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The neo-Ottoman view of history

April 10, 2012

As the modern vogue for neo-Ottomanism lurches on in Turkey, the contrasts between the contemporary Turkish and British approaches to national history are for me becoming ever clearer. Neither is particularly encouraging, but both are the understandable result of respective historical inheritances.

Ever since the French Revolution, the British have defined themselves against that chaotic pole across the channel: reform rather than revolution has been the rule. Moments of crisis or turmoil have been home grown, not imposed from outside, and the country has always felt able to define itself on its own terms. For all its trauma, even the Second World War only served to confirm Britain in its sense of historical and moral righteousness; no awkward compromises had to be made, and the good ship sailed confidently on. Over time, however, this serene progression has engendered its own problems. Never having been forced to reflect upon it, the general population of modern Britain has slipped into complacent somnambulism about the past. Despite its importance, a dangerous ignorance surrounds the effect and significance – for better or for worse – of the British Empire, which is barely spoken of in today’s Britain and poorly understood by the general public. I recently took one of the example practice ‘citizenship tests’ on the British foreign office website, and while there are plenty of questions about the role of county council representatives or the frequency of local rubbish collections, there is almost nothing on the most fundamental episodes of national history. Compare this with other, similar western states – many of whose own citizenship tests I also had a look at (an exhilarating couple of hours) – and the contrast is far from flattering. Perhaps the crowning symptom of this malaise was the previous Labour government’s decision to remove history as a compulsory subject for students up to 16: an unforgivable sin.

Turkey’s relationship with its past is a lot more fraught with traumatic ruptures, conscious jolts forward, and moments of forced amnesia. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, state policy has dictated that to look back on Turkey’s Ottoman past is backward and reactionary – somehow a betrayal of the modern Turkish nation state. The recent ‘neo-Ottoman’ challenge to this stultifying official diktat should therefore be welcome, but it’s so hollow and uneven as to be almost as problematic as what went before. Turkey’s newfound obsession with the past – evident in seductively-costumed films and T.V. series’; architecture; foreign policy; even fashion and interior design – shows no serious attempt to consider anything other than the most flattering, least challenging aspects of national history. A recent post on the Tarlabaşı Istanbul blog quotes Prof. Dr. Uğur Tanyeli on the subject, discussing the architectural example of the tawdry wedding cake confection of the “historically recreated” Demirören shopping mall on Istanbul’s İstiklal Caddesi:

“The fewer traces of the past [an object] carries, the more successful a preservation [is believed] to be … there is not only the Demiören shopping centre, but there are hundreds of buildings along the Bosporus like that. There are ‘renovated’ buildings dating back to the 13th century that look like they have been built yesterday and where not a single screw is historically justified … In Turkey, the historical has to be brand-new and squeaky clean. So what is actually wanted is the illusion of history – It has to be historical, but it is not allowed to carry any baggage of the past, or any of history’s patina, there can’t be anything about it that creates unease.”

The ongoing renovation project in Istanbul’s central Tarlabaşı district is also instructive. Having finally been vacated, most of the historical houses have been mercilessly gutted and left pray to looters and rubbish dumpers. As their sinking bay windows morosely cave in on themselves, it’s hard to see how many of these shells even remain standing. It looks depressingly likely that they are simply going to be demolished, to be replaced by historically empty ‘imitation’ replacements. The so-called ‘regeneration’ of Tarlabaşı’s old buildings thus symbolises the modern, neo-Ottoman view of history: a facile attempt to reclaim the past, without the inconvenience of the antiquated plumbing systems of a truly authentic picture. As Prof. Tanyeli says, it’s “an interesting dilemma … they want the historical, but they do not want anything old”.

Oscillating from queasy shame about the past to shallow glorification of it does not indicate a country at particular ease with its history. Freedom from such jolts, however, can result in the complacent amnesia about the past exemplified in modern Britain. It’s difficult to know which is less healthy.

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