Why don’t Turks commemorate the outbreak of World War 1?

Why don’t Turks commemorate the outbreak of World War 1?

The question in the title was put to me by a foreign reader of the Hürriyet Daily news. It was posed last month, right after the joint commemoration by France and Germany of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.

As usual we in Turkey were again preoccupied by a domestic issue: The presidential elections. World War I brought about the end of the Ottoman State, paving the way to the birth of the Turkish Republic.

The founders of the Republic designed the new system as a parliamentary one, but on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, Turks were set to decide whether to elect as president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has pledged to change the political system into a presidential one.

World War I had tremendous consequences on the psyche of Turks. The saying “the Turk has no friend but the Turk” probably dates back to those days. We carry what is commonly called “Sevres Syndrome” - again dating back from World War I - in our historic luggage. The fact that the Ottoman lands were divided between European powers through the Treaty of Sevres after the war has been engrained in the minds of Turks, and remains vivid to this day.

This is, of course, the legacy of our education system; the way we teach history.

It is a pity that, with the passing of the anniversary, we have missed an occasion to hold conferences and panels to discuss World War I. Obviously, the Turkish state is preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli wars, but it would have done no harm to have additional events focusing on the consequences of World War I. This is especially true these days, when the effects of the “peace to end all peace” make themselves felt more than ever.

But I guess this is too much to expect from a government that has been headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has pledged to raise religious generations, rather than generations with more analytic minds. Indeed, according to experts he has also been delivering on this pledge, with the number of İmam Hatip Schools (religious educational high schools) increasing by 74 percent over the course of the last four years, a rate that is way above the increase in other type of schools. As underlined by Batuhan Aydagül, the director of the Education Reform Initiative, there is no problem with having religious education as long as it is complemented by a vigorous academic education focusing on critical thinking. Unfortunately, while giving a priority to religious education, the government has done little since 2011 to improve the quality of education. Perhaps it suits the interests of this government to have generations that are prone to believe in dogmas, rather than having critical minds.