From the abode of Islam to the Turkish vatan

From the abode of Islam to the Turkish vatan

From the abode of Islam to the Turkish vatan ‘From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan: The Making of a National Homeland in Turkey’ by Behlül Özkan (Yale University Press, 288 pages, $38)

From the abode of Islam to the Turkish vatanAs the world continues to obsess about the Sykes-Picot borders in the Middle East, it’s worth considering where Turkey fits into the picture. The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire led to the formation of those allegedly artificial borders to the south, but emerging from the ashes in the Ottoman heartland was a nation state determined to prove its authenticity, forging a powerful national narrative in the fire of an independence war. The shift in the way the new Turkish Republic related to its citizens was profound, but the antecedents of this shift actually went back a long way. This book by Marmara University assistant professor Behlül Özkan charts how the old religiously defined imperial Ottoman system was replaced with one of direct loyalty to a territorially-bound state; the shift from an Ottoman to a Turkish vatan. Each page is densely packed with material, and although much of the research is probably not completely original, it’s still a stimulating and impressive work.

In the first half of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire faced a crisis of legitimacy similar to that experienced by other European monarchies after the French Revolution. As Eric Hobsbawm observed:
Such traditional guarantors of loyalty as dynastic legitimacy, divine ordination, historic right and continuity of rule, or religious cohesion, were severely weakened ... All these traditional legitimations of state authority were, since 1789, under permanent challenge. This is clear in the case of monarchy. The need to provide a new or at least a supplementary, ‘national’ foundation for this institution was felt in states as secure from revolution as George III’s Britain and Nicholas I’s Russia.
For a multiconfessional, multilingual state headed by a dynasty such as the Ottomans or the Habsburgs, the question was doubly difficult. Constructing an encompassing identity to unite people from different ethnic and religious origins was described memorably by Benedict Anderson as “stretching the short, tight, skin of the nation over the gigantic body of the empire.” But as separatist forces tugged at the edges of the empire, the central authority saw that something had to be done. Alongside the considerable administrative reforms introduced during the reign of Mahmud II (1808-1839), symbolic changes were therefore also introduced in order to establish a “national monarchy.” The first ever coat of arms for the Ottoman dynasty was created, the first national anthem was composed, and new medals were introduced to reward service and loyalty to the state.

“Ottomanism” came along shortly after, an attempt to inculcate popular support for the idea of the Ottoman vatan. Until the first half of the 19th century, only the ruling elites really considered themselves to be Ottomans, so Ottomanism sought to solve the nationality problem in a multiethnic empire by promoting popular loyalty to a common fatherland. But as Özkan suggests, the pull of Ottomanism was no match for separatist nationalisms: “Rival nationalist ideologies, which aimed to create national territories, were much more powerful than imperial patriotism in creating physical boundaries, to unite and divide space and mental boundaries and to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’” After Abdülhamid II became sultan in 1876, Ottomanism was discarded, and his reign was marked by an emotionally satisfying but practically limited emphasis on Islam as glue to hold together the fraying empire.

The Young Turk revolution that overthrew Abdülhamid in 1908 reopened the ideological struggle over state ideology, with sincere attempts to rekindle Ottomanism jostling with nascent ideas of Turkish nationalism and Turkism. But events would soon take over; the Balkan Wars (in which the empire lost its last possessions in Europe and hundreds of thousands of refugees migrated to Anatolia), the First World War (which precipitated the final collapse of the empire), and the Independence War (which led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic), would together reinforce Turkish nationalist and Islamist sentiment. Amid this whirlwind, writer Şevket Süreyya Aydemir vividly observed that “everything had become clear,"

This collapse was not simply a defeat of a state. It was the end of a groundless dream. It was a complete downfall of a spirit and mentality. A tale, an imperial tale was coming to an end. Apparently, what we considered as grandeur was just a sleep of negligence.”

At the beginning of the national liberation struggle, the goal of defending the vatan against “the enemies of Islam” who had invaded Anatolia formed the building block of the coalition of various groups led by Mustafa Kemal. It was only after the consolidation of their power that the Kemalists started to put more emphasis on the Turkishness of that vatan. As future president İsmet İnönü put it bluntly after the suppression of the Sheik Said Revolt in Diyarbakır in 1925, “nationalism is the only element for our unity. As Turks are in the majority, other groups do not have any power. Our mission is to Turkify non-Turkish groups in the Turkish vatan. We are going to extirpate groups who oppose Turks and Turkishness.” The Kemalists faced a major obstacle as the loss of empire was recent and still rankled with many, to whom the idea of a comparatively small nation-state seemed unsatisfying and unattractive. But rather than indulging unrealizable pan-Turkist ambitions to unite Anatolian and Central Asian Turks, the authorities initiated a campaign of territorial nationalism to strengthen the Turkish people’s psyche. School textbooks were a key battleground in this effort, and Özkan is particularly good on republican-era history and geography books, which inculcated territorial nationalism and sought to strengthen Turkish citizens’ association with Anatolia by proving Turks’ historic links to the vatan.

In his conclusion, Özkan writes about how today’s postmodern currents comprehensively undermine ruling elites’ capacity to impose the mental maps of identity as they did in previous generations:

Today the meanings of territory and nation in Turkey are challenged under the strong currents of globalization by new internal players, including industrial regions, business associations, and civic organizations … Although the Turkish state continues to be the main player within the vatan, these substate and suprastate actors continuously challenge the territorialization of social realities based on a national scale.

Indeed, while Turkey is rarely mentioned amid the current “Sykes-Picot borders” fixation, it is also affected by similar global currents that helped inspire challenges to traditional state arrangements to its south. That is discernible in the Islamist reimagining of neo-Ottoman Turkey’s role in the world as much as it is in the “Gezi generation’s” discontent with ruling authority.