The Corner

Keeping Up with the Turks

Nice piece about Atatürk by Clifford May on the main page.

I’ve been having some interesting e-conversations with Turks since advertising my own investigations of the Turkish language. Here’s a sample contribution from an Azerbaijani correspondent to whom I had posed some questions about Pan-Turkism. Check out that YouTube link in the penultimate paragraph: I found it very moving.

Pan-Turkism is very much a potent force particularly in Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Ziya Gökalp, the founder of Turkish nationalism, who had great influence on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was himself a student of Alibey Huseynzade (Azeri) and Ismail Gasprinsky (Crimean Turk) who had seen Turkic unity as a way of resisting Russian imperialism. In a sense, Turkish nationalism was imported from the parts of the Turkic world that were under foreign domination.

For a long time, the Ottoman Turks generally identified themselves as “Osmanli.” The word “Turk” referred to provincial Anatolian peasants. I even remember, growing up in Azerbaijan, when someone appeared too gullible or naïve, my mother would call them “Turk.” That is why when Atatürk coined the famous phrase “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene” — “How proud I am to call myself a Turk” — it was a revolutionary statement.

Atatürk had found a useful intellectual ally in Ziya Gökalp,because Gökalp infused Turkish nationalism with modernity. Having come into contact with the West in earlier ages, Atatürk despised Islam and the Arab influence on Turkish politics. He thought that propagating Turkish nationalism was one way to separate Turks from Arabs and the rest. His adoption of the Latin alphabet, extreme secularism, severe bans on public display of Islamic religion, inclination toward parliamentarianism, heavy emphasis on cylinder hats and Western attire reverberated with numerous Turkic intellectuals who looked for ways to leave the torpor of Islam behind. This video imagery of Atatürk’s funeral is somewhat illustrative of the kind of Turkey Atatürk wished to leave behind (and the kind many today wish to see again).

In 1920′s and 30′s, thousands of Turkic intellectuals in the U.S.S.R. were executed on charges of Pan-Turkism, many of them bogus, but some real. Interesting trivia:  Lavrenti Beria, the maniacal chief of Stalin’s KGB, was in his earlier career sentenced to death on charges of having been a spy captain for the pan-Turkist government in Azerbaijan in 1919 — which was actually true!

I can’t work up much concern about the Islamicization of Turkey. The Turks who email me are of course not a representative sample; but the things they tell me, and my own random readings in Turkish and Ottoman history, suggest to me that the Turks are the last people in the world likely to be swept up in mass religious enthusiasm. It just doesn’t seem to be in their character as a people. I think it’s encouraging that the Ottoman Empire, in theory the political instantiation of a religion that prohibits alcohol, boasted a Sultan known to history as Selim the Sot.

And if Mr. Erdoğan’s recent actions against his generals result in the Turkish armed forces becoming like those of more intensely Islamist nations, well, wouldn’t that be all to the good?

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