We need to mourn the loss of Ottoman Empire!

Published in Turkish Daily News, 13 August 2007

It may sound funny to suggest that we the Turks have to mourn for a past loss, when there is so much going on that demands our attention in the age of BlackBerrys, on- the-go cappuccinos and frequent flyer programs. Yet, the sages tell us that certain problems, which keep repeating themselves in contemporary events, are often symptoms of things that remain unresolved.

Turkey has mastered being ‘modern' in line with the modes of thinking which were available in the ‘modern' era. However, the complexities of the 21st century demand a completely different set of skills and strategies. It is a given that Turkey needs to upgrade a lot of its modes of thinking on a wide range of issues from minorities to religion and from politics to diplomacy, but before we can even begin to entertain any thoughts of a new direction, we need to process a past trauma that is diluting our perception of ourselves, of the world and of the others, thus inhibiting us from a new future. As the ethnic, political, religious and social turmoil we witnessed during 2006 and 2007 points out, we are at a conjunction stuck between our past and future. The angel of history has travelled a long way with the storms of progress since the days of Benjamin when he had to face a decision between facing the past debris or the future. Now that his wings are strong enough for him to stand still in the midst of storm, he can and has to “awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed.”

The link between the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic:

The modern nation-state with its Western calendar, bureaucracy, legal structures, alphabet and vocabulary is indeed a sharp break from the multi-ethnic Empire in many ways. Yet, as sociologist Paul Connerton reminds, every radical break is linked to the memories of the past in a paradoxical way; the more radical the break the more dependence on the old. We depend on the memory of the Empire more than we like to admit, but our relationship to it remains inconsistent and full of tension. Turkish nationalists regularly utilize the past golden age within their narratives, but where the golden age ceases to be sparkling and recalls rather darker episodes, the memory of the Empire is shelved. The Republic often represents the ‘modern' and the superior, but sometimes the Empire is spoken of as ‘superior' in terms of political power and the myths of respect for minorities, which is represented as an ‘advanced' solution for today's dilemmas.

The fall and its aftermath:

One can argue that since the fall of the Empire, we have not had a chance to lower our guard and process our history. The fall was followed by an immense effort to save our motherland. A certain narrative and language had to be created and maintained with an iron fist in order to form a ‘nation' out of the debris of a multi-ethnic empire. The momentum, the survival instinct, defence mechanism or whatever you name it, which has brought us thus far, no longer serves its purposes. Some 90 years have passed since the actual events, but they still remain afresh in our culture and memories. Once ‘we' ruled and then found ourselves called ‘the sick man of Europe'. The people, who had conquered the known world, were forced to watch as their lands were invaded by their previous subjects. The loss was traumatic; from the people of a mighty empire to a people vulnerable to colonisation, from wide borders ranging from the Balkans to North Africa, to the Near East, to shrinking borders close to the Aegean shores of the motherland.

From a historical trauma to common sense:

Contemporary generations who have no direct experiences of a life under the glorious Empire and its fall are only socialized into this trauma. They are given a specific narrative from youth. The cities in which they live present themselves as palimpsests which give a concrete form to what is being whispered in textbooks and collected (not collective) memories of the past. From commemorations they partake to the names of the streets on which they walk, everyday they confront this narrative as a reality. Thus the text of the trauma evolves into being an internalized truth evoking certain emotional and intellectual responses in the forms of ‘common sense'.

The traces of the trauma can be seen in the contemporary references to the 1929 Treaty of Sevres and the graffiti that graces many bus stops and walls nowadays; “Dünya Türk Olsun!” (Let the World become Turks). Both of these are symptoms of an unhealthy fear and anxiety felt in the face of 21st century realities, which confront everyone in the world, not just the Turks. The memory of Sevres is recollected as a template to make sense of what is happening now. Foreign nations are making plans behind closed doors to divide, invade, loot or colonise our country. This, we have seen before and it just confirms what we have always known; Turks have no friends other than Turks. It's a “fact”. Just like everyone knows that non-Muslim minorities either work with ‘Zionists' for the glory of Israel or with ‘Crusaders' for the colonial West. We are being stripped of our power and glory just like before. It should not be the Turks who bow down as victims in front of globalization, the EU, the US or whoever is trying to tame or manipulate us. It should be us who hold the leash again. Let us rule the world and let them follow our demands or in European terminology; ‘our way of life'.

Excessive mistrust and melancholy:

In addition to the beautiful architecture, artwork and mementos that shape us spatially and aesthetically, two legacies of the Empire continue to form the mental template, which we use to interpret the world, construct a narrative and respond to domestic or foreign events.

The first one is excessive mistrust. The loss of the Empire left us with a deep scar. We see the world and our country through the lenses of a victim who has been betrayed, hurt and abused. Behind all of our angry outbursts and over confident nationalistic declarations lie a deep fear of an imminent loss of everything we hold dear. Just like anyone who has been hurt, we have developed defence mechanisms to protect our vulnerability. And just like them, we have to decide on whether or not such defence is necessary now and whether it is, in fact, hindering us from healing and forming new and meaningful relationships. Turkey is no longer in the fragile position she was after WWI and does not face the same enemies or dangers. The memory of trauma is not only causing us to interpret the contemporary problems through the wrong lenses but also pushes us to create self-fulfilled prophecies. Our attitudes towards ethnic and religious minorities and towards the EU and the US are all shaped by it.

The second one is melancholy, a sense of loss not tied to a specific object but rather a narcissistic obsession. On one hand we are convinced of our greatness over anyone else in the world, on the other hand we despise the fact that we are not in the place we deserve. On one hand it is the outsiders who are guilty of us not leaping forward, but on the other hand our mouths are full of criticisms of our own governments, state and people, as expressed in the fatalistic sentiments of “bizden adam olmaz” (nothing good will become of us). Yet, our self-degradation is paradoxically linked to a shame and honour based worldview, which makes us hyper sensitive to anyone “insulting Turkishness”. The more fragile and fearful an identity is, the more it will seek to assert itself aggressively and defensively. It seems that we are fixed on the reflection we see on the water to the point of being not able to move.

We need to “work through” our past! :

Our perception of a global conspiracy to destroy Turkey at the first possible opportunity using a wide range of tactics from Human Rights to EU negotiations may make sense in the cyclical referencing of conspiracy theories that dominate the best seller lists, but it suffers from serious exaggeration and non-corresponding truths. This only weakens our nation intellectually and politically and hinders Turkey from maximizing her potential to be a key player in the 21st century. It also puts our people in an extremely vulnerable position to be exploited by anyone who wishes to capitalize our fears into raw power, votes or book sales. We need to process our past for our own sake, not because the international community is increasingly reminding us of various dark episodes of our history.

We can, of course, choose to ignore the past and continue to run along the path we know too well. Sadly, the unresolved past will pop up here and there in the forms of leakage or repetition. May it be in pointless murders of the members of ethnic and religious minorities or steps away from a mature democracy that cherishes freedom of speech, opinion and belief, sooner or later, the effects of an unresolved past will show themselves again.