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Ottoman legacy

Ottoman legacy



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Published by aykutovski
Examines the imperial legacy of the Turkish Republic
Examines the imperial legacy of the Turkish Republic

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Published by: aykutovski on Aug 18, 2008
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As its title suggests, my book examines the imperial legacy of the Turkish Republic. By thisphrase, I refer not to those fragments of the old regime that somehow survived the radicalreforms carried out by the nationalist movement but to key pieces of the imperial system thatbecame active, even formative, principles in the new regime. As I explain in the first twochapters, the discovery of such principles as a force within the public life of the nation cameto me as a surprise some years after my first period of fieldwork. My training in anthropologyand history had not prepared me for it, and my interlocutors in the province of Trabzon,otherwise so helpful, had been unable to lead me to it. So the legacy in question was—andstill is—beneath the surface, one altogether different from those features of the Ottoman pastthat have recently become a subject of nostalgic reminiscence. But while beneath the surface,and therefore not easily identifiable, the legacy has contributed to both the dynamism of modern society in Turkey and by implication some of the country's most intractable politicalproblems. My work has thus unfolded as an effort to make recognizable what might well becalled counterrevolutionary practices and beliefs that nonetheless served as the hiddendevices of the nationalist revolution itself.My study has its origins in a program of anthropological research on the role of localelites in the public life of a Turkish town in the province of Trabzon. Those local elites whom Iencountered during my fieldwork in the 1960s were almost always descendants of individualswho had been prominent during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. I therefore understoodthat my account would necessarily combine ethnography with history, but I initially had nointention of theorizing the character of Ottoman official thinking and practice. On the contrary,I had at first assumed, out of sheer ignorance, that the region where I was working could beconsidered a remote backwater, only superficially touched by the imperial system. More thanten years after my residence in Trabzon, I had an inkling of my mistake in the course of reading the reports of British and French consular officials who came to reside in Trabzonduring the first decade of the nineteenth century. Gradually, as my archival and historicalresearch deepened, I came to realize that the lands of the old province of Trabzon featuredstriking transgressions of what had been, not so many years ago, conventional Ottoman andRepublican historiography. The imperial system—sometimes portrayed as an extremeexample of state exclusivity and centralism—had never been entirely closed. An officialgovernmental hierarchy had always been only the visible part of a much larger complex of nonofficial elites leading nonofficial coalitions at the local level. Because the imperial systemhad been open to outsiders, it had refashioned multiethnic, multilinguistic, and multireligiouspopulations into ottomanist provincial societies during the later centuries of the OttomanEmpire. This being the case, the nationalists who founded the Turkish Republic enjoyed animportant resource for an otherwise daunting project. As they set about to create a newpopulation of Turks for the country that would be called Turkey, they were able to rely on analready existing state society that could be moved from Empire to Republic. Taking advantageof this, the nationalists resorted to an imperial practice, supplementing an officialgovernmental hierarchy with nonofficial social oligarchies. As they did so, the new nationalregime came to exhibit a combination of institutional flexibility and rigidity, not wholly unlikewhat had previously characterized the old imperial regime. In the remainder of this preface, Ishall place my study in the context of scholarly understandings of the transition from Empireto Republic. To do so, I shall use the opening remarks of a classic work as a reference point.In the introduction to
The Emergence of Modern Turkey 
(1961), Bernard Lewis beginswith a characterization of the object of his study: "We may then distinguish three mainstreams of influence that have gone to make modern Turkey: the Islamic, the Turkish, and athird, composite one that for want of a better name we may call local.
By this assessment,the Ottoman Empire did not figure as a main influence in the making of modern Turkey.An imperial system that had survived seven hundred years would appear to havevanished without a trace by the close of the third decade of the Turkish Republic. Having beena significant piece of the world system for almost a millennium, the old regime had more orless vaporized, its ruling devices having at long last exhausted their political potential. Incontrast to western European imperialism, deemed virtually ineradicable by post-colonialscholarship, this peculiar version of an "other" European imperialism was without aftermath.To draw such a conclusion from the citation is unfair, although not as unfair as it might
first seem. Lewis was most certainly aware of the continuing existence of all kinds of "ottomanisms" in the Turkish Republic. Even though Lewis was at an early stage of hisacademic career, few other scholars would have been better equipped to address this subject.So he did not mean to imply that the Ottoman Empire had left nothing behind when heomitted it as an influence in the making of modern Turkey. Instead, he regarded the Empireas an earlier accomplishment of the "Turkish" and "Islamic" people of Asia Minor, just as hesaw the Republic as their later accomplishment. According to such an analysis, it did not makesense to consider the influence of the Empire on the Republic, since the people in questionhad abandoned the first as they set about to realize the second. Accordingly, Lewis focusedinstead on the meaning of such a move, and he concluded that it signified a shift from latentto manifest nationalism. The Empire had been a nonmodern state system designed to governa vast multiethnic, multilinguistic, and multireligious population. The "Turkish" and "Islamic"people of Asia Minor had therefore remained unconscious of themselves as a people in thecourse of making and sustaining it. In contrast, the Republic was a modern state system thatrepresented only one people, not many. The "Turkish" and "Islamic" people of Asia Minor hadconsequently become conscious of themselves as they moved from the imperial to thenational phase of their history.When Lewis published his study, its introduction would not have been welcomed bymany Turkish citizens, especially those who might be described as the Kemalistestablishment: state administrators, military officers, and schoolteachers.
Many suchindividuals would have taken exception to the view that the Turkish people were either closelyassociated with Islam or responsible for the Empire. To understand why, we must have someunderstanding of the mission of the Kemalist establishment. The nationalist movement beganas an effort to resist the occupation of Asia Minor by Greece, Britain, France, and Italy (1918–22). After achieving success, it evolved into a revolutionary movement aimed at replacing theOttoman Empire with the Turkish Republic. Once this course was taken, the problem of defining both the nation-state and the nation-people arose. Under the leadership of MustafaKemal (Atatürk), the members of the National Assembly took steps to invent a new public lifebased on secularism,as well as to destroy the old public life based on religion. As they did so,the Kemalists adopted policies that favored the identities and traditions of some citizens anddisfavored those of others. For example, the Kemalists came to see the Alevis of Turkey asrepresentative of the original Turkish nation that had settled Asia Minor
it had beenspoiled by the Ottomans. They took this view because many of the Alevis had retained ancientbeliefs and practices of Central Asian origin; however, they had done so precisely becausethey had been remote forest or mountain peoples relatively untouched by imperialinstitutions. So they had been perceived as representative of the original Turkish nationprecisely because they were free of the stigma of Empire, and also of the stigma of SunniIslam.Although Lewis had written an introduction that contradicted the views of the existingKemalist establishment, he had accurately predicted a watershed in public life. At the time,more and more citizens were moving toward the idea that a Turkish and Islamic people hadfirst built the old regime, and then built the new. And some twenty years later, even stateadministrators, military officers, and schoolteachers would embrace such a doctrine.Astonishingly, Lewis had anticipated nothing less in his introduction. He had flatly stated thatthe Kemalist program of secular reforms could never have succeeded in displacing Islam.After only a temporary eclipse, he observed, Islamic belief and practice were once againbecoming an important part of public life. Noting this trend, he affirmed that it wouldcontinue, if not accelerate, precisely because the state could not help but orient itself to itspeople in a modern Turkey.While Lewis was moving with a trend in the thinking of Turkish citizens, he was movingagainst a trend in the thinking of historians, sociologists, and anthropologists. With the de-colonization of many parts of Asia and Africa, academics had begun to take an interest in thegap between nationalist ideals and realities. In principle, the destiny of every nation-peoplewas defined by the task of achieving independence through the founding of a nation-state. Inpractice, every nation-state came into being as a result of language policies and educationalprograms that encouraged a diverse population to think and behave as a homogeneousnation-people. In other words, a people did not create their own state so often as a statecreated its own people.By the 1980s, two theorists of nationalism had articulated the shift in perspective indistinct but equally provocative analyses. Anderson and Gellner explained that the modern
nation was the result of a political process, one in which the state system was used as aninstrument for generating national identity and commitment.
In doing so, they separatedthe problem of the origin of the modern nation from the problem of its propagation. And indiscussing the latter, they gave special notice to "modular nationalism.
This last conceptrefers to the following sequence of events.The first nation-states representing nation-peoples emerged during the later eighteenthcentury in different parts of the Euro-American sphere. But once in place, they provided arecipe by which other governments, whatever their character, could concoct a nation-staterepresenting a nation-people. The mechanisms for doing so involved all the machinery of themodern state, such as promoting a standardized vernacular in print, institutionalizing publiceducation, building monuments of commemoration, mobilizing an army of citizens, and so on.So it was that nation-states representing nation-peoples came into being in the rest of theworld. And of all the many instances of modular nationalism, the Turkish Republic stood asone of the most impressive examples of a top-down project of nation-building, one thatexplicitly embraced the example of the nations of western Europe.The theorists of nationalism would seem to require a radical revision in
The Emergenceof Modern Turkey.
However, a number of cosmetic changes—replacing the word "emergence"in the title with "making," for example—suffice. For as Lewis had cogently pointed out, theMuslim peoples of Asia Minor did not think of themselves as Turks or their country as Turkeyat the beginning of the twentieth century. They would only adopt these self-descriptions someyears later, after Ottoman defeat and collapse, borrowing them from long-standing usages inwestern Europe.
And although he did consider that both the country and the people hadexisted latently before they existed manifestly, his account is otherwise largely consistentwith the concept of modular nationalism.
He describes how the Turkish Republic was moreor less modeled on "Euro-American" states representing peoples, placing some specialemphasis on the French Revolution.
He describes how this modeling enabled the Islamic andTurkish peoples of Asia Minor to understand themselves as a nation. The historian of modernTurkey differs from the theorists of nationalism only in regard to the question of whether thestate actually created or merely stimulated national consciousness.On the other hand, this is hardly a negligible difference. According to Lewis, the Kemalistestablishment had "mis–identified" the people. As time would tell, the real Turkish nation wasreligious, not secular. But according to the theorists of nationalism, any such contentionnecessarily came in the company of a politics of the "proper" nation. And indeed, thefulfillment of Lewis's prediction featured precisely such a politics. By 1980, a large segment of the political elite in the Turkish Republic, including many members of the Kemalistestablishment, had reached a new consensus, inconsistent with the program of secularreforms. The political elite in question were reacting to a decade of unstable coalitiongovernment accompanied by growing unrest among youths in the larger cities. To reaffirm theimportance of order and discipline, they had begun to promote a "proper" Turkish and Islamicnation in which the two qualities were deemed essential for a strong state and stablesociety.
Eventually, as a consequence of their advocacy, state policies of cultural de-legitimization and political exclusion gained ground, the targets of these policies including allkinds of individuals and groups. Some among them could easily be deemed not Turkish(linguistic minorities) or not Islamic (religious minorities), but some could be deemed notTurkish or not Islamic politically rather than empirically.
Kurdish and Turkish Alevis, many of whom were subjected to official blacklisting (
), are notable examples of each of thesecategories.
But I do not wish to find fault with the historian of modern Turkey; for the weakness of his work as politics is also its strength as history. Lewis was pointing to something very realwhen he described a "Turkish" and "Islamic" people who had moved from Empire to Republic.He had located the counterrevolution within the revolution, even if he would never use suchterminology, and he had sensed that the counterrevolution was gaining ground. This insight isimpressive even if it was gained at the cost of his own "mis–identification," that is, mistakinga part of the Turkish nation for the whole. To see how this is so, we must reassert the dictumof the theorists of nationalism—states make people, people do not makes states—and thenapply it to the Ottoman Empire.It is certainly true that "Turkish" and "Islamic" streams of influence were important, if not dominant, among the population in parts of the Middle East, Asia Minor, and the Balkansfor many hundreds of years. It is also indisputable that the classical imperial system of SultanMehmet II was shaped in a fundamental way by rivulets among these streams of influence.

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