Last Word with… Ron­ald G. Suny

Turkish Review - - REVIEWS CONFERENCE -

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

na­tion-state.

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