‘Ot­toman/Turk­ish Vi­sions of the Na­tion,’ By Doğan Gür­pı­nar


De­con­struct­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal en­tan­gle­ments of na­tional his­to­ri­ogra­phies nav­i­gated and in­spir­ited by the rev­o­lu­tions of 1776 and 1789 still leads to de­bate over the al­ter­na­tive paths of na­tion build­ing. The amount of state de­sign and in­ven­tion in this process, the his­tor­i­cal in­flu­ence of in­tel­lec­tu­als and academy, and the lim­its of the or­ganic process of na­tional uni­fi­ca­tion are sig­nif­i­cant top­ics in the assess­ment of the de­ter­mi­na­tive causal el­e­ment of con­struct­ing “na­tions.” Eric Hob­s­bawm once noted that, “it is prob­a­bly most dif­fi­cult to trace where such tra­di­tions are partly in­vented, partly evolved in pri­vate groups (where the process is less likely to be bu­reau­crat­i­cally recorded), or in­for­mally over a pe­riod of time as, say, in par­lia­ment and the le­gal pro­fes­sion.” In this process of fil­tered uni­fi­ca­tion, care­fully prun­ing the dif­fer­ences un­fit for the na­tion, and statist tools as­sur­ing so­cially en­gi­neered new gen­er­a­tions’ pride and un­wa­ver­ing sense of be­long­ing are re­quired. One of the most re­li­able of these tools is state-led his­to­ri­og­ra­phy.

The con­struc­tivist ar­gu­ments dom­i­nat­ing the field were most in­flu­en­tial af­ter Bene­dict An­der­son’s “Imag­ined Com­mu­ni­ties” was pub­lished in 1983.2 An­der­son gen­er­ally con­cen­trated on the nar­ra­tive el­e­ment of an imag­ined com­mu­nity. His­to­ri­ogra­phies, jour­nals and nov­els con­struct­ing racial char­ac­ter­is­tics and di­rect mem­ber­ships as­sured an im­me­di­ate -- and some­what ab­surd -- par­tic­i­pa­tion of a na­tion as a part of di­verse tra­jec­to­ries. This sense of con­ti­nu­ity and the ever-pres­ence of a na­tion in ac­tive world events was achieved through ed­u­cat­ing a his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion fused into tele­o­log­i­cal ends.

For An­der­son, the emer­gence of print cap­i­tal­ism was a mile­stone in the gen­e­sis of na­tions. In con­struct­ing the na­tional panorama em­body­ing mu­sic, his­tory, food cul­ture and ev­ery­day life­style, an his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion both repet­i­tive and static could serve the ends of back­ground ideals. These his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tions form the char­ac­ter, the en­emy, the virtue of the na­tion. An­thony Smith noted that, “We may read­ily con­cede the role of in­ven­tion and imag­i­na­tion in the for­ma­tion of par­tic­u­lar na­tions, without re­gard­ing ei­ther na­tions or na­tion­alisms as largely con­structs of the imag­i­na­tion.”

Doğan Gür­pı­nar’s re­cent study, “Ot­toman/Turk­ish Vi­sions of the Na­tion, 1860-1950,” traces the the­o­ret­i­cal lo­gis­tics of Smith and An­der­son. Gür­pı­nar fol­lows the in­flu­ence of printed works and eth­nosym­bolic ap­proaches of his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tions on the gen­e­sis of Turk­ish­ness from 19th cen­tury re­forms to the end of the one-party era in 1950. The con­ti­nu­ities and breaks be­tween these two eras are in­di­cated by scru­ti­niz­ing the trans­for­ma­tions of per­cep­tions about the West, Arabs, Per­sians, pre-Is­lamic Turks, etc. Par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est is paid to the Mid­dle Ages as a “golden age,” when Turks first made Ana­to­lia their own and the Ot­tomans founded an em­pire. In this highly elas­tic sys­tem of his­tor­i­cal ap­pre­ci­a­tion, from the late Ot­toman age to the re­pub­lic, “ap­pro­pri­at­ing and na­tion­al­iz­ing Is­lam and ren­der­ing it com­pat­i­ble with sec­u­lar­ism was also a ma­jor con­cern” (98). Writ­ers and aca­demics such as Ah­met Ağaoğlu, Fuat Köprülü, İbrahim Kafe­soğlu, Os­man Tu­ran who made a last­ing in­flu­ence on the con­se­cra­tion and reifi­ca­tion of the na­tional im­age were also pro­gen­i­tors of the in­te­gral unit of the na­tion.

In iden­ti­fy­ing a “na­ture of Turk­ish­ness” sig­ni­fy­ing the char­ac­ter, virtues and en­e­mies, that is, the im­age, of the na­tional body, Turk­ish ide­ol­ogy tex­tu­al­ized a stereo­typ­i­cal com­par­i­son with Arabs, Euro­peans, Per­sians, etc., only to sanc­tify and dis­tin­guish the just, civ­i­lized, and mes­sianic “Turk.” For Namık Ke­mal, Turks were a “nat­u­ral state bear­ing na­tion” while Arabs were just “novices un­der Per­sian rule” (70). The Euro­pean and Chris­tian past was deemed “un­civ­i­lized/bar­baric and cor­rupt”

(138). While Euro­pean feu­dal­ism be­came a Ke­mal­ist dystopia, the bi­nary op­po­si­tion be­tween the golden age of the Ot­tomans and the Euro­pean past re­mained a back­stage process in shap­ing the tragedy of the Turk­ish na­tion, its golden age, its down­fall, and its even­tual rise to glory af­ter the re­pub­lic. In this process of epic val­oriza­tion, Gür­pı­nar notes the con­struc­tion, fil­ter­ing and sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of Ot­toman/ Turk­ish heroes such as Köprülü Mehmet Pasha and Sokollu Mehmed Pasha. In ad­di­tion, Ot­toman “ge­niuses” like Piri Reis and Mi­mar Si­nan, and heroes of pop­u­lar Ot­toman­ism like Cem Sul­tan, too, ac­cu­mu­late a set of spe­cific pow­ers to the cul­tural pool of Turk­ish iden­tity.

Po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in the 20th cen­tury sought to re­write of­fi­cial his­tory, mag­nify the sig­nif­i­cance of events, pause at glo­ri­ous mo­ments, and elim­i­nate any sense of non-Turk­ish­ness from writ­ten records. Since the loss of Mid­dle Eastern and East Euro­pean re­gions left only the re­gion of Ana­to­lia for the blos­som­ing re­pub­lic, the “home­land of the Turks” was up­dated and con­structed, trans­lat­ing the Bat­tle of Manzik­ert into part of a “myth­i­cal Tu­ran” (121). These di­verse strate­gies re­peat­edly eval­u­ated peo­ples and places to pro­duce a col­lec­tive iden­tity. Though the­o­ries in­spired by the stages of Euro­pean moder­nity un­earth many prin­ci­ples and re­lo­cate the mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of the na­tion build­ing process, their mer­its are limited. Gür­pı­nar’s ap­praisals find myths and com­mon grounds in the genealogy of Turk­ish­ness sim­i­lar to those of Euro­pean na­tion build­ing. How­ever, the cri­tique of this po­si­tion is also wide­spread in cur­rent lit­er­a­ture. Ke­mal Karpat even crit­i­cized the pre­lim­i­nary terms of in­ves­ti­ga­tion, i.e., the con­cepts of “na­tion” and “mil­let.” “Though they claim to be syn­onyms of the same idea, the Mus­lim term, mil­let, and the term na­tion of Chris­tians con­tain var­ied mean­ings since in the East, the so­cial iden­tity made re­li­gion pro­foundly in­ter­nal­ized and in­te­gral part of it­self” (writer’s ital­ics, re­viewer’s trans­la­tion). The analo­gies and sim­i­lar­i­ties over­look the dif­fer­ence in gen­e­sis of na­tion and mil­let in dif­fer­ent ge­ogra­phies. Since the “Western model of na­tion and na­tion­al­ism fail to en­com­pass the mean­ing of mil­let de­vel­oped in the Ot­tomans,” a per­fect op­er­a­tional def­i­ni­tion to cal­cu­late the di­ver­gent stages of so­cial gen­e­sis

without dead ends is hard to con­cep­tu­al­ize.

Gür­pı­nar’s nar­ra­tive of na­tional panorama in re­la­tion to dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties also ex­poses some lim­its to its his­to­ri­og­ra­phy. While Arabs, Euro­peans, pa­gan pre-Is­lamic Turks and Per­sians are the “oth­ers” that make the iden­tity of the Turk pos­si­ble, other close neigh­bors of eth­nic Turks, that is, the Kur­dish peo­ple and Ar­me­ni­ans, are al­most ab­sent in his study. Kur­dish re­volts and the dis­course on Kurds are al­most only men­tioned via the takrir-i sükun ka­nunu (mar­tial law), and even such a com­plex sub­ject earns just a few sen­tences. Ar­me­ni­ans are no dif­fer­ent; the his­tor­i­cal amal­ga­ma­tion of “Ar­me­ni­ans against Turks” is over­looked de­spite a huge lit­er­a­ture -- rang­ing from jour­nals, nov­els, his­to­ries and pri­vate ac­counts to po­lit­i­cal agen­das, par­tic­u­larly from the Com­mit­tee of Union and Progress era -- on the sub­ject. Turk­ish iden­tity in its com­plex­ity was founded to a great de­gree on the de­mo­niza­tion of Ar­me­nian iden­tity as a neg­a­tive nexus of Turk­ish in­no­cence and preser­va­tion. We must not for­get “the con­nec­tion be­tween the Geno­cide and the foun­da­tion of the Re­pub­lic,” Taner Akçam noted. “The Re­pub­lic was founded to a sig­nif­i­cant de­gree by the mem­bers of the Com­mit­tee of Union and Progress (CUP), which was re­spon­si­ble for the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the whole­sale de­por­ta­tion of and mas­sacres against the Ar­me­nian pop­u­la­tion of Ana­to­lia.” The his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tion be­tween Ar­me­ni­ans and Turks is so vis­i­ble that such an omis­sion of this pre­pon­der­ance of tex­tual ac­tiv­ity is by no means rea­son­able. This taboo sub­ject --de­spite its in­flu­ence on vir­tu­ally all state build­ing events in Turkey -- is also over­looked in fields as di­verse as his­tory of eco­nom­ics, mu­si­col­ogy and his­tory of art in Turkey.

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