The problem with 'modern' Turks is... they are outdated

Published in Turkish Daily News, 08 April 2008

The English word “modern” has made its way into colloquial Turkish and is used interchangeably with its direct Turkish equal, “çağdaş,” which literally means “of the era.” Though the word “modern” in English still maintains the connotation of something that is up to date, such as a modern kitchen, it also signifies something belonging to modernity and modernism as the social condition and philosophy, which dominated late 19th and most of the 20th century.

In many ways, the “modern” is really no more “çağdaş.” We live in a completely different social condition, shaped by a completely different philosophy. Therefore, if I were to compliment an intellectual with the word “modern” today, it would be more of an insult. I would be suggesting that his or her ideas and reactions are passé and naïve, if not backward. Similarly, when a building is called “modern” in architecture, it refers to the concrete lumps of the previous century, which were built with the ideals of managing human beings as effectively as possible while maximizing cost and benefit, with no consideration of aesthetics and quality of life whatsoever.

Outdated Enlightenment:

Interestingly, when the word “modern” is used in Turkish, it is always a complement. Its unique use as a positive adjective includes a “modern person” and “modern society.” However, when we look at what a person must believe or do in order to be called “modern,” an irony surfaces. What is described as a “modern” outlook in Turkey is often nothing than the banal repetition of outdated Enlightenment ideals. Some of the “modern” myths that linger among us in their full pride are:

* A country can only survive if it is a homogenized nation state that has to assimilate any different identity into a well-defined single type. Any element of difference -- language, ethnicity, religion and opinion -- is a threat to its existence.

* Citizens are part of a foolish herd that must be led, controlled and managed for their own sake, even against their own wishes.* The goal of education is to produce non-questioning and easily controllable citizens.

* Religious beliefs belong to the “dark ages.” If only we have more education and science, they would die out and everyone would be atheists. For now, we should make sure that it is limited to personal space.

These “modern” beliefs were, in fact, the glimpse of heaven promised by the “çağdaş” men of the 19th century. Yet, where we stand today is far from the anticipated Shangri-La.The modern vision is the very reason why the 20th century was one of the darkest ages of history. “Modern” ideals and know-how are two sizes too small for today's ever-obese global reality. As every futile attempt to cover global rips with local patches shows, we can no more share the optimism of the “modern” man who thinks, if only we have the commitment and strength, our future would be bright.

The only one who is not aware of this is the “modern” man. He walks our streets, full of himself, confident of the future that awaits him at the end of his path, like a sleepwalking French man who is consumed by his daydream that his culture, language and values present the pinnacle of human civilization, which everyone else envies or aspires to reach. One must be careful not to honor the “modern” man with the status of the lovable, but naïve, Don Quixote. “Modern” man is often dangerous, aggressive and poisoned by his self-confidence. He is loud and distractive, and if he only has his way, he will easily move beyond good and evil and push his black and white homogenized pill down our throats.

We need less ‘modern' Turks:

It is because we have so many “modern” Turks around that we are distracted from breaking the all-too-human cycles of Armenian-Turkish, Kurdish-Turkish, Secularist-Islamist conflicts. It is because of the “modern” vision that non-Muslims of Turkey have to continue to live in daily fear that at any moment a “modern” man who has the courage to face the challenge may put a bullet in their heads. It is because of the “modern” academics of our nation that Turkish universities, with the noble exception of a handful, are gigantic and distasteful sausage machines that produce non-analytical and démodé “modern” copycats. It is because of the “modern” leaders of our country that we face the risk of turning into an Amish or Hasidic community stuck in history, thinking that a certain previous century, with its aims, dress, language and strategies was the only and ideal ‘pure' and ‘real' moment.

So what we need least are more “modern” Turks. It is time for us to learn to see today's world as it is and not through outdated ideals. We urgently need more “çağdaş” Turks, who are able to look beyond the clichés of a past century and lead our nation to safety in this increasingly bleak age. We need high caliber pioneers, just like Mustafa Kemal was in his “çağ” (era)