Turkey built its own model with the republic, says scholar
ISTANBUL- Hürriyet Daily News
No one can act as a model for Turkey because it is walking a road that no other country has ever traveled, having adopted the best method of transformation in the West, Professor İlber Ortaylı says. DAILY NEWS photos, Hasan ALTINIŞIKTurks succeeded in forming a republic out of a crumbling empire, a prominent historian has said, adding that while the new country had shrunk geographically, it had restored the economic and political might of Turkey.
“No one walked the road we walked; so Turkey built its own model,” said Professor İlber Ortaylı, whose views of the republic were recently compiled by journalist İsmail Küçükkaya in a book titled “The First century of the Republic (1923-2023).”
Western-type of secularism cannot be applied to Islam, according to Ortaylı. The balance between religion and society is based on a contract and consensus and it is that type of secularism and modernity that is attractive in the Middle East, he told the Daily News in an interview.
What is you assessment about the balance sheet of the republic?
Following the monarchy, Turks formed a national republic, a republic based on citizenship. Obviously, there were ethnic differences in this republic and these differences came to the fore very quickly. We are still debating the reasons behind this. But nearly 90 years of the Turkish Republic has brought very important developments to the Turkish nation. First of all, it solved health problems, replaced the old education system despite continuing difficulties, bridged the population gap and, more importantly, it became an industrial country. A private sector managerial class was formed. In an industrialized Turkey, the military followed suit and became a modern army. The fact that the army became very strong – not because it intervened in politics, but because it became technically strong – also plays a role in the current tension between the soldiers and the politicians, as the army’s strength disturbed the politicians. Whether this is fair or not, there is such a situation. The republic shrank geographically, but political and economic restoration was accomplished during these 90 years.
You claim that the Ottoman Empire had to disintegrate.
Empires disintegrate. This year, we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Balkan Wars, when we lost part of Turkish land. But we never followed irredentist politics. We dressed our wounds and preferred to forget it. On our way to the 100th anniversary, the republic has its political and economic might and the culture of citizenship has become better rooted. In the Islamic world, it is one of the few republics that is close to the contemporary concept of a republic.
What is it that makes Turkey different than the other countries of the Islamic world?
It is the empire. Turkey has a very distinguished place in many states’ protocol; this is the imperial protocol. We prepared the cadres from those days, together with schools and educational and administrative systems. It is not the republic that established the Foreign Ministry; that dates back to the empire, as is the case with the Finance Ministry. We adopted the civil code in 1926 but even the debates about the civil code started during the empire. The Romanization of the Turkish legal system [the adoption of the Western legal structures that are based on Roman law] started in the 19th century.
So the thing that changed with the republic is the political regime?
The state continues; but the regime changes and this is in no way to be underestimated. In all countries that have become republics, even in France, which is said to be the oldest republic in Europe, there are still monarchists. We do not have people in Turkey that favor monarchies. We like monarchs; we are proud of our sultans. Actually, they have only recently started being demystified, but unfortunately, the demystification is happening in a rather clumsy way. Unfortunately, the mass media, literary [world] and cinema industry in Turkey is not knowledgeable in history; they are even less knowledgeable than their European counterparts.
Where do you put the balance between religion and society in the achievements of the republic?
There cannot be a Western-style recipe for Islam or Judaism, because there is no clergy, there is no church hierarchy. Therefore, secularism here is a contract – a consensus – which needs to be reiterated in all aspects of life. It is said that secularism creates two nations and you move forward with a continued contract and consensus. This is also our type of secularism and this is what is liked in the Islamic world.
Can you elaborate, what is it that renders Turkey attractive to others?
It is our secularism and modernization. There is no need to call it a model. It sees in us what it lacks at home and likes it. I don’t think an intellectual structure in the Islamic world where there is no production and where there is poverty would interest anyone. The reactions of a thought structure of an impoverished world that cannot reach an [acceptable] level of production won’t lead you anywhere. But you also need to listen to the outcry, to the protests of the Islamic world that is subject to injustice. You have to listen to them; you cannot hurt their feelings of justice. Otherwise, the consequences won’t be good.
What do you think has been the main failure of the republic?
Turkey did not pursue proper cultural policies. It devastated an identity. There was no need to avoid a heritage written in Arabic when we accepted the Latin alphabet, which was necessary since Turkish should be written with Latin letters. We cannot find the necessary number of experts in libraries where there are old documents. This is even a problem in universities that teach the history of literature. There cannot be a nation which has no relation with its past. Even in Europe, there is a debate about the problems resulting from the collapse of the humanist culture following the collapse of education in Latin and Greek. Think of Turkey; what good can come to a civilization from grandchildren that cannot read the correspondence between his grandfather and grandmother?
You claim that no one can be a model for Turkey.
No one can be a model to anyone. Turks are also doing something very sui generis, something on their own. There is no one in front of us that we can take as an example.
Because no one is like Turkey. No one has walked the road we are walking. Obviously, there is a world that has developed and that continues to develop and change.
In our case, change started with military reforms. Why? Because we are a fighting nation that was in the middle of a hostile environment. In time, we introduced ourselves to the West’s science, administration and philosophy. In 1926 we adopted the civil code. The most important thing is the legal revolution. Once we get “Romanized” there is no need to debate the substance of secularism.
I think the second biggest change was to adopt the American managerial revolution and implement it without hesitation after World War II. This is very important. A lot of people are angry, claiming we have become Americanized. Especially people of my generation have been very upset, and there are still people upset about it.
But at the end of the day, this society has adopted and endorsed the most efficient transformation model in the Western world. We are progressing in a pragmatic way.
Q. What is your assessment of Turkey’s policies in the Middle East?
A: We have to be very informative and realistic in our policies toward the Middle East. I cannot see that. There is no place for romanticism. There is a region whose historic development has been disrupted, whose borders have been drawn in an artificial way. Currently, Turkey does not even properly know the geography of the Middle Eastern countries. The map of Syria is not drawn by Turks but by Tübingen University.
But you also say we cannot remain idle in the Middle East.
It is impossible not to be intertwined with the Middle East because we are the Middle East.
What do you see today when you look at Turkey?
I see my country, which I am very proud of. It is of course boiling inside. It is a dynamic country with unbelievable problems. There are some assessments that can make one crazy. Political parties do not have a democratic structure. But a new generation of youth is coming. Our main challenge, contrary to what many think, is not ethnic: It is migration. We need to stop youngsters from migrating to Europe, the United States or Australia.
What is Turkey’s biggest asset on its way to the centenary of the republic in 2023?
It is its population. It has to maintain its population, and when I say population, that covers quality as well as quantity.
Who is İlber Ortaylı?
Born in 1947, Professor İlber Ortaylı is a leading Turkish historian, a professor of history at Galatasaray University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara. He also served as the head of Istanbul’s Topkapı Museum from 2005 until last summer.
A graduate of Ankara University, he completed his postgraduate studies at Chicago University and at the University of Vienna. After receiving his doctorate, Ortaylı attended Ankara University’s School of Political Sciences faculty, but resigned his position in 1982 in protest at the academic policies of the government established after the 1980 military coup. After teaching at several other universities in Turkey, Europe and Russia, he returned to Ankara University in 1989.
He has published articles and books on Ottoman and Russian history, with particular emphasis on cities and the history of public administration, diplomacy, and cultural and intellectual history. He is a member of the Foundation for International Studies, the European-Iran Examining Foundation, and the Austrian-Turkish Academy of Sciences.