Thursday, August 7, 2008

History as Ideology

In recent months, I have been struck by how little many Turks know about Ottoman history. Most of the Turks with whom I am in contact tend to hale from more "Kemalist" families and are the products of an educational system that tends to place republican history over Ottoman history. For those who might not be aware of the difference, republican history can be said to start with the Turkish war for independence from those European empires who desired to see Anatolia divided as spoils in the aftermath of World War I. Of course, the most critical figure in republican history is Atatürk, who as founder of the republic, built the nation-state that was to become the Republic of Turkey. While learning republican history is no doubt critical to the education of future Turkish citizens, Ottoman history is largely undermined in the Turkish educational system. This is not to say that young Turks do not learn about the Ottoman Empire or that educators should spend more time on the Ottoman history than that of the Turkish republic. However, it is to say that there is a deficit in the teaching of Ottoman history and this shortcoming is no doubt partly motivated by ideology.

It is in this context that Abdullah Gül's appointment of Professor Ali Birinci to head the Turkish Historical Association (TTK) is controversial. Unlike his predecessor, Professor Yusuf Halacoğlu, Birinci is not a staunch Kemalist of the old variety, but rather is known for his critical opinions. Most polemical is his working friendship and support of colleague Atilla Yayla, who was recently found guilty of insulting Atatürk when he criticized Kemalism and intimated that it was backward to have so many pictures of Atatürk on display.

When Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, he was left largely with Anatolia, the traditional Turkish heartland a large swath of which had been traditionally ignored by the Ottomans. However, before Atatürk, when the Ottomans were ruling from Topkapı, and later Dolmabahçe, most sultans spent their time looking toward the Balkans. The lands to the west, to which some Turks still refer as Rumeli ("Land of the Romans"), were the center of Ottoman focus--the pride of the Ottoman Empire outside İstanbul, largely regarded as the jewel in the center. However, as the "Sick Man of Europe" entered decline in the nineteenth-century, these treasured lands were largely dwindled by Ottoman failures at the hands of the fast-emerging European empires of the nineteenth-century. By the time World War I came and the Ottomans made the catastrophic choice of allying with Germany, the Ottomans realized they were fighting for survival. Already faced with the ideological challenge of the Young Turks, of whom Atatürk was a member, the conclusion of World War I called for a new ideology by which to unite Anatolia. As the Turkish heartland of the vanquished Ottoman Empire, Atatürk imposed the European ideology of the nation-state and built a country among the largely Turkish-speaking peoples which would soon be asked to rise to their new position of citizens of the young republic.

As a Young Turk, Atatürk had decried Ottoman failures to keep pace with European technological developments as the result of the Ottoman's outdated politics. Since its founding, the main source of identity in the Ottoman Empire had been that of religion. While the Ottomans established zones of religious freedom and tolerance within their imperial rule, these zones were predicated on religious identity. Called millet, the Ottomans granted legal recognition to a variety of religious communities, including Greek Christians, Armenian Christians, and Jews. Although millet is translated in modern Turkish as "nation," under the Ottomans the idea was quite different. The Muslim majority did not belong to a millet, but as Ottoman historian Norman Itkowitz elucidates, existed as the community of the Prophet, the umma as described by Islamic political theory. While members of the umma were regarded as Muslims, they were not necessarily regarded as Ottomans. As Itzkowitz further explains, Ottoman identity was something to be attained through climbing the stratified ranks of the landowner class. Thus, citizenship and identity in the Ottoman Empire can hardly be said to be pluralistic, as some Turks nostalgic of Ottoman history have told me, and modern political terms simply do not make sense when describing Ottoman realities. In marked contrast, Atatürk--and the Young Turks who came to power in the oft-ignored coup of 1913--sought to replace Ottoman notions of political identity and citizenship with conceptions that had been developed in Europe and that were quite outside Ottoman or Islamic experiences. While there is a dearth of research about the continuities between Young Turk/CUP ideology and Kemalism, it can be said simply that the state Atatürk built was quite radical insomuch as it forced a modern nation-state model on a society to which the idea of ethnic nationalism was quite foreign. The social engineering in which Atatürk engaged to make this possible is that extant in the Turkish educational system today, and it is also a reason why education is perhaps the most critical battleground to be drawn between the Kemalists of the "secular" old guard and the emergent political Islamists. Atatürk's abhorrence for the Ottoman-style of governance is reason for why so many Turks who are my age have little knowledge about Ottoman history.

In contrast, if I have questions or want to talk about Ottoman history, there are a few individuals to whom I know I can turn and it is little coincidence that many of these people are more sympathetic to political Islam and AKP. I must also say that some of the friends I have met here who are well-versed in Ottoman history are not necessarily sympathetic to political Islam or AKP, but at the same time, would not call themselves "Kemalists" or adopt the Manicheanism typical of leaders like Deniz Baykal. While they might dislike the "green capitalism" of AKP and Islamic leaders like Fethullah Gülen, find the radicalism of the Nur movement and older Islamic leaders like Erbakan off-putting, and be flatly opposed to any kind of Islamic governance, they are usually interested in Islam's religious values and are quite comfortable with using Islam as a source for political guidance. For many of those Turks who are proponents of AKP and a greater role for Islam in politics, many do indeed turn to examples of Ottoman greatness for examples of how an Islamic society can achieve parallel success. Despite that many of their analogies are sometimes more than a bit overdrawn, many Turks are coming to be interested in Ottoman history both for its own sake and for the exemplary value knowledge of Ottoman governance might have in generating arguments that challenge the status quo.

Gareth Jenkins discusses this dynamic and to what historian Andrew Mango has referred as the new "Ottoman nostalgia" in his recent article in the Eurasia Daily Monitor:
In recent years, the long-running struggle between the government of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Turkey’s secular establishment has tended only to attract international attention when there has been a major public confrontation, such as the AKP’s ultimately successful attempt to appoint Gul to the presidency in 2007 and, more recently, the closure case against the AKP itself (see EDM, July 31).

Such major confrontations are important indicators of a continuing shift in power in Turkey. In the long-run, however, the more decisive struggle is probably occurring on the margins of the political process, as the AKP gradually entrenches both its supporters and its ideology in the state apparatus, by means such as the appointment of its supporters to key positions in the bureaucracy.

The TTK was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923 from the rump of the Ottoman Empire following the latter’s defeat in World War I. Ataturk sought to create a Turkish nation state. At the time, outside the empire’s tiny educated elite, there was little sense, or even awareness, of a “national identity.” Under the Ottomans, the primary determinant of identity had been religion, which for the majority of the population meant Islam. Ataturk associated the Ottoman Empire with obscurantism and regarded Islam as one of the most important reasons for its failure to match the pace of technological and intellectual development in the West. The TTK’s main purpose was to create an historical pedigree for a new secular nation-state, which would be based on language and race. The TTK wrote a new history, in which the Turks’ origins were projected back beyond the Ottoman Empire to the nomads of Central Asia. Over the years that have followed, the TTK has remained the custodian of official Turkish history and one of the main ideological bastions of the secular state.

The attitude of the secular establishment to the Ottoman Empire can be seen clearly on the website of the Turkish military, which has always regarded itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy, known as Kemalism. Although the Ottoman Empire lasted for 600 years, only one of the 13 “Important Days in Turkish History” listed on the website of the Turkish General Staff is from before World War One (for reasons that remain obscure, the day is the anniversary of the conquest of the island of Rhodes). The majority are associated with Ataturk’s life (Turkish General Staff website,

In contrast, Turkey’s Islamists have always been unabashed Ottoman nostalgists. Although it has not yet dared to confront the personality cult that grew up around Ataturk after his death, including the compulsory inculcation of his teachings at every level of the educational system, the AKP has certainly been less vigorous than previous administrations in terms of promoting it.

In recent years, there has also been a noticeable shift in the historical reference points in official statements, ceremonies and speeches. Before the AKP came to power, the reference point was invariably a quotation from Ataturk or an event from his life. Now it is increasingly the Ottoman Empire. The change has been most marked at the local level. For example, ever since pro-Islamic political parties first took control of the Istanbul Municipality in 1994, the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 has been celebrated with increasing enthusiasm each year. Conferences and symposia on Ottoman themes have proliferated, and large budgets been assigned to the preservation and restoration of the city’s Ottoman, particularly religious, architectural heritage. Tulip festivals, including the planting of three million bulbs across the city, are now held each spring to commemorate the “Tulip Era” of the early 18th century. The municipality has even begun to use Ottoman vocabulary and grammatical constructions on billboards.

This Ottoman nostalgia has always been extremely strong among followers of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen (born in 1941), who is currently in exile in the United States. Gulen has long portrayed the Ottoman Empire as a paradigm of religious tolerance and social harmony, although the historical record would appear to indicate otherwise. Over the last decade, the Gulen movement has grown rapidly to become the most powerful non-governmental network in Turkey, which includes media outlets, schools, universities, businesses and charitable foundations. It has also established increasingly close ties with the AKP. Several ministers and many AKP parliamentary deputies are known to be Gulen sympathizers.

Although he had often courted controversy through his aggressive denial that the treatment of the Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire constituted genocide, Halacoglu was undoubtedly committed to Ataturk’s ideological legacy. In contrast, Ali Birinci is known to be very close to the Gulen movement and has played an active role in several of its NGOs. He first came to prominence in 2006 when he publicly supported another pro-AKP academic, Professor Atilla Yayla, who described Kemalism as taking Turkey “much further backward than forward” and, in a reference to the Ataturk personality cult, asked “why are there pictures of this man everywhere?” (Vatan, July 25).

As a result, the replacement of Halacoglu with Birinci will undoubtedly be regarded by many secularists in Turkey not merely as a bureaucratic appointment but as another indication of creeping regime change.
For one of the most recent examples of this "Ottoman nostalgia," see Sabancı University's creation of grants for the study of Ottoman heritage.

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