New Turkey and irredentist nationalism
Even the famous Slovenian thinker Slavoj Zizek thought that Ottomanism was a good idea in that it could be a model for a multicultural, tolerant politics of plurality. The liberal democrats thought so and since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, they have supported the idea of some sort of Ottomanism as a panacea against the model of the nation-state that has long repressed social plurality and promoted centralist unity.
In fact, Ottoman nostalgia could only be a source of cultural inspiration. Thinking of it as a model for a post-nationalistic democratic polity was a grave misunderstanding of not only history but also the idea of democracy. As for multiculturalism and pluralism, the Ottoman system was neither. All traditional empires were multi-ethnic identities, but it was never meant to be a multi-ethnic public space as today’s multiculturalism aspires to be. Besides, the plurality of ethnicities and religious communities cannot be taken as a sign of the pluralism that a democratic polity aspires to achieve.
The Ottoman Empire was grounded on the traditional, centralized governance of an elite. The ethnicity, religion end even the sect of the ruling elite always mattered, if not in the sense of nation-state terms. As for the Turkish conservatives’ fascination with the Ottoman past, this stems from a combination of reasons. First of all, conservatives longed for the supposed piety of the empire against the secularist modernity of the Republic. Second, conservatives compensated for their exclusion and resentment against the secular Westernized urban classes by identifying with the glories of the Ottoman past. Finally, conservatives redefined nationalism in terms of Ottomanism rather than in terms of the secular civic nationalism of the Republic.
In fact, right-wing conservatism is an offspring of the nation-state in Turkey. Their objection against Republican nationalism was limited to their discontent with its secularity. In addition, they objected to Republican isolationalism and aspired to imperial dreams. It was an “irredentist” form of Turkish nationalism since the idea was “Turkish rule” over vast lands and various communities rather than the idea of multinational governance. The Turkishness was embedded in the idea of Ottomanism from the beginning.
That is why when ex-Islamist conservatives assumed the full-fledged power to be able to reshape Turkish politics, their Ottomanism could not pave the way to overcome nation-state authoritarianism and could not lead to pluralistic democratic politics. As a result, the conservative challenge of the idea of the nation-state turned out to be limited to shows of the “politics of tolerance” toward non-Muslim minorities, yet Alevi and Kurdish openings not only failed but regressed to nation-state limits.
As for foreign policy, it turned out to be a craving for regional superiority as an Ottoman legacy. At the end of the day, Turkey lost the chance to play a role in mediating among different regional actors in such turbulent times. Finally, Turkey ended up trying to treat Kurdish Federal rule as Turkey’s vassal while expecting it to eliminate the Kurdish armed party in northern Iraq. Another mistake was to meddle in the Syrian crisis as if Syria could be turned into a mandate of Turkey.
I think it is time to be concerned about the shortcomings of neo-Ottomanism as an irredentist nationalism of the new Turkey under the conservatives’ rule.