The Ottoman Empire : is it back to life in modern day Turkey?

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By Camille de Félice.

Translated by Matthew Hall.

The period following the attempted coup d’état on 15 July 2016 in Turkey has been characterised by efforts to reshape our understanding of historic events. This historical revision is a regular occurrence in Turkish history since the foundation of the Republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who placed an emphasis on the pre-Islamic history of the Turkish people and considered that the Ottoman Empire was reactionary and needed to be consigned to the past. This wish to manipulate history saw a turning point through the arrival in power of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2002. The AKP, which inherited the tradition of political Islam in Turkey, has positioned itself to be the voice of a majority that had been too often ignored and even held in contempt by the elites during Atatürk’s rule, and its takeover of political power allowed Turkey to reclaim the Islamic and Ottoman eras as their own. The increase of symbols representative of Ottoman power[1] that are sometimes used as decorations, such as stickers on car windscreens and mobile phone cases, as well as the large number of cafes bearing the name ‘Ottoman’, the growth of ice-cream sellers dressed in clothing corresponding to the image that Europe has of the Ottoman Empire and the popularity of this style in furniture shops, feature among those of the imperial legacy that were previously suppressed.

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These symbolic examples demonstrate in depth the current situation and are intertwined with measures implemented in the field of education. For example, Turkish students can now learn the Ottoman language[2] in secondary school, and girls are allowed to wear the headscarf at university, which was banned until 2008 on the grounds that it went against the fundamental secular values of Turkey during the rule of Atatürk. Measures were also implemented regarding the layout of urban areas, with renovation of buildings dating from the Ottoman era also being carried out in recent years. This has sometimes led to the destruction of some other buildings not considered to be representative of the image of Turkey that the current government would like to project. Paul Osterlund[3] believes that public spaces in Turkey are currently being transformed into a living museum, and this urban development is consistent with the political agenda aiming to create a new national identity by means of rewriting history.

The harmful nature of these measures can be traced back to the impression given to the population by the Turkish government of the importance of national history, while in reality, it encourages certain aspects of history at the expense of other – more embarrassing – moments. In addition to extending its influence and power, the AKP hopes to develop tourism and consequently the economy by redeveloping towns and cities. In all of the touristic areas, there is a highly-visible presence of shops and restaurants, which demonstrates the profit-driven approach to the renovations. The government also aims to strengthen the particular feeling of national pride and nationalism that has been created by the AKP.

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City of Kars

This parallel with some parts of Turkey being transformed into a living museum is even more striking given that the government is deciding what can be admired and photographed, what is a historic object (and therefore for tourists) and what is not historic. Apart from this sense of conformity which gives cause for concern, it is also important to underline the strengthening of control exerted over individuals and the way in which perceptions of their environment are shaped. The Turkish population, and also foreign visitors to the country, contribute to the positive perception towards interest in the specific type of history that is being put forward. Nevertheless, it should be taken into consideration that the enthusiasm for the past corresponds with what Eric Hobsbawm[4] has described as “the (re)invention of tradition”. Certain elements from the Ottoman era fit certain criteria have been chosen to be put on display, and likewise, some buildings have been left abandoned in order to justify their demolition in the future. As an example, in the city of Kars, located in the Eastern Anatolia Region, ruins are the only remains of many old houses dating from the period when a large Armenian population lived in the area. Nowadays, they are known as the meeting point for individuals wishing to drink alcohol and take drugs. The few remaining Greek and Armenian churches in Kars are also being reconverted into mosques.

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 City of Kars.

These tactics have the intention of removing certain parts of history and areas that were previously populated from the collective memory. This is notably the case for Erzurum where there is no mention of the Armenian population who had been decimated during the First World War and work camps from the Second World War. Therefore, the government has proceeded to rewrite history based on the practices and manipulation of history by previous governments. These policies of the AKP government, apart from removing events from the collective memory, result in the history of Turkey being simplified, with whatever does not correlate with the preferred version of events being not mentioned. All aspects of the Turkish population have been affected by the rewriting of history, as the tools used to carry out this objective include official discourse by the media, school textbooks, the cinema, and advertisements.

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City of Kars.

According to Fuad Keyman[5], the Turkish state has pursued a nationalist discourse since its creation in the same way as all other governments in order to retain power. The AKP – aligning itself with the tradition of nationalism markedly different from that of Ataturk, who relied on the secular elites and army as the most loyal supporters of the Kemalist Revolution[6] – has sought to weaken political rivals and develop its own brand of nationalism appropriate for its political agenda and  electorate and  since coming to power. This political discourse could originally be categorised as neo-Ottomanism as an emphasis was placed on religion and the restoration of the honour of Turkey similar to what had been achieved during the Ottoman era, but it has drifted towards the right in recent years. As a consequence, on one hand, the extreme right in Turkey has been weakened but, on the other hand, there has been a suspension of dialogue with the Kurds and less of a willingness to discuss the issue of the Armenian genocide, which were two subjects that the AKP had made significant progress in the first few years after taking power.

[1]Examples include coats of arms and the tuğra (the seal of a sultan)

[2] Unlike modern Turkish, Ottoman uses the Arabic alphabet and uses many Arabic and Persian turns of phrases in their vocabulary and grammar

[3] Brennan, H. & Herzog, M., Turkey and the Politics of National Identity: Social, Economic and Cultural Transformation, Vol. 8. IB Tauris, 2014.

[4] Hobsbawm E., The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983.

[5] Kadioglu A. & Keyman E. F. Symbiotic antagonisms: competing nationalisms in Turkey, University of Utah Press, 2010.

[6] It is important to remember that previous conservative governments, some of whom had their origins in political Islam, were regularly toppled by the army for having gone against the values of secularism.

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