Turks Reconciling With Their Ottoman Past

Thursday, August 19, 2010

BY IBRAHIM KALIN

TODAY'S ZAMAN- The German philosopher and father of modern hermeneutics Hans-Georg Gadamer once said that history continues to live in our language, daily conversations, shared jokes and common historical references. But history also feeds discussions about identity, community, state, religion and 'the other.' People in Turkey today are rediscovering how Ottoman history shapes their self-perceptions.

As the AP's Chris Torchia suggests in his engaging piece 'Turks see Ottoman legacy in new light,' the signs of this new phenomenon are to be seen everywhere. Popular books on late Ottoman and early Republican history are bestsellers in Turkey. They can be purchased even at grocery stores now - a major revolution for the way ordinary Turks interact with books. TV programs on Abdulhamid II and Palestine, non-Muslim minorities in the early years of the modern republic, the events of 1915-1916 and relations with Armenians, how the Mosul region and its oil riches were lost, or the Dersim events where thousands of Alevis were killed, get high ratings. Political leaders frequently use historical references to make a point about, say, the current constitutional referendum, Turkish-Jewish relations, or Turkey's European Union membership bid. All important, all contentious. The disputes over what really happened a century ago shape how Turks see themselves today vis-a-vis all key issues of identity and politics in Turkey.

This is inevitable in a country where history has shaped not a single group but a constellation of nations and religious communities for over half a millennium. Ottoman history was never the history of the Turks or the Muslims alone. It was the last great cosmopolitan history since Alexander the Great, but with far greater implications for the emergence of the modern world in which we live. It was a history of military conquest and conflict with Europe, but also culture, education, art, urbanism, religious coexistence, devotion, piety, worldly pleasure, bureaucracy, diplomacy and so on.

It is this remarkable diversity that is being rediscovered and appreciated across Turkish society. It is the cultural depth and historical vastness of the Ottoman legacy that captures the imagination of many in Turkey and those in neighboring regions. Ottoman history is no longer the exclusive province of Turkish nationalists. From the rigorous academic studies of Ottoman culture, society and economics to the nostalgic and emotional sonatas about a glorious past, Ottoman legacy, with all of its successes and failures, is being made part of who and what modern Turkey is. In an astonishing way, that history is being rediscovered by Arabs as well.

But this is a complex field in which myth and reality, truth and emotion, history and ideology are all bundled up. Serious Turkish historians such as Halil Inalcik, Ilber Ortayli, Cemal Kafadar and others provide help in sifting through this massive material. Nonetheless, it is clear that the vast majority of the Turkish people, regardless of their political views, take interest in Ottoman history to find a new sense of identity and self-esteem. In a world in which everything is being leveled and made equal, Turks look over the blinders of petty nationalism, adventurous imperialism and see their history in a new light.

The current trend is helping overcome Euro-centric constructions of history. The idea that the march of history is primarily from Europe to Europe is being challenged by the extremely dynamic field of 'world history' studies. It is an illusion, as Arnold Toynbee remarked almost a century ago in his great work 'A Study of History,' to think that non-European nations have no history but only a record of events. No, others have history too, and increasingly they discover and take pride in that history.

Equally important is how this newly discovered history is rewritten. The almost Manichean division of history between a dark, retro and oppressive Ottoman history versus a modern and enlightened Turkey shaped the Turkish educational system for decades. The Enlightenment thinkers in 18th-century Europe painted the Middle Ages as the 'dark ages' to make themselves look bright and enlightened. The early Republican elites did the same thing with Ottoman history: The Ottomans had to look bad, in fact, horrible, for the modern republic to look good and wonderful.

This is no longer how one studies Ottoman and republican history. For better or worse, there is as much change and break as there is continuity and repetition in that history connecting the Ottomans to the citizens of the modern Turkish Republic. Turks feel more confident about their Ottoman past now and make peace with it. This is not neo-Ottomanism or Ottomanist nostalgia. It is seeing the self in the mirror of history. Given the shortsightedness of the modern self, this is a painful yet healthy exercise.

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