Since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern Turkey in 1923, the Turkish Republic has clung to secularism and nationalism as bedrock principles. After the introduction of the multiparty democratic system in 1946, the struggle between hard-line Kemalists and others—liberals, communists, and Islamists—has dominated Turkish political history. The November 2002 victory of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), an Islamist party with anti-Kemalist roots, is just the latest manifestation of this struggle.
Secularists and Islamists
Snow (Kar). By Orhan Pamuk. Istanbul: Ýletiþim Publishing House, 2002. 429 pp. 21,50 YTL.
This constant political clash creates a fertile ground for journalists and novelists. Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature, explores the fault lines of Turkish society in Snow. While non-Turks may simply enjoy the story, Pamuk's treatment obliges Turks to consider divisive societal issues. He forces those living the debate between secularists and Islamists to challenge their notions and reexamine their positions. A secularist would be unhappy with the cynical tone in the statement, "[T]he increase in the number of women with headscarves in the streets is an easy tool for secularist intellectuals to illustrate the dangerous rise of political Islam"; a more religious Turk would react negatively to the description of an old Islamist as a "molester." Nationalists would dislike the description of houses in Kars as Armenian-style while some Kurds might prefer to be called "patriots" or "freedom fighters." The neutral term "Kurdish nationalists" does not have a positive connotation for them.
Pamuk's book was most controversial in Turkey for its treatment of the headscarf, the symbolic battlefield in Turkey's fight against political Islam. The issue is especially sensitive now as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan considers a run for the presidency. Should he win, then the first lady would, for the first time, wear a scarf. The author consciously positions himself on the anti-Kemalist side, depicting a clash in which Turkish authorities are ashamed of having a religious population that, Pamuk suggests, is incapable of mobilizing against the secular state.
Challenging the Armenian Taboo
My Grandmother (Anneannem). By Fethiye Çetin. Istanbul: Metis Publishing House, 2004. 120 pp. 6,50 YTL.
While Snow may touch nerves on the secularism debate, Pamuk and other authors have also begun to challenge the Turkish perception of its past. Cultural elites are leading a silent revolution regarding how Turkey treats the Armenian question. First, they have begun to acknowledge Armenian heritage within Turkey. In December 2004, Prime Minister Erdoğan himself inaugurated Istanbul's Armenian Museum. In January 2005, the Karşı Sanat Gallery in Pera exhibited 750 old postcards to show ordinary Turkish citizens the importance of the Armenian presence in late Ottoman times. These were later published together in a book, My Dear Brother (Sevgili Kardeşim).
Perhaps encouraged by such events, other books and newspapers have begun to tackle the taboo issue of what happened to the Armenian community during World War I. Since 1915, the question of whether Armenian deaths during World War I constitute genocide, or were merely the tragic corollary of a war that affected so many peoples, has been a sensitive topic. Whereas in the past, the Turkish judiciary might punish authors under Section 301 of the Turkish penal code, which criminalizes insults to the nation and state institutions, it is increasingly difficult for the state to win such convictions. In 2005, the Union of Lawyers (Hukukçular Birliği), a nationalist lawyers' association, sued Pamuk under Section 301 after he told the Swiss-German Das Magazin that "a million Armenians had been killed in Turkey" but, on January 24, 2006, the Criminal Court of First Instance closed the case. The same lawyers sued Elif Şafak, another novelist, for her bestselling novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (Baba ve Piç), in which an Armenian character accuses "Turkish butchers" of massacring Christian Armenians in 1915.
Because of the Armenian question's sensitivity, many public figures had refrained from taking a position on it. Especially after the French national assembly voted to recognize the Armenian genocide and the French government's subsequent decision to assign blame to Turkey, some intellectuals, including Pamuk, however, have found courage to state what they believe to be true. While these intellectuals may latch onto the politics of the issue, for others in Turkey, it is closer to home.
For decades, Turks of Armenian descent who converted to Islam to escape World War I-era massacres, tried to hide their origin. Now, some are taking advantage of the increasing openness in Turkish society to explore their roots. Among the first to come forward was Fethiye Çetin, an Istanbul lawyer. Her 2004 book My Grandmother tells the story of her grandmother who was born in an Armenian village in the Elazığ province of eastern Turkey. Çetin's novel is based on the old woman's recollections of her life, including the events of 1915, the transfer of population from her village, and her own adoption by a Muslim family and subsequent conversion. The book sold more than 12,000 copies and is now in its seventh printing.
Çetin's background is shared by hundreds, if not thousands. After publishing My Grandmother, others began to reveal that they, too, were partly Armenian. As Turks embrace a fuller version of their history, the modern generation understands that Armenians need not be enemies. In order to look at the past with courage, the nationalist stranglehold over history must be broken. Only this way can the country's painful and troubled past be brought to light without fear of losing face or one's honor.
Nationalism Explored and Exposed
Those Crazy Turks (Şu Çılgın Türkler). By Turgut Özakman. Ankara: Bilgi Publishing House, 2005. 748 pp. 22 YTL.
Metal Storm 1 and 2 (Metal Fırtına 1 ve 2). By Burak Turna and Orkun Uçar. Istanbul: Timaş Publishing House, 2004 and 2005. 304 pp. 8 YTL.
Even as cultural elites, Islamists, and liberals challenge Turkish nationalism, nationalist themes retain resonance. By depicting Turks as heroes in his novel Those Crazy Turks, scriptwriter Turgut Özakman appeals to Turks who feel humiliated by the West. Such a story has particular significance in Turkey at a time when many Turks feel bullied by Europeans as Turkey seeks European Union accession. Many Turks believe Ankara has made too many concessions to Brussels and that European intervention is diluting past Turkish glories.
This is apparent in the public acclaim for Those Crazy Turks, which describes the last three battles of the Turkish liberation war (1921–22). Özakman plays to nationalist sentiments as he enunciates the Turks' glorious past. He portrays a humiliated nation that reacts against occupation and fights for its liberation. Such nationalism, though, may not always help Turkey as it tries to consolidate its relationship with the Western world.
Although Turkey's liberation is more than eight decades past, the embrace of Those Crazy Turks demonstrates that Turks still feel they need to restore national pride. Since March 2005, more than 622,000 copies have been sold, a number made all the more significant by the lack of a culture of reading in Turkey. Such appeals to nationalism, be it in Özakman's novel or in the discourse of politicians and columnists, reflects a lack of self-confidence that still afflicts Turkey.
Nowhere has this negative side of Turkish nationalism been more manifest than in the 2004 bestseller Metal Storm. Authors Burak Turna, a former Turkish defense correspondent, and science-fiction enthusiast Orkun Uçar outline a plot in which the Turkish government, standing firm to Turkish principles, defies the White House. A U.S.-Turkish war erupts, beginning in northern Iraq in 2007, and spreads throughout the world. It reaches its peak point with the simultaneous bombings of Istanbul and Ankara, followed by the invasion of eastern Turkey by U.S. troops, and ends with the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Washington.
Their thriller, and its sequel Metal Storm 2 in which Turkey achieves a victory over Europe, achieved popularity not only among the general Turkish population but also among cabinet members, foreign ministry officials, and the Turkish officer corps. So what explains the book's success? While the authors say their work is meant to warn of what might happen should either Washington or Ankara abandon the U.S.-Turkish alliance, they do not hesitate to pander to base nationalism. They also tap into rising anti-Americanism, a trend noted by think-tank studies and press accounts.
Anti-Americanism in Turkey is rooted more in politics and disputes over the Iraq war than in a cultural clash. Turna and Uçar played on Turkish sensitivity—rooted in its liberation struggle over European partition plans and invasions—against any change in neighborhood geography. Bush administration rhetoric about a new Middle East and senior U.S. officials' public embrace of Iraqi Kurdish leaders touched raw nerves. If the authors wished to expose the roots of anti-Americanism, however, they do not fully explain the cause. While Iraq is certainly the flash point and, more specifically, the July 4, 2003 incident in which U.S. troops detained and hooded Turkish special forces, it is unclear whether the AKP is sincere in seeking to maintain strong relations with Washington in particular and the West in general. Turks need to have a more honest discourse regarding their strategic partnership with the United States. If they do, and with the irritant of Iraq overcome in time, books like Metal Storm may not again reach the bestsellers list.
The European Factor
Letter to Turkosceptics (Lettre aux turco-sceptiques). Edited by Cengiz Aktar, Edgar Morin, Ali Kazancıgil, Nilüfer Göle, et al. Arles: Actes Sud Publishing House, 2004. 197 pp. 20.
A particularly striking feature of Metal Storm is that Turkey's saviors in this fictional war are Russia and Europe. This is particularly remarkable because Russia invaded Turkey early in the twentieth century, and European powers tried to divide the country after World War I. Might those same Europeans become the savors of Turkey? The ongoing European Union accession process sends the opposite signal to the Turkish public.
In this context, the 2004 Letter to Turkosceptics, an edited collection of essays by eight liberal Turkish intellectuals and the French philosopher Edgar Morin, is important as it addresses questions and concerns raised in Europe to possible Turkish integration.
The authors relate profound misunderstandings promoted by even educated Turkish policymakers. They remind Europeans that Turkey declared its wish to be anchored almost forty-five years ago when, in 1963, Ankara signed an association agreement. The process of application has been long but, in 2002, the European Council decided it would open negotiations once Turkey had fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria. It has.
Permeating the authors' argument is the idea that EU enlargement benefits not only the newly admitted countries but also the whole EU. Both the prospect of membership and its reality act as powerful motors for change. Turkey has reformed enormously since it began the process and, by any objective standard, it would succeed in its EU accession. The authors are aware, though, that such arguments do not win sympathy in many European ears.
Cengiz Aktar, the book's editor, is a well known Turkish expert on EU related issues. He dismisses the concerns voiced by some right-wing parties in Europe that reject Turkey's accession on religious and cultural grounds and argue that Muslim Turkey represents a demographic danger for Europe's Christian population. His message is clear: By failing to understand Turkey and by holding irrational prejudice against it, Europeans risk strengthening nationalism and the hand of those who perceive Europe as the enemy.
The other arguments are varied. Edgar Morin suggests that the idea that Muslim and Middle Eastern Turkey represents a demographic danger is a paradox, especially as Christianity entered Europe from the Middle East. Instead, he writes, Europe should be defined as a civilization based upon acceptance of common values rather than by geography. Ali Kazancıgil, a political scientist and international relations analyst, and Nilüfer Göle, a sociologist and a leading authority on the political movement of today's urbanized, religious Turkish women, argue that the clash of civilization fails in the case of Turkey since Turkey has a long history of interrelations with Europe. The authors show how diversity of culture and religion is compatible with a unity of purpose.
Today, though, it does not appear that such arguments are working. Turkish reaction against what it believes to be excessive concessions demanded and made on the way to the EU membership have contributed to a resurgence of Turkish nationalism. Whenever Brussels requires a move or shift in policies related to Cyprus, the Kurdish question, or the Armenian issue, nationalist winds blow hard.
Turkish literature reflects this tense contemporary debate. Many of these debates are rooted in history. The transformation from a multiethnic empire to a nation state and from a society governed mostly by Islamic laws to a strictly secular state has made Turkey into a country of extraordinary combinations.
But the founders of Turkey believed that its citizens constituted a nation. A new beginning was only possible by getting rid of the past. Atatürk changed the alphabet, dress codes, and fundamentally altered social life. He and his successors imposed such reforms through secularism and nationalism. Islamists and liberals both continue to resist his impositions, whether to reverse what Atatürk accomplished, or to alter it to improve integration.
While the 2007 presidential and general elections will amplify the debate, the search for a common denominator that can unite Turkish society will continue. Turkish authors will be at the forefront as the debate continues.
©1994-2013 The Middle East Forum E-mail: info (at) meforum (dot) org Daniel J. Pipes