The perils of history in the New Turkey

The perils of history in the New Turkey

The commemoration of the centenary of the Dardanelles’ victory started as a show of nationalism in the wake of a coming election. The president and his governing party are eager to make best use of the occasion; on one hand, the rhetoric of national sacrifice and victory underlines national unity and, on the other, it is being presented as part of their policy of reconciliation with Kurds since Turks and Kurds fought side by side against the enemy. Besides, the commemoration ceremony is slated to take place on April 24, to counter the centenary of the Armenian genocide. Finally, the celebration of the victory is being used to remind people of the impacts of World War I not only on Turkey, but also on the whole Muslim world.

The supporters of the “New Turkey” came up with their version of the Dardanelles as the “legend of the victory of the ummah” against the West. The governing party’s supporters in the media have started to suggest that we are still living in the post-World War I and that “the war has not finished yet.” The president announced as much. Finally, the president himself stated that the war had not finished yet and was a “war of retribution.”

Moreover, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters do not simply mean that the war of retribution was about a competition over resources but see it in terms of the “West against Islam.” That is why they recall the Muslim retreat from Andalusia (Endülüs) in viewing the Western assault of World War I as a similar attempt to re-Christianize an area. In their eyes, the logic is still the same, and Turkey should revive the spirit of the Dardanelles to prevent the “Andalusiazation” (Endülüsleşme) of Turkey. The president explained the meaning of this totally new term, stating that “those who fought against Islam and Muslims throughout the centuries have never given up” and that “this is an eternal struggle.” The ex-head of the state media agency, who has now become a columnist and MP candidate for the governing party, firmly states that the “Dardanelles was the front line of the ummah, like Medina and Yemen, since the Ottomans were fighting for the ummah, and now the flag is in Istanbul as we continue to defend the ummah,” (Yeni Şafak, March 19, 2015). Finally, the prelude written by President Erdoğan for the periodical called “New Turkey” defines the Dardanelles as “the marking point of the New Turkey.”

It is scary really for those “ordinary” people who live in Turkey. After all, it is rather alarming to live in a country where the rulers see the post-World War I settlement as unjust and open to debate. It feels like a terrible case of déjà vu. Moreover, it is not only the last century which is being re-examined in terms of enmity, but many more centuries are at stake. We are supposed to shoulder the responsibility of the “Turks’ big burden of leading the ummah” and are asked to behave accordingly. The cost of living in Turkey now far exceeds the responsibilities of ordinary citizenship. Now we are not free agents as individuals and not even members of a national and/or religious community, but some sort of subjects whose lives are shaped by a grand historical/holy mission. We should remember the fact that we constantly live on a frontline which is shaped by the struggle between Islam and the West.    

Even the peace process with the Kurds is being assumed to be part of the grand historical mission. The so-called “Turkish-Kurdish alliance” dates back to Manzikert in 1071, when Kurds welcomed their Turkish co-religionists in their march to Anatolia, we are told. The second turning point is thought to be the Sunni alliance against the Shiite İsmail of Iran in the 16th century. Never mind that it is a horrible part of in the historical memory of Turkish and Kurdish Alevis, the new rapprochement rhetoric gives a lot of reference to this alliance. Despite that, it has created tensions within the Kurdish movement, as even some prominent Kurds have referred to this historical alliance to broker the terms of peace.

It’s a pity that we are drifting every day more away from the prospect of living in a freer society, as now we cannot even claim freedom from history. It may no longer mean much to those who live in Western liberal societies, but freedom from history is one of the basic conditions of individual freedoms in our societies.