Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Turkey's myth, legend and history

One of my favourite blogs, Beside Beirut, recently posted on the continued sensitivity surrounding Turkey's founding father, Kemal Ataturk.

Ms Tee refers to a documentary that aimed to show the human side to Ataturk, which coincided with the 85th anniversary of the Turkish republic. The human portrayal of Ataturk sparked controversy and even a criminal trial for "insulting" the founding father.

I couldn't resist engaging in the discussion, and started to type a response that perhaps overstretched the desired length for a comment.

I've decided to post my response here, because as I was writing my comment, lessons from my university history classes began to seep through.

One such class that I undertook was "myth, legends and history", which discussed how nations and empires throughout history have crafted an historic myth or legend, or exacerbated a certain historic event, in order to define their unique characteristics and identity, and give purpose to their nation's existence.

I used this approach to understand the delicacy of Ataturk to the Turkish people, and his significance to the Turkish identity.

Here is my comment, which can equally be accessed on Beside Beirut's blog:

I was raised with quite a number of Turks, as I lived in the outer suburbs of Melbourne where many Turkish immigrants reside.

What constantly fascinated me about the Turkish people is their ardent nationalism and loyalty to the Turkish nation, identity and Ataturk. At the same time, they considered Islam as part of their culture and would have no problems promoting it, but to a lesser extent than Arabs. Their national identity came first.

But I wonder, as has been illustrated in your post, whether this strong sense of secular nationalism is a desperate struggle to avoid confronting the truths of pre-World War I, a truth that could ultimately undermine the foundation of Turkish nationalism today.

I’ve had a few discussions with friends on this matter, and one recounted to me that he found Ataturk’s secular nationalism to be artificial i.e. Turkey today is artificial.

World War I could have eaten Turkey up and torn it to pieces. The Armenians and Kurds would have claimed the east, the Arabs would have taken Iskenderun and Mersin, the Greeks all of the Western shoreline and Istanbul.

Ankara would have been the final remnant of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, central Anatolia was where the Turks originally began their reign, and the other regions were indeed populated with Armenians, Kurds, Arabs and Greeks. For the latter groups, they considered and still consider such territories as their own.

Ataturk succeeded in forming a unique identity, albeit artificial, by suppressing anything non-Turk and purging this history from the Turkish psyche.

Part of that suppression was Islam and a religious identity that could have undermined the artificial uniqueness Ataturk was formulating.

Ataturk wasn’t wrong in his intentions, he quickly needed to define Turkey as a nation-state to ensure its survival. It was a quick transition from colonial empire to modern nation-state, and the foundation of what constituted the empire was not fit for a nation-state.

But the transition was too quick. The EU negotiations and the Middle East conflict today have prompted many Turks to revisit the questions of Ataturk’s era … who are we and what defines us as a nation?

The fear is if this question is asked by the Islamists, the answers may go too deep.

I have a Turkish friend who recently discovered he’s Syrian of origin. His father recently confessed his “Syrian” roots - as if it was some major taboo to admit to anything non-Turkish - and that he could speak Arabic. My friend, of course, believes he’s been deceived all his life and can’t grasp that his Turkish identity is indeed artificial.

This is what the secularists fear. Ataturk’s Turkish identity cannot be tampered with, even in the slightest form, for it may unravel all that has been swept under the rug for the past century.

Turkey is also in the unfortunate position where all its neighbours have a deep historic distaste for it and are waiting for the right moment to pounce and reclaim their territories. That right moment may not come for a century, or even a few centuries.

Alternatively, it’s a nation that could easily implode for the same reasons. Unless Turkey finds a way to reconcile with its artificial foundations, I suspect there will be a lot more trouble to come.

Most nations have used an historic myth, legend or hero to define themselves. Troy is the most commonly used. The Romans, British, even Nazi Germany manifested links to Troy in order to define itself.

Of course, as the centuries progressed, the British began to create stories of its own like King Arthur, Robin Hood, the notion of chivalry etc. No one knows if these stories are true, or if King Arthur ever lived. In fact, most of the elements of the King Arthur story originate from France, and were later romanticised in the 19th century.

The Turks have Ataturk. To humanise Ataturk is to undermine his significance as a Turkish legend. He is their Achilles, their Remus and Romulus.

Who knows maybe in 1000 years people will be asking if he even existed just as I am questioning King Arthur’s existence today.

So Turkey is definitely not the only nation to manifest artificial roots in order to justify its existence.

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