The dream palaces of the Turks
I hate to borrow from the title of Fouad Ajami’s 1998 book, “The Dream Places of The Arabs,” as I detest Ajami’s politics (especially concerning his support for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. But I must admit that his above-mentioned book is one of the best guides to understanding a “generation’s odyssey” of Arabs.
What’s more, I think we also have to write about the “dream palace(s)” of Turks to better understand contemporary Turkish politics. This is not to say that dreams, ideals and utopias always play a negative role in politics and history; on the contrary, without these elements politics lacks inspiration. But we should also recognize that they can lead us to disaster when we take refuge in them to avoid difficult realities.
As the Republican dream of building a secular nation state, which disregarded Turkey’s realities, seemingly failed, it was replaced by an Islamist dream of “resetting” the country and building a new nation. The two dreams have similar weaknesses, as both disregard the existence of plural identities and convictions. Today it is secular Turks, Kurds and all other non-conservative groups who are excluded from the dream of building a new Turkish-Muslim nation. The former Republican dream projected a vision of a bright future, while the new Islamist dream looks back to a bright past as a model to be revived.
Although nostalgia for the glorious days of the Ottoman Empire have always been part and parcel of right-wing political narratives in Turkey, it has never defined Turkey’s domestic and foreign politics as much as it does today. While neo-Ottomanism has proven to be a misleading characterization of Turkey’s Middle Eastern policies over the past decade, it has in fact started to define the terms of Ankara’s relations with the West. The Republican past is being condemned as little more than a Western ploy to weaken Muslim identity and Turkey’s potential to lead the Muslim world, and the West is being portrayed as an old/new enemy.
Current political circumstances – such as the U.S. support for the Kurds in northern Syria and its apparent refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen - reinforce the government’s political narrative, as they are perceived as evidence of Western assistance for the enemies of Turkey. The country’s ruler try to justify their skepticism by invoking resentment about the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the role of Western powers in undermining the Muslim world.
This is how “dream palaces” mislead political minds. By refusing to acknowledge the historical realities of the past, this mindset is blinded by the political realities of today. It is difficult for the adherents of Ottoman nostalgia to swallow the fact that Ottoman Empire was not dissolved only by the efforts of Western imperialism, but also because of its own internal weaknesses. It thus becomes more difficult to acknowledge that it is not only Western politics but also the many failures of Turkey’s ruling party that have created discord between Ankara and its old allies.
This is also true for domestic politics. It should be acknowledged that the government’s policies also bear responsibility for the creation of so much dissent, which is the product of the attempt to build a new nation of supporters at the exclusion of all others.