University of Arizona Professor Benjamin Fortna discusses “The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent” (Hurst).

Eşref Kuşçubaşı was a secret service operative in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, who later turned his back on the resistance forces of Mustafa Kemal during the War of Independence and ended up in exile for almost 30 years. Fortna’s biography is the most detailed account of Eşref’s contentious life, based on exclusive access to previously unexamined papers.

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As mentioned in the episode, Turkey Book Talk listeners can get a 33% discount plus free delivery on this and three other titles published by Hurst – “The New Turkey and its Discontents” by Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan, “The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East” by Roger Hardy, and “Out of Nowhere: The Syrian Kurds in Peace and War” by Michael Gunter. Follow this link to get that discount.

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This week I spoke to author Ryan Gingeras on his new biography of Turkey’s founding father, “Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: Heir to an Empire” (Oxford University Press).

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Here’s an edited transcript of the interview.

And here’s my review of the book (which is highly recommended).

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk


As I mentioned in the podcast, here’s a link to an interview I did with Ryan last year about another of his books, “Heroin, Organized Crime, and the Making of Modern Turkey.”

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[Hürriyet Daily News (15th June 2012): http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ataturk-an-intellectual-biography.aspx?pageID=500&eid=101]

M. Şükrü Hanioğlu – Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton University Press, 2011, 280pp

One of the first things guaranteed to strike any newcomer to Turkey is the inescapability of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the statues, the portraits in every shop, the street names, the fact that every bookshop has an “Atatürk section,” the fact that every classroom has an “Atatürk Corner.” Whatever truth there is in the concern amongst secular Turks that the founder of the Turkish Republic’s memory is being eroded by a new religious order, it certainly – at least superficially – doesn’t feel that way to the Turkey neophyte.

Of course though, if that neophyte is going to stay for a longer stretch of time, he or she will sooner or later have to get a firmer handle on the Atatürk fundamentals, and Professor M. Şükrü Hanioğlu of Princeton University is the latest to take on the daunting task of producing a biography on the man. As Hanioğlu himself says in the preface to the book, it’s daunting because in Turkey: “For many years, the scholar who aspired to portray Atatürk as he really was resembled the pre-modern historian rash enough to attempt a depiction of the historical Jesus.” Though restricted in scope to the influences that shaped the “intellectual” character of its subject, (rather than filling in details of the personal life story), “Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography” is a sane, fair-minded primer to the ideological forces that shaped the “Father of the Turks.” Unlike so many titles in that “Atatürk section” of the local bookshops, it is resolutely a biography – not a hagiography.

The first step to challenging any holy text is to read it as a product of its historical context. The major objective of this book is to do the same with Atatürk, presenting him as an intellectual and social product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ottoman Empire. The influences affecting the elites of the late Ottoman period are thus given ample space, demonstrating the essential continuity that Mustafa Kemal represented. Even though politically he was to become the symbolic figurehead of the sudden rupture between the old imperial order and the new republic, in crucial respects Atatürk was simply the inheritor of the late Ottoman reformist legacy. This historical continuity is one of the central themes that emerges from almost all serious contemporary historical writing on the period. Hanioğlu summarises:

“it is imperative to realize that Mustafa Kemal emerged from within a specific social milieu … many of the radical ideas destined to become central planks in his reform program were widely held in intellectual circles at the turn of the century … Despite the radical changes that it brought about, the Turkish transformation led by Atatürk was not a rupture with the Late Ottoman past but, in important respects, its continuation.”

While official Turkish historiography considers the founder of the TurkishRepublica kind of omniscient leader for all times, untrammelled by the age in which he emerged, this book paints a convincing alternative picture.

In this respect, the discussion of nineteenth century German military theorist Colmar van der Goltz’s idea of “the Nation in Arms” is particularly illuminating. Goltz held that a state’s military elite should be afforded an exalted role as the ultimate guide of society, a “superior position” being “the natural due of officers as a class.” Such ideas found fertile ground in the lateOttoman Empire, and Goltz was chosen to lead a restructuring of the Ottoman Royal Military in 1883-84. His theories had an obvious effect on the Committee of Union and Progress, (the group of military officers later known as the Young Turks), which swept to power in 1908, and were clearly significant in justifying the military’s later elite position in the Turkish Republic. Equally important to Ottoman thinking of the time – and consequently to Atatürk – was another German import, the concept of Vulgarmaterialismus:

“a vulgarized version of the doctrine of materialism, fusing popular notions of materialism, scientism, and Darwinism into a simplistic creed that upheld the role of science in society. The late Ottoman version of this materialism was a further simplification of the German original and a medley of highly disparate ideas.”

Hanioğlu remarks on the inherent irony of the self-contradictory, one-dimensional worship of scientific materialism by the era’s elites, a secular creed held on to with as much unquestioning zeal as the most pious of religious believers. The early republican fetish for the all-encompassing power of science was clearly a direct inheritance from this late Ottoman tendency.

Such oversimplification also gave rise to some of the more eccentric, often troubling republican intellectual predilections. The scientistic cult logically led to scientific racism and theories of exclusivist Turkish racial superiority, (the body of 16th century imperial Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan was exhumed in 1925 to confirm the brachycephalic shape of his skull, in order to prove beyond all doubt that he was, indeed, an ethnic Turk). It also fed into the aberration of the various Turkist language theories – which resulted in the brutal purging of all “foreign elements” in order to form a new “purified” Turkish language, with artificial replacements dredged up from ancient Turkic languages. In the words of Geoffrey Lewis, the reforms were a “catastrophic success,” and meant that Atatürk’s famous 36-hour speech of 1926 had already become unintelligible and had to be rendered into modern usage by 1963. There was also the new Turkish history thesis that found its way into official Turkish textbooks, which involved a comprehensive effort to prove that all ancient civilisations, including Greece and Rome, came from a central Asian Turkish wellspring. Despite obviously being nonsense, this revisionist interpretation of human history was seductive because it served a number of practical purposes. Firstly, it helped bypass the awkwardly religious Ottoman past; secondly, it helped pre-empt claims by rival nationalisms that Turks were latecomers to Anatolia; and thirdly, in the Turks’ mission civilisatrice, it also sought to solidify Turkey’s position as an integral part of the West, (although even this may have been a step down for some, with one contemporary text claiming that “Turks lived clothed during the stone age in 12000 BC, while Europeans reached that stage 5,000 years later.”) Atatürk never feels further from the figure of the high Enlightenment – and closer to his own, authoritarian age – than when we read of these quixotic social engineering projects. (I was struck recently when my neighbourhood plumber, Ali, while repairing some piping in my bathroom, began expounding something that sounded suspiciously close to the “Sun Language Theory.” I used to think of such things as being not much more than an eccentric footnote, representing the lunatic fringe of the early republican age, but perhaps I was being too generous.)

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it was personally one of his central intellectual pillars, Atatürk tended not to emphasise the more esoteric expressions of his Turkism until the future of the republic had been properly secured. Until this time, Hanioğlu stresses, Atatürk displayed an often underappreciated pragmatism as a politician. This is especially the case with regard to religion, which is far from the black and white picture that is often assumed. Atatürk was never averse to invoking Islam, particularly early on, when seeking to mobilise the masses in the struggle against the Allies and the non-Muslim populations, which were seen as a mortal threat to the very independence of the nation. Despite his contempt for communism, he also made use of a “purely rhetorical Socialism,” largely aiming to maintain the young republic’s alliance of convenience with theSoviet Union. “This pattern of dissimulation,” Hanioğlu writes:

“was undoubtedly part of a deliberate strategy to align the nationalists with the most powerful and broad-based ideologies of resistance, while obfuscating the exclusionary objectives of the movement. This ideological mishmash was crucial to Mustafa Kemal as he performed his difficult role as political leader, diplomat, and supreme military commander.”

Although he was the leading figure behind the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate and, soon after, the Islamic Caliphate, this too was achieved in an extremely careful, gradualist way. As is often the case, what seems now like a sudden jolt and break with the past can, in many senses, be seen as merely the logical culmination of tendencies that had been developing for decades.

Westerners tend to view the Turkish adoration of Atatürk in rather narrow, technocratic terms, without understanding that the emotional resonance his image has across Turkish society couldn’t possibly be accounted for by his intellectual convictions alone. Like all icons, his image is still powerful in today’s Turkey because it has been effectively divested of all meaning, and the viewer can invest it with whatever symbolism he or she wishes to. As in any personality cult, Atatürk’s image must necessarily mean different things to different people. Depending on the context, Hanioğlu says, Atatürk “may be invoked in support of ideas that are étatist or liberal, nationalist or socialist, religious or scientistic, elitist or populist.” A westernised Turk on the Aegean coast might revere him for his secularizing, modernising vision, whilst a religious conservative in Central Anatolia can selectively ignore this, and instead place the emphasis elsewhere – perhaps instead respecting the strongman who successfully defended his homeland and gave the West a bloody nose. He probably sees no contradiction at all in praying five times a day while also passionately admiring Atatürk.

Shared by both caricatures is a veneration for the redeemer of the nation, and it is this aspect more than anything else that lends Atatürk the emotional impact needed to endure. This is the reason why detached and technical books like this, while welcome, can really only ever have a minor impact. The majority are guided by impulses rather less rational and rather more emotional. Atatürk himself understood that, even though it is this paradox that perhaps ultimately illustrates the limits of his ultra-rational, positivist intellectual convictions.

[This is an extended and elaborated version of a piece I posted on here some time ago. It is published in the latest, Winter 2012 edition of Turkish Policy Quarterly, which is available for  purchase now. You can read the piece below or, along with a slightly anaemic abstract, in its original habitat here: http://www.turkishpolicy.com/article/674/turkish-nationalism-and-turkish-islam-a-new-balance/ ]

Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, received wisdom has tended to consider nationalism and Islam as mutually incompatible forces in the Turkish context. Turkish nationalism – so this narrative goes – is defined by the secularizing, modernizing example of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a positivist, military man with an almost religious faith in the ability of science to reshape society. Islam, with its appeals to multinational, multiracial unity, inevitably stood in the way of the “pure”, homogenous nation-state. Such an understanding was propagated by those early secularizing elites within Turkey itself, and largely accepted by observers outside the country for the better part of the past hundred years. However, the fact is that religion has always been a crucial motivating force behind popular expressions of nationalism in Turkey. What makes the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s position unique is its wedding of a popular religious nationalism to real political power. Recent developments – in particular the ongoing recent spat between Turkey and Israel – demonstrate to outsiders what has been observable within Turkey for a long time: that Islam and Turkish nationalism are far from irreconcilable on the political, as well as social, level.

Popular Religion

A singular irony of the founding of the Turkish republic is the fact that for all the talk of institutional secularism, the new nation was, in fact, fundamentally defined on religious grounds. Significant numbers of those resettled on Turkish land during the Greek-Turkish population exchanges, for example, were Greek-speaking Muslims, who, in many cases, could not even speak the Turkish language. The Kurds (and other non-Turkish Muslim minorities) were also included on religious – rather than linguistic – grounds. Whether you spoke a dialect of Laz, Kurdish, Zazaki, or Turkish, religion was the most important category to fulfill in order to be included in the new Turkish state. Even Atatürk himself recognized the increased importance of religious sentiment, and was not averse – particularly in the early years of his leadership – to appealing to the emotional religious feelings of the people when seeking to unite the nation behind his resistance forces. He led the War of Independence as a Gazi, (meaning “Warrior of the Faith” in it’s original Arabic form), repeatedly invoked the name of God and the spiritual dimension of the liberation struggle in public pronouncements, and established Sunni Islam as the state religion in 1924.

Such an approach was seen as necessary following the religious retrenchment experienced by the Ottoman Empire during the late -19th and early -20th century. The loss of almost all Ottoman territory in the Balkans prior to the First World War resulted in the flight of around 400,000 Muslim migrants from hostile regions, to re-settle in Istanbul and Anatolia. Similarly, around the same number of Circassian Muslims from the north coast of the Black Sea also migrated to Ottoman territories in the 1860s, escaping from the increasingly aggressive practices of the Russian Empire. These migrants, or muhajir, had learnt to wear their religion as the singular mark of identity, and saw in the Ottoman Empire (and subsequently the Turkish Republic) a protective confessional motherland. Anatolia went through enormous demographic changes during the later years of the Ottoman Empire. Erik J. Zürcher estimates that immediately prior to the First World War, Anatolia was 80 percent Muslim, whilst ten years later, this figure had risen to 98 percent.[1] This more narrowly Muslim composition inevitably had a large impact on the policies and attitudes of the late-Ottoman and early republican eras. The decision to empty Anatolia of Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Syriacs – both before and after the establishment of the Republic – clearly illustrates how the new nation’s identity had become inseparable from its Muslim identity.

Elite Secularist Nationalism

This religious definition was emphasized even as Turkey’s new elites were preparing to systematically cleanse Islam from state institutions. The newly independent Turkish republic was not just neutral to religion; it actively subordinated it to the state, establishing a rigid and doctrinaire form of laicite in a country that until recently had been the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. All expression of Islam was to be tightly regulated by the new Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (Department of Religious Affairs) to ensure compliance with the new secular order. The Caliphate was abolished; independent religious establishments were closed down; imams were appointed and their Friday sermons were written by the state; women were discouraged from wearing the veil. Myriad other cultural and political reforms were initiated, aiming at faster and more effective Westernization. All of this was imposed from above, and all was done in the name of modernization, secularization and – crucially – nationalism: to oppose the changes or the way they were implemented was to risk vilification as an irtıcacı (reactionary), against the modern, independent Turkish nation. The military became the symbol of the secular order, and the four (if we include the “post-modern” coup of 1997) coup d’états  that the country experienced during the 20th century were all – at least in part – military responses to perceived religious incursions into political and social life.

Thus, it is clear that there was a tension – even predating the declaration of the Republic – between the technocratic, secular nationalism of the reforming elites and the religious character that was essentially the defining feature of the new nation. In his fine assessment of modern Turkish history, Perry Anderson has described Kemalism as an “ideological code in two registers. One was secular and applied to the elite. The other was crypto-religious and accessible to the masses. Common to both was the integrity of the nation, as supreme political value.”[2] Atatürk’s secularizing reforms have too often been accepted as the defining features of Turkish nationalism but it is clear that such dry, technocratic reforms could not possibly constitute the sole emotional appeal influencing such an aggressive and deeply-felt nationalism. It is significant, for example, that the extreme nationalists of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – which won 13 percent of the votes in the parliamentary election of June 2011 – responded to the reopening of the historic Armenian Surp Haç Church in Ani with reactiveFriday prayers, which they organized two weeks later in the same location.[3] Likewise, it is striking that Turkish soldiers, felled in counter-insurgency conflict with the PKK, are uniformly referred to as şehitler, or “martyrs”, by the Turkish media.

The AKP and Post-nationalism?

The spectacular electoral successes of the AKP, an Islamically-oriented party, starting in 2002, seemed to challenge the assumptions of the secular-nationalist paradigm even further. Here at last, it was thought, was a way out of the monocultural impasse, a tonic to divisive and destructive Turkish nationalism. Many optimistically hoped that the AKP would take the country to a post-nationalist state of peace, respect for human rights, and economic prosperity, and a series of symbolic ‘openings’ helped warm up relations with minority communities within the Turkish borders. In particular, the government was expected to attempt a solution to the “Kurdish Question” by re-emphasizing common religious bonds between Turks and Kurds. More progress was made in the European Union accession process by the AKP than any previous government. It also defanged the Turkish military – that bastion of unreconstructed secular nationalism – which it accuses of plotting a coup to overthrow the elected government in the Balyoz, or “Sledgehammer”, case.

The AKP’s Marriage of Nationalism and Religion

It is becoming clear, however, that the government’s struggle against the generals was in fact only a strike against one, narrowly defined, type of nationalism. Another has become evident, and this form can be said to constitute the new ideological bedrock of the AKP government. Campaigning during the parliamentary election of June 2011, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan adopted a much harder note on the Kurdish question than ever before, and – the AKP having won almost 50 percent of the popular vote – he has continued this tendency since. In response to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attacks on Turkish forces stationed near the Iraqi border in October, the government retreated back into the full scale military solution that has failed to solve the problem thus far. The feeble “apology on behalf of the state” that Erdoğan offered in November for the Dersim Massacres of 1937-39 can be summarily disregarded, representing nothing more than the government’s latest attempt to score cheap political points against the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The EU process is effectively dead, and the government has wasted no time laying the blame squarely at the door of the EU itself. The United States – and “the West” more generally – comes in for increasingly strident criticism, sanctioned by rising anti-American sentiments in Turkish society (a recent poll found that 64.8 percent of Turks have a “negative” opinion of Americans).[4] Despite evident deficiencies in the “Turkish model”, Erdoğan obviously relishes being idolized across the Arab world and, emboldened by a booming economy, he flexes his muscles on the world stage as no Turkish leader has before. Appealing to the collective libido dominandi, such behavior wins him ever more support back home. Boorish populism is prosecuted in the name of greater and deeper democracy.

The equation of Turkish with Muslim identity was always tacitly understood; now it is explicit. Whilst previous Turkish administrations have, at times, won support by appealing to both nationalist and religious sentiments as well, none have done so as successfully as the AKP. Erdoğan differs from Turgut Özal in degree, organization and success, having become the first leader in Turkish history to win three consecutive elections, with a consistently rising share of the vote. The AKP’s real innovation lies in its ability to achieve what no other government has before: wedding populist religious nationalism to the levers of government and remaining in power whilst doing so.

The New Paradigm and the Turkey-Israel Dispute

As with all nationalist movements, the AKP’s needs outside foes against which to define itself, and perhaps the most significant of these today is Israel. The raid by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) on the Turkish “Mavi Marmara” aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010 caused widespread public and political outrage, and the Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relationship has since deteriorated to such a degree that Turkey has almost entirely suspended political, military and economic ties with Israel. Owing to the widespread popular support for the government on this issue, the AKP has no motivation to desist; indeed one could argue that it may even have an interest in prolonging, even escalating the dispute. The spat brings into sharp focus the elision that has occurred between nationalism and religion: a hitherto unheard-of instance of secular nationalism and emotional religious indignation uniting in a common cause.

Nationalism and religion have been the two primary energizing forces in Turkish society for almost a hundred years, even if one has always dictated to the other. The current Turkish government’s rhetoric manages to appeal to both impulses, and that is why it is such a powerful brew.

[1] Erik J. Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p.164.

[2] Perry Anderson, “Kemalism: After the Ottomans,” London Review of Books, 11 September 2008, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n17/perry-anderson/kemalism

[3] “Turkish nationalist party holds Friday prayers at Ani ruins,” Hürriyet Daily News, 1 October 2010, http://web.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=mhp-prayed-at-ani-ruins-2010-10-01

[4] Talip Küçükcan, “Arab Image in Turkey,” Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) Research Report, June 2010, p.25, http://www.setav.org/ups/dosya/35086.pdf

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