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Ottomanism in Turkish Politics

Suraiya Faroghi, one of the most prominent Ottoman historians in the world, once said during a conference, I had attended in the early 2010s that if she had to choose a specific Ottoman period to experience, she would definitely choose the period of stagnation. I remember how surprised most of the Turkey-educated scholars were during her speech. Because Turks position themselves to take pride in the rise of the Ottoman Empire during a very planned and facultative lifelong indoctrination process.

When Professor Faroqhi was instantiating her reason, she stated that the period of stagnation witnessed fewer wars; city life in Ottoman was improved; and finally, the life of arts, music, culture, and science had experienced their peak moments in the history of the empire. Indeed, why would she choose to live in the rise of the Ottoman period full of wars? Turks have never thought beyond the box and considered the Ottomans within this scope before. They were taught that territorial expansion meant success. Therefore, whenever there was an expansion, they thought that they were in a period that was “rising”, and viewed the history in this respect.

Many Turks view history as a kind of competition for territorial expansion. Because in schools, it is taught that the key to success is territorial expansion. Whereas expansion always ends up in wars. And war literally means destruction and death! Let me explain you further. For example, average life expectancy is considered as a criterion of development in the world today. Ottoman Empire experienced the highest life expectancy during the stagnation period. One of the other important criteria is economic welfare. The level of welfare during the stagnation period was far more superior compared to the expansion period. I am talking about the perspectives. Shouldn’t we ask the Ottomanists; “Which Ottoman?”

Ottoman Empire is an important anchor for political opinion and the process of policy making in Turkey since the first days of the republic. The new Turkish Republic scrutinized the Ottomans pursuant to a generalized anti-monarchist structure. Interestingly enough, the Republic did not care much about the expansion of the Ottomans. Because the Kemalists (Kemalism also known as Atatürkism (Turkish: Atatürkçülük) is the founding ideology of the Republic of Turkey) possessed the ideas of success and failure around the peril of losing and the joy of gaining territories. Ottomans were criticized far more superficially when they gained territories compared to when they lost territories. Furthermore, Kemalists never liked the unsuccessful monarchs. On the other hand, the successful monarchs were always respected in parallel to their power which guaranteed them a reputable spot throughout the official historical doctrine taught among the school curricula. More interestingly, Kemalists always chose to take the easy way out and perceived failures as the personal inadequacy of the monarchs. What could they do? Maybe they should have been unbiased? Or for example, could they criticize the reluctance of the Ottomans to embrace democracy? But then how would they answer when they were asked if their Republic was so democratic? Could they criticize the one-man regime in principle? But then they would be cornered if anybody asked Ataturk or Inonu were actually that “one-man”. Thus, success and failure were always evaluated according to leadership qualities.

Another important problem surfaced when they lost their way and started asking “which Ottomans?”. For example, Kemalists perceived the Ottomans as an absolute monarchy and reflected this approach into their official historical doctrines. However, the state they took over was a constitutional monarchy. In other words, the regime of the state had changed. Even if the Ottomans in 1299 were the exact same state in 1920; the regime was not the same. Many things were changed in 621 years. For example, the last parliament of the Ottomans had formed the first TBMM (Grand National Assembly of Turkey). Different political parties in the Ottomans had participated in the elections. Whereas the Republic had constituted a single party ruling. Now technically, which of them were more democratic? Here is a can of worms for you.

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Ottomans in Turkish politics mean different things as a reference between the left and right wings. The right-wing believes that the Ottomans are a success story that should be narrated. However, the left-wing finds the Ottomans primitive, awkward, and unprogressive. But there is another fundamental problem above all. The left and the right wings are extremely different in Turkish politics compared to their universal descriptions. Long story short, Turkish politics rather describe the difference between the left-right wings as rationalists and traditionalists. The fundamental dynamics of the modernist mainstream are opposing the past and changing it. This is how the unionists and Kemalists are. The mainstream surfaced from these communities since the 1970s were described as the left-wing. Although it harbors some economic and political elements, the left-of-center, which was fabricated by CHP (Republican People’s Party), never managed to represent a political party that corresponded to the universal left-wing; the left nationalists were always dominant. The leftist groups inside this formation were always alienated and could not manage to be the mainstream. And the right-wing never became universal which managed to saturate the liberal democracy and defend the market economy. Thus, they identified themselves as traditionalists. This is how the Ismalists and nationalist movement (right nationalists) are. Their perception of the Ottomans determined the political axis of the two wings.

Turkish right-wing always centralized the rising period; Ismalist caliphate with a subjective view; Islamist jihad; and the doctrine of Islamist hegemony when studying the Ottomans. While the Islamists correlated this as being the successors of Islam, the nationalist movement perceived this inside the Turk-Islam synthesis. According to them, the Ottomans were an Islamist or Turkish-Islamist empire. It was an empire where the Muslims or the Muslim Turks were distinctive in the world, had militaristic superiority, and had influence and large territories. According to this perception, the more the Ottomans broke with tradition, the more the regression accelerated. 

Turkish left-wing always centralized the regression and downturn periods. They centralized the state, which was far away from science, technology, economics, and industrialization; where ignorance and fanaticism were widespread and a few insane, weak monarchs were in the pockets of the foreign actors from a revolutionist-modernist-nationalist viewpoint with their subjective perception. According to them, the Ottomans were an empire that lost the majority of its territory and militaristic superiority, was petered out, and left behind the times. The empire was in shackles against any kind of development. According to this viewpoint, the regression sped up and the empire finally collapsed due to the fact that the Ottomans did not manage to renovate the traditional structures into modern ones.

If you pay close attention, both wings perceive the expanding Ottomans in a good way, while both of them view the crumbling one arrantly. Both of them describe the expansion and the power loss in a different way based upon distinctive reasons. This is a very troubling perspective. The view that underlines the Ottomans’ expansion as a problem is very marginal in Turkish historiography and social sciences. However, the histories of other empires in the world are written more objectively. Furthermore, the longing for the imperial past among the mainstream of the modern right wings of the other post-imperialist states such as Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Austria, England, etc. is very marginal. This, especially in the Turkish right-wing, is extremely centralized. The mainstream of the left-wing of the states, which are post-imperialist and outside Turkey, adopt a particular attitude against the expansionism of the imperial. However, Turkish Kemalist “left-wing”, CHP for example (which I have stated as not being a left-wing earlier), gives importance to the former territory of the empire. Turkish right-wing is in a pissing contest with the left-wing about the matters such as Blue Homeland, “Aegean islands”, Cyprus, and Western Thrace.

Turkish right-wing directly tries to imitate the power and expansion of the Ottomans, while the Turkish left-wing partially shows interest in the Ottoman territory and maintains a covert or overt Ottomanist attitude on different levels. Considering the Ottoman history, Turkey is the least isolating state from its heritage among the nation-states which originated from the Ottomans. Turks perceive the Ottoman monarchy as a Turkish monarchy. This corresponds to the perception of the other post-Ottoman communities. However, while the states such as Greece, Bulgaria, or other Arabian countries perceive the sovereignty of the Ottomans as oppression, Turks perceive this as their glorified history that “proves their superiority”. Turks, either left or right-wing, never came to terms with the horrific face of Ottoman expansionism and their imperial past. The Armenian genocide, organization of recruitment, slave trade, organization of women sex slaves which was socially accepted as an institution, the unequal status of the non-Muslims, unstable proprietary rights, mass genocides, wars, occupations, pillages are some topics that are not taught, bypassed, hushed up in the Ottoman history lessons.

Both modernists and traditionists adopt the same attitude. Both are equipped with extensive defensive reflexes about these matters against the Ottomans. Furthermore, this reflex is widespread among the Turks because of the educational policies. Turks embrace the expansion of the Ottomans as if it was something they achieved. They legitimize this with Ismalists and Turkist ideological filters. As I have mentioned, while other post-imperialist states and communities approach their own history in a very critical way and concentrate very carefully on their imperialist pasts with their modern identities, it is being carried out in a very pathological way in Turkey.

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Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.

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