own dynamics. These dynamics became stronger during the 19th century as the previously subservient non-Muslim populations rose up and often successfully gained their independence in the European territories of the empire. 

The 1909 ‘counter-revolution’ against the CUP (the Committee of Union and Progress) regime we discussed in the previous post had its roots in the reaction of the lower level ulema, even if it probably was engineered and funded by Abdülhamit. (It is interesting that, witnessing the subservience of state institutions and even the religious-legal establishment, the upper echelons of the ulema appear to have been happy to go along with the CUP, which now controlled the government.) They were able to tap into conservative attitudes, aroused because of perceived threats to their way of life and religion, and the established order.

The leadership of Atatürk’s CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or The Republican People’s Party), after initial attempts and failures to mobilize the religious conservative attitudes of much of the population, started viewing religion and large part of the peasant majority as obstacles to their project. No wonder then that many of the reforms of the CHP were directly targeted at repressing religion, silencing and sidelining this majority, and imposing a new language, historiography and culture on the Turkish people. 

The military and political dominance of the CHP, and their willingness to use robust force if necessary, ensured that the Kemalist project succeeded until the end of World War II under the auspices of the one-party (CHP) rule. Cracks in the system had already appeared, however. In 1946, the Democratic Party (DP or Demokrat Parti) was founded by previous members of the CHP. Though the CHP leadership initially thought that they could control this new party, this proved impossible. In 1950, the DP swept to power with a landslide election victory. Their deputies, and certainly their supporters, were more rural and had a stronger background in commerce and small and medium-size business (contrasting with the bureaucratic or military background as the majority of CHP deputies had). This was the beginning of the political ascendancy of what would become known as the Black Turks. 

We will discuss the economic implications of the DP regime in a later post. For our purposes here, the end of the DP period is more relevant. On May 27, 1960, the first of many military coups in Turkey took place, putting an end to the first Turkish experiment with democracy. The military swiftly moved to hang three on the leaders of the DP, including the prime minister, Adnan Menderes. 

The DP and Menderes had certainly turned authoritarian toward the end of their rule, using repression and heavy-handed censorship of the media. But one can also see the roots of the military coup in the DP’s ability to mobilize large segments of the population until then excluded from politics and also its success in utilizing religion for political purposes. Strikingly, the military coup against the ever first popularly-elected government of Turkish history received the enthusiastic support of the ‘Turkish left’ because the Turkish left had its origins in state bureaucracy and the military and thus identified with the CHP — and hence just like in Latin America, making a mockery of the right vs. left distinction in Turkey. 

The conflicts within Turkish society that came to the surface and then to the boiling point in the next several decades (which we will discuss in our next post) weren’t just a repeat of those between the CHP and DP elites and their supporters. Rather, the brief democratic episode of the 1950s proved that elections wouldn’t easily bring inclusive politics to Turkey. The CHP elites could not stomach losing the election, so immediately started to work to undermine the DP government. The DP elites in return had no compunction in using their power and control over the state, temporary though it proved to be, to undermine the CHP (even attempting to close the CHP in the same way that Kemalist forces had previously and would subsequently try to close opposing parties). This pattern, made more likely by the lack of independent state bureaucracy and institutions, would repeat throughout the next 50 years. 

Indeed, the parallels between the AKP and the DP are hard to miss. So it should be no surprise that the battle lines were also similar, and the conflict that pitted the Kemalist forces of the CHP and military elites against the ‘religious populism’ of the DP would reemerge in the conflicts between the new Kemalists on the one hand, and the AKP and the Black Turks on the other. 

In the intervening years, the military came to increasingly define itself as the defender of all parts of the Kemalist ideology. It purged officers that it suspected of strong religious beliefs or insufficient Kemalist zeal. 

Then, perhaps predictably, the lack of trust and spiral of animosity between the Kemalist elites and the DP of the 1950s reached alarming proportions in the 2000s as the Kemalist political establishment and especially the military immediately took a hostile attitude towards the AKP (whose leader, Tayyip Erdoğan, was barred from taking part in the 2002 elections and could assume power only later after being cleared from the charge of inciting religious hatred). 

The military swiftly moved to threatening another coup against the AKP with a memorandum on its website in April 2007 after the AKP gained control of the presidency (the military had taken actions three more times against elected governments between 1960 and 2002, including in 1997 against the Refah Partisi which could be seen as a predecessor of the AKP even though AKP has partly distanced itself from this party and has generally taken more liberal attitudes on a range of issues). It also threatened action against the AKP from the get-go. Ominously, the Constitutional Court started proceedings to close the AKP because their religious outlook (‘plans’?) violated the constitution. Particularly emotive was the fact that the wife of the new president, the number two of the AKP, Abdullah Gül, wore the headscarf, something banned in public spaces by the Turkish Constitution. 

But the situation was different in 2007 than in 1960. The AKP had already organized deeper social networks within modern Turkish society, and had taken control of large parts of the bureaucracy and the increasingly heavily militarized police, while the status of the military within Turkish society was at an all-time low. This time Kemalists and the White Turks lost.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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