The new official history and St. Sophia

The new official history and St. Sophia

I remember the times when our high school history textbooks changed in the late 1970s, after the nationalist-conservative coalition government came to power. I was going to one of the few private high schools of the time and our teachers preferred to use the old textbooks; nevertheless, we were supposed to buy the new ones. When I scanned the new books out of curiosity, I noticed the difference: the focus was now on the glorious times of the Ottoman Empire, whereas the old books emphasized Western history, as well as ancient Turkish history in tune with the official Republican ideology.

In fact, competing historical narratives have been part of the political rivalry between the Kemalists and the conservatives from the beginning of the multi-party period that started in 1950. Finally, after the military coup of 1980, a curious mixture of the so-called “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis and Kemalist revival” became the official ideology that replaced the Kemalist one. Kemalism, with its civic and secular emphasis, had long failed to define the “national identity,” even before the coup of 1980. It was the Islamized version of Turkish identity (or Turkish-Islamic synthesis) that managed to redefine the national identity, as a result of the growing dominance of conservative nationalism over politics, despite the radical interpretation of the 1960 coup. French researcher Etienne Coupeaux’s book on the transformation of the official history from Kemalist to Islamic-Turkish between 1931 and 1993 (De l’Adriatique a la mer de Chine/ Türk Tarih tezinden Türk İslam Sentezine, 1998) is best at telling us the story of the shift in the historical paradigm.

The ideological background of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is based not only on Islamist discourse, but also on the historical narrative of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, or in other words, Turkish Islamism has always been rather “nationalistic” (in terms of Ottomanism, which is an irredentist and conservative version of Turkish nationalism).

The military regime’s eagerness to combine Kemalism and the synthesis has been a rather odd mixture and the Kemalist aspect lost its appeal over the years. In fact, the conservative reading of modern history has always been more appealing for the majority of Turks, be it right-wing nationalists, Islamists or center-right wingers. As for the basic starting point of the conservative historical narrative, it has been based on a great resentment concerning “the lost empire.”

Those who felt excluded by the Westernized secular Republican regime longed for compensation by identifying with “the lost empire.” In this view, it was a grand plot that led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and indeed it was “a plot against Islam,” since the Ottomans were the champions of the Islamic world. AKP politicians and supporters were true believers of the narrative of lost paradise and are eager to fulfill the mission of returning to the great days of the empire, which was the guardian of the Islamic world under the leadership of Turks.  Finally, the AKP’s success for three terms and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership are being viewed as not only the beginning of “the new era in Turkey,” but also as the force which put an end to the corrupt times and politics in the name of Westernism and secularism. That is why the conquest of Istanbul has always been a very important event of celebration, even when Islamists were the opposition, but now, after the AKP managed not only to be in government for 12 years, but also to acquire state powers, the nationalist/conservative/Islamist tradition of historical narrative has become official.

This year’s celebrations of the conquest have been accompanied by the steps to change the St. Sophia Museum (Hagia Sophia) into a mosque, since St. Sophia is another icon of the idea of conquest, of triumph against the West, of Islamic-Turkish glory and grandeur. It is true that the AKP is using this step for political means, but if St. Sophia had not long been such a symbol, it would not be such a great political tool. That is why it is utterly important to know the ideological, mental and emotional map of the conservative majorities to understand the significance of Erdoğan’s moves as he marches toward the presidency.