On July 31 Turkish President Abdullah Gul formally ratified the appointment of Professor Ali Birinci (born in 1947) as head of the state-run Turkish Historical Association (TTK) to replace the incumbent Professor Yusuf Halacoglu (born 1949), who had held the position from 1993 until his dismissal on July 23.
In recent years, the long-running struggle between the government of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Turkey’s secular establishment has tended only to attract international attention when there has been a major public confrontation, such as the AKP’s ultimately successful attempt to appoint Gul to the presidency in 2007 and, more recently, the closure case against the AKP itself (see EDM, July 31).
Such major confrontations are important indicators of a continuing shift in power in Turkey. In the long-run, however, the more decisive struggle is probably occurring on the margins of the political process, as the AKP gradually entrenches both its supporters and its ideology in the state apparatus, by means such as the appointment of its supporters to key positions in the bureaucracy.
The TTK was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923 from the rump of the Ottoman Empire following the latter’s defeat in World War I. Ataturk sought to create a Turkish nation state. At the time, outside the empire’s tiny educated elite, there was little sense, or even awareness, of a “national identity.” Under the Ottomans, the primary determinant of identity had been religion, which for the majority of the population meant Islam. Ataturk associated the Ottoman Empire with obscurantism and regarded Islam as one of the most important reasons for its failure to match the pace of technological and intellectual development in the West. The TTK’s main purpose was to create an historical pedigree for a new secular nation-state, which would be based on language and race. The TTK wrote a new history, in which the Turks’ origins were projected back beyond the Ottoman Empire to the nomads of Central Asia. Over the years that have followed, the TTK has remained the custodian of official Turkish history and one of the main ideological bastions of the secular state.
The attitude of the secular establishment to the Ottoman Empire can be seen clearly on the website of the Turkish military, which has always regarded itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy, known as Kemalism. Although the Ottoman Empire lasted for 600 years, only one of the 13 “Important Days in Turkish History” listed on the website of the Turkish General Staff is from before World War One (for reasons that remain obscure, the day is the anniversary of the conquest of the island of Rhodes). The majority are associated with Ataturk’s life (Turkish General Staff website, www.tsk.mil.tr).
In contrast, Turkey’s Islamists have always been unabashed Ottoman nostalgists. Although it has not yet dared to confront the personality cult that grew up around Ataturk after his death, including the compulsory inculcation of his teachings at every level of the educational system, the AKP has certainly been less vigorous than previous administrations in terms of promoting it.
In recent years, there has also been a noticeable shift in the historical reference points in official statements, ceremonies and speeches. Before the AKP came to power, the reference point was invariably a quotation from Ataturk or an event from his life. Now it is increasingly the Ottoman Empire. The change has been most marked at the local level. For example, ever since pro-Islamic political parties first took control of the Istanbul Municipality in 1994, the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 has been celebrated with increasing enthusiasm each year. Conferences and symposia on Ottoman themes have proliferated, and large budgets been assigned to the preservation and restoration of the city’s Ottoman, particularly religious, architectural heritage. Tulip festivals, including the planting of three million bulbs across the city, are now held each spring to commemorate the “Tulip Era” of the early 18th century. The municipality has even begun to use Ottoman vocabulary and grammatical constructions on billboards.
This Ottoman nostalgia has always been extremely strong among followers of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen (born in 1941), who is currently in exile in the United States. Gulen has long portrayed the Ottoman Empire as a paradigm of religious tolerance and social harmony, although the historical record would appear to indicate otherwise. Over the last decade, the Gulen movement has grown rapidly to become the most powerful non-governmental network in Turkey, which includes media outlets, schools, universities, businesses and charitable foundations. It has also established increasingly close ties with the AKP. Several ministers and many AKP parliamentary deputies are known to be Gulen sympathizers.
Although he had often courted controversy through his aggressive denial that the treatment of the Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire constituted genocide, Halacoglu was undoubtedly committed to Ataturk’s ideological legacy. In contrast, Ali Birinci is known to be very close to the Gulen movement and has played an active role in several of its NGOs. He first came to prominence in 2006 when he publicly supported another pro-AKP academic, Professor Atilla Yayla, who described Kemalism as taking Turkey “much further backward than forward” and, in a reference to the Ataturk personality cult, asked “why are there pictures of this man everywhere?” (Vatan, July 25).
As a result, the replacement of Halacoglu with Birinci will undoubtedly be regarded by many secularists in Turkey not merely as a bureaucratic appointment but as another indication of creeping regime change.