Last Word with… Ronald G. Suny
Anation state with a Turkish identity was formed in Turkey in the 20th century. What relation can we make between the events of 1915 and this nation-state formation? The foundation of the Turkish Republic was fundamentally affected by the Armenian Genocide of 1915. With the loss of the Balkans in the wars of 1912-1913 and the move of hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the Balkans to Anatolia, the Young Turks conceived of Anatolia as the “Turkish homeland.” When, in 1915-1916, the Ottoman government carried out the deportations and massacres of Armenians, they eliminated more than 1 million people; many others assimilated into the Muslim population, either forcibly converted to Islam or rescued by Arabs, Turks and Kurds. Anatolia became ethnically Turkish and Kurdish and religiously Muslim. This became the basis for a more ethnically homogeneous state that was able, in the decades following World War I, to create a new “Turkish nation,” even claiming the Kurds, who now occupied much of historic Armenia, into the category of “Turk.” What consequences of this nationstate formation are we still witnessing today in Turkey? By removing Armenians, Assyrians and later in the population exchanges the Rum (Ottoman Greeks), the Ottoman and Turkish governments basically eliminated from Turkey much of civil society, much of the middle classes, the entrepreneurs, industrialists and merchants that stood between peasants and the state. In the Kemalist period it then became necessary to use the state to recreate the economy and civil society, a process that took dozens of years and was essentially achieved only after World War II. The power of the state in Turkey and the long weakness of society are direct consequences of the deportations and massacres of Ottoman subjects.
Second, by ridding Turkey of other nationalities, the country impoverished itself not only socially and economically but culturally as well. The Ottoman Empire, for all its faults, was a multicultural society which benefited from the contributions of its various subject non-Muslim peoples who were generally better educated, more closely connected to Europe and more able to flourish in a capitalist society than the poorer Muslims. Of course, this reversal of status, with non-Muslims in many areas superior to Muslims, caused resentments, stereotypes and hostilities that remain to the present. Do you see Turkey as recovering from some of these unfortunate legacies? Or is there slow improvement in this regard? It is difficult to predict the future of Turkey, at least in the short run. The new interest in Ottomanism, multiculturalism and better connections to the European world are all positive trends that may lead to better relations between the diverse peoples of Turkey. But at the same time there are darker legacies: The use of violence in politics to achieve radical ends; the power of the state over society; deep discrimination of heterodox groups like Alevis or non-Muslims like Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians and mistreatment of and discrimination against the Kurds. Ordinary citizens of Turkey, people of all religions and ethnicities, need to rethink in which kind of country they want to live in in the future. Turkey has the possibility of becoming a democratic, tolerant and progressive beacon for the whole of the Middle East if it takes the right road.
Ronald Grigor Suny is Charles Tilly collegiate professor of social and political history at the University of Michigan, senior researcher at
the Higher School of Economics at the National Research University in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and emeritus professor of
political science and history at the University of Chicago. He spoke to
Turkish Review about the birth of the Turkish