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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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You may or may not find the following two historical nuggets useful when considering the modern-day Turkish situation.

The reign of Sultan Abdülhamit II (1880-1909)

I came upon the first in Norman Stone’s recently published history of Turkey. It follows thus: Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamit II’s reign was characterised in Europe at the time as tyrannical, authoritarian, and paranoid. Prompted by wider events gripping the Ottoman Empire, Abdülhamit attempted to reassert the Islamic character of the empire and reemphasise the Ottoman Caliphate, suspending the liberal constitution almost as soon as it was passed in 1876. He himself retired from the open, European-style Dolmabahçe Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus to the secluded Yıldız Palace in the forest just up the hill, where he weaved an elaborate network of spy cells and state informants. However, at the same time Abdülhamit made important reforms to the civil service and significantly modernised the army. He also did much for education, introducing the first girls’ schools and setting up numerous technical institutions, schools of engineering, medicine, and even business foundations. His great achievement was perhaps the Hejaz railway, a fine metaphor for the paradoxical combination of religion and modernity symbolised by his reign: a fine logistical feat and the first Muslim-built railway, designed to take pilgrims securely from Damascus to the holy places of Mecca and Medina.

Abdülhamit’s authoritarian nature, his reemphasis of the Islamic character of Ottoman lands, and his simultaneous modernising reforms have their obvious parallels in contemporary Turkish politics. He was ultimately deposed in the Young Turk Revolution of 1909, which reintroduced liberal constitutional rule to the empire in a last attempt at preserving the withering Ottoman state. Norman Stone argues that the impetus for this revolution came, ironically enough, from the same technical, military intelligentsia that Abdülhamit had in fact helped create. He goes on to suggest that “modern Turkey is undergoing a smudgy version of what happened in the later nineteenth century”, and though he refrains from making any concrete predictions, there is a rather Whiggish suggestion that something like the model that ultimately led to the Young Turk revolution may well be repeated.

The “Glorious” Revolution (1688)

The second example is more fanciful, perhaps even “maverick”. It was suggested on my long commute to work as I listened to Melvyn Bragg (described by Will Self as a “handsome walnut”) discussing the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688 with his guests on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. Consider the following landmark in the development of English parliamentary democracy in the murky light of modern-day Turkish politics:

The Revolution of 1688 saw the Catholic King James II of England overthrown, to be replaced by his Protestant Dutch nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange (William III). The revolution was effectively organised by a union of Whig and Tory parliamentarians: an elite who had run the country and who between them had agreed that there was only one group of people who should be frozen out of politics and office (Catholics). James came to the throne in 1685 intent on removing the barriers that prevented Catholics from accessing office, and tried to get restrictive rules repealed. When he couldn’t do so, he effectively tried to subvert the law by dispensing members of the old order from office and replacing them with his own sympathisers in the army, the court, and in local government. He manipulated parliament, packing with MPs that would be favourable to his policies; he built up an alternative standing army that was feared could be used to impose his personal will; he revoked charters signed by previous monarchs. What started out as a seemingly innocent attempt to extend religious liberties to Catholics soon began to be seen as threatening authoritarianism. James seemed to be giving an extra twist to the policy of toleration that the English monarchy had been pursuing since the restoration of 1660.

The Orangist conspirators who eventually facilitated the revolution of 1688 comprised of the Protestant aristocracy and gentry, a far from representative group of individuals. They increasingly felt that their liberty and their parliament was under threat, and that if that Catholics were allowed equal freedom with Protestants, they would only use it as a first step to eventually subvert the toleration achieved and become the dominant power. Wherever Popery first arrives, so they thought, arbitrary or authoritarian government inevitably comes in its wake. Historians have discussed in some detail what James’ reign actually represented. Some say he was in fact never intent on absolutism, but was simply trying to achieve toleration for Catholics, in an age when the formal practice of Catholicism was still officially banned. Others believe that the authoritarian Catholic Louis XIV was his model, citing the growing links between the English monarchy and the French court. Absolutism was his ultimate goal, which he initially sought to achieve through liberal steps.

Esoteric though they may be, the parallels with modern Turkey should be fairly clear to anyone with even a sketchy knowledge of the contemporary Turkish political situation. For ‘Catholics’ read pious Sunni Muslims, for ‘Whigs and Tories’ read Turkey’s traditional secular order. To stretch the comparison ad absurdum: 1688 in England has its parallel in the failed attempted military coup of 2007 in Turkey. Imagine if the revolution of 1688 hadn’t happened, and that James II had stayed on the throne – that’s where Turkey stands today with the AKP government, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the Jacobite potential despot. However, while James II faced organised, energised and rising resistance in the Whigs and Tories, today’s ruling AKP has effectively pursued the remnants of the old order out of their traditional centres of power, and is blessed to be faced with an inchoate, haggered, and backward-looking opposition.

It’s up to you whether you find the above examples absurd, or enlightening, or both. What’s undoubtedly true is that if anyone says that they know what’s eventually going to happen to the political system in Turkey, they’re wrong.

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