Turkey may be the most Muslim nation in the world. It was forged through blood and war as a state exclusively by and for Muslims -- a claim it shares only with Pakistan. Fleeing persecution in Europe, Russia, and the Caucasus, millions of Turkish and non-Turkish Muslims settled there, and today almost half of Turkey’s 73 million citizens are descendants of these disparate peoples. This little-known story is why modern Turkey was born a Muslim nation: when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed at the end of World War I, Muslims from all over the empire joined with ethnic Turks to defend the new nation against Christian foes -- the Allied forces, Armenians, and Greeks. Since then, the balance between this Islamic aspect of Turkey’s identity and its other -- secular nationalist -- side has guided the course of Turkish foreign policy.
Religion remained a salient national identity well into the post-Ottoman period. For example, when Greece and Turkey exchanged minority populations in the 1920s as part of the settlement of the Greco-Turkish conflict, Turkey handed over Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians from Anatolia in return for Greek-speaking Muslims from Crete. Still, Turkish identity was not based purely on Islam: starting in the 1920s with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president, the country’s Kemalist politicians have tried to emphasize the unifying power of nationalism. They promoted the idea of a singular, Western democratic civilization that was not only unified by religion and had room for all Turks. Turkish nationalism was secular in the sense that citizens were expected to be Westernized but could still be Muslim if they chose. Consequently, Kemalists turned Turkey’s foreign policy westward. And from the 1920s to the early part of this century, Turkish elites and governing parties adopted pro-Western foreign policies, embraced NATO, and marched closer toward EU membership.
But now Atatürk’s legacy has started to unravel. Since 2002, a party with Islamist roots, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has unearthed Turkey’