‘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.