Tur­key is an an­cient power.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @steve­na­cook Steven A. Cook, the Eni En­rico Mat­tei se­nior fel­low for Mid­dle East and Africa stud­ies at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, is the au­thor of “False Dawn: Protest, Democ­racy, and Vi­o­lence in the New Mid­dle East.”

When an­a­lysts write about the Mid­dle East, they often in­clude Tur­key along­side Egypt and Iran as na­tions with a pre-colo­nial his­tory. Af­ter all, th­ese coun­tries are in­her­i­tors of great civ­i­liza­tions, un­like some post-World War I con­trivances such as Jor­dan, Syria or Iraq.

It’s true that Euro­peans did not con­jure Tur­key by draw­ing it on a map. But the coun­try is a prod­uct of the imag­i­na­tion of one man: Mustafa Ke­mal, known more com­monly as Atatürk, or Father Turk. He cre­ated an ethno-na­tional state where one had never ex­isted in a cen­tral part of what had been a multi-eth­nic and mul­ti­cul­tural Ot­toman Em­pire. To be suc­cess­ful, Atatürk and his as­so­ciates had to al­ter the val­ues and al­le­giances of the in­hab­i­tants of Ana­to­lia. In place of a pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim com­mu­nity loyal to lead­ers who de­rived their po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious le­git­i­macy from Is­lam, Atatürk suf­fused his state-build­ing project with myths about Turk­ish eth­nic­ity, lan­guage, and the link­age be­tween Turks and the land.

Hence­forth, from the time of the repub­lic’s found­ing in 1923, the peo­ple of Ana­to­lia were to be Turks, de­voted to a na­tion-state whose pres­tige and au­thor­ity came from its Turk­ish­ness and its ad­her­ence to pro­gres­sive ideals and science, which drove the re­forms of the early repub­li­can era, in­clud­ing abol­ish­ing the Ot­toman al­pha­bet, dic­tat­ing the way Turks should dress and un­der­min­ing re­li­gion as a source of au­thor­ity. Yet many of th­ese mea­sures failed to em­bed them­selves in the minds of all Turks, so their suc­cess de­pended on the use of force and co­er­cion.

Over the past nine decades, Turks have de­vel­oped a sense of Turk­ish­ness. But this sense is vul­ner­a­ble to desta­bi­liza­tion and frag­men­ta­tion in ways more com­monly as­so­ci­ated with coun­tries in other parts of the Mid­dle East. This is pre­cisely why the idea of Kur­dish cul­tural au­ton­omy or recog­ni­tion of the mur­der of 1.5 mil­lion Ar­me­ni­ans in Ana­to­lia in 1915 as geno­cide is so sen­si­tive in Tur­key’s po­lit­i­cal dis­course.

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