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Torn Country: Turkey between
Secularism and Islamism
By Zeyno Baran
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Turkish Identity — from the Ottomans to Atatürk
The political tensions over what it means to be Turkish still resonate strongly between the AKP and its secular opponents. As previously noted, Atatürk defined a Turk as any citizen of the Turkish Republic, regardless of religion or ethnicity. He realized that the new state needed immediately to form a geographically based national identity, which could transcend the religious and ethnic divisions that had plagued the diverse groups inhabiting Anatolia and the Eastern Balkans. Otherwise, these regions risked being divided as a result of foreign military intervention following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But beneath the surface of this official definition of Turkishness, religious and ethnic factors continued to vie for a greater role in determining the national identity.
During the past few decades, Islam has been a more significant determinant of that identity. Religious nationalism, centered on the country's predominant branch of Islam, Sunnism, propelled the AKP to power. Historically, religious nationalism has generated hardship for Turkey's religious minorities (especially its largest group of non-Sunni Muslims, the Alevis, a heterodox Islamic sect that claims fifteen to twenty million adherents out of a total Turkish population of seventy-two million). Periods of secular nationalism have often generated hardship for the country's ethnic minorities, especially its largest ethnic sub-group, the Kurds. Today's secular nationalists are struggling to organize themselves into a viable political bloc that can oppose the AKP.
Comprehending the underlying dynamics of this current political struggle requires a deeper exploration of how the definition of Turkish identity has evolved over the course of the centuries.
Identity Vis-á-Vis the Ottoman Empire
The modern concept of Turkishness emerged in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-nineteenth century. Until then, the empire's ethnically diverse inhabitants thought of their nationality as Ottoman, though they often retained sub-identities as Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Bulgars, Albanians, et al. "Turk" was in fact a derogatory word; it defined Anatolian peasants who spoke Turkish and who adhered to customs rooted in the Turkic tribes that began migrating westward from the Altai Mountains (straddling present-day Russia and Mongolia) in the sixth century. The Ottoman sultans developed a concept of Ottoman nationality to bind their ethnically and religiously diverse subjects together. Not until the mid-eighteen hundreds, as nationalist doctrines gained momentum across Europe, did the concept of a Turkish identity began to take shape.
Identity was thus a complex concept during the Ottoman reign. Its evolution can be traced back to Sultan Mehmet II's conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The fall of the Byzantine Empire presented Mehmet II (or Mehmet the Conqueror) with the need to establish a new administrative system for his expanded empire. The system divided the empire's ethnically diverse subjects into political groupings based on their religious affiliation. Each religious community or nation was called a millet. Separate millets were established for Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Apostolic Christians, Syriac Orthodox Christians, and Jews. In this way, each group retained a sub-identity. All of the empire's Muslim populations, regardless of particular ethnicity within Islam, were grouped as the Muslim millet, and ruled themselves according to sharia. Officially, the Ottoman state considered the Turkic identity of the original Turkic tribes to be subsumed under the umma.
The fusing of political, religious, and ethnic determinants of identity was also evident in Sultan Selim I's decision — after defeating the Mamluks in Egypt in 1517 — to establish Sunni Islam as the empire's state religion. The victory transferred the title of Caliph to the Ottoman Sultan from his Mamluk counterpart and transformed the Ottoman Empire into the Caliphate, the worldwide political authority for all Sunni Muslims. Having acquired vast numbers of new subjects from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, Selim I needed a means to bolster the legitimacy of the ruling Ottoman family, and thereby hold his empire together. The new title of Caliph promised such legitimacy, at least among the large number of Arab Sunni Muslims, who now constituted the largest plurality among the millets. Moreover, designating Sunni Islam, the religion of the Ottoman family, as the state religion, differentiated the Ottoman Empire from its challenger to the east, Iran's Shia Safavid Empire. The Safavid rulers were also ethnically Turkic, and competed with the Ottomans for the loyalties of people living in the regions intersected by the two empires. Selim I was thus trying to define a primary "national" identity for his empire, determined by twin yardsticks: a political-legal factor (being the sultan's subject) and a religious factor (being a Sunni Muslim). In practice, establishing this new national identity proved difficult, given that the diverse populations within the empire persisted in adhering to their ethnic and religious sub-identities.
Officially, daily business in the Ottoman Empire was now conducted according to a version of sharia based on the Arabs' Sunnism. This interpretation of sharia consigned women, non-Sunnis, and non-Muslims to secondary status, though Christians and other non-Muslim millets were free to practice their own faiths, provided they paid taxes.
However, life in the Ottoman Empire did not change drastically with the adoption of Sunni Islam as the state religion. Even though sharia officially guided marital affairs, business transactions, and criminal matters, secular law was actually enforced at the personal discretion of the sultan, based on the Abbasid practice known as kanun, or administrative law. Although kanun was distinct from sharia, "The complex relationships between administrative law and sharia," as the Ottoman historian Norman Itzkowitz has observed, "would become a focal point of dispute in future reigns."
Like their supreme rulers, who could also trace their ethnic roots to the Turkic tribes of Central Asia, Anatolian Turks did not simply abandon their traditions when Sunnism became the state religion of the Ottoman Empire. They instead maintained a sense of their own sub-identity based on the ethno-cultural factor of the tribes' traditions, mixed with those the Anatolians acquired during their migrations.
Thus, Islam did not come to dominate all aspects of life for the Anatolian Turks. According to the earliest Turkic language inscriptions found in the Orkhon River Valley of present-day Mongolia, the original Turkic tribes were mostly pagans who adhered to shamanist practices. Even after they embraced Islam as they migrated westward, the tribes also adopted the humanistic traditions of tolerant faith and scientific learning that characterized Islamic thought in Central Asia (especially in Bukhara and Samarkand), in the tenth and eleventh centuries. This spirit of Bukhara and Samarkand confined religion to the private sphere, leaving science and civic affairs to be governed by rational thought. Such a mindset provided a natural foundation for the separation of mosque and state, and reflected the observation in the archaic Turkic text, Kutadgu Bilig, that the early Turkic tribes held governance and society above religion.
The separation of the religious and secular realms blurred under the Seljuks, who emerged as the most powerful Turkic tribe in the ninth and tenth centuries. After defeating the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071, the Seljuks established an empire centered in Anatolia and stretching to present-day Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They had embraced Sunni Islam, which acquired powerful influence over their empire's government, politics, and culture. But in Anatolia, the Seljuks encountered a complex mix of secular traditions and religions, which preserved some degree of separation of everyday religious and civil life.
The above discussion demonstrates that both Seljuk and Ottoman policies aimed to merge political and ethnic differences into a single "national" identity based on Sunni Islam. But political and ethno-cultural factors persisted, preventing religion from becoming the pre-eminent determinant of national identity. That in turn facilitated the emergence of the Anatolian Turks' sub-identity. They were bound together by the ancient traditions of Central Asia and Anatolia and by the Turkish language. The latter differed from the language of the Ottoman court, where the palace elite spoke "Ottoman," a mix of Turkish, Farsi, and Arabic.
Geography played an important role in shaping the perennial battle between religious and non-religious factors, as well as national identities, in the empire. Both the Ottoman identity and the Anatolian Turkish sub-identity were rooted in the East, in the Turkic tribes' Central Asian and Anatolian ancestry as well as the traditions of Islam. Yet the Ottoman dynasty and its Anatolian subjects also sensed that their destinies lay toward the West, and they made numerous forays in that direction.
For centuries, Turkic tribes had been migrating westward. They had conquered Byzantium, a center of Western civilization in both the secular and spiritual realms. Mehmet the Conqueror had relied on a Hungarian cannon designer to manufacture the artillery that breached the previously impregnable walls of Constantinople. Under Süleyman the Lawgiver (known in the West as Süleyman the Magnificent), the Ottomans had extended their European conquests to Rhodes, Belgrade, and Budapest by the mid-sixteenth century, deepening their contacts with European ideas and technology. The Ottomans also expanded trade with the Europeans; Genoa and Venice maintained the trading colonies they had established under the Byzantine Empire, just across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. The Ottoman sultans brought European slaves to work in the Topkapi Palace as counselors and new troops (or janissaries) who served as the sultans' personal security force.
Though the Ottomans had anchored their empire in Europe to fulfill what they viewed as an inexorable Turkic-Islamic destiny to move westward, their attitudes toward the West remained ambivalent. They regarded Europeans as uncivilized — infidels, barbarians. The Ottomans detested travel to Europe, where they believed they could not learn anything new and would return home with diseases such as syphilis. The Ottomans acquired some new technology through trade. But pride in their imperial achievements deterred them from adapting their thinking to Europe's profound societal advancements during the Renaissance (and later the Enlightenment); they borrowed some European technologies but failed to adopt the new thinking that underlay them.
As a result, the Ottoman Empire began to lag behind Europe technologically, especially in the military sphere. In 1571, the Ottomans suffered their first naval defeat since the fourteenth century, when Holy League of Christian states routed their fleet at the Battle of Lepanto. That finished Ottoman domination of the Mediterranean, and for the first time, the Europeans gained confidence that the previously unstoppable force could be countered.
Despite their defeat at sea, the Ottomans continued their advance into Europe on land. In 1683, they reached the gates of Vienna for the second time in one hundred fifty-plus years. (The first was Süleyman the Lawgiver's unsuccessful siege in 1529.) In September 1683, following the Ottomans' two-month siege, Polish King Jan Sobieski led a combined Polish-Austrian-German-Tuscan-Cossack force that defeated the Ottoman-Crimean/Tatar-Romanian force besieging the city. Though the war continued another sixteen years, the Battle of Vienna marked the end of Ottoman expansion into Europe and an iconic beginning of the empire's decline. The Treaty of Karlowitz, in 1699, memorialized the conclusion of the war and the acceleration of the Ottomans' decline.
That treaty, as Bernard Lewis points out, was a watershed event for the Ottomans. Previously, they looked back on a millennium of westward expansion by Turkic tribes. Now, for the first time in the history of their empire, the Ottomans ceded sizable amounts of territory back to the Europeans: Hungarian lands returned to Austria, Podolia to Poland, and Dalmatia and the Morea (the Peloponnesus) were granted to Venice. The military and diplomatic defeat concluded by the Treaty of Karlowitz awakened many Ottomans to the reality that they lagged behind Europe and that their empire was in decay. In a century or so, such thoughts gave birth to a vigorous reform effort to absorb new ways of thinking from the West.
For the moment, however, as the eminent Ottoman historian Niyazi Berkes argues, the Ottoman Empire was reduced from a major power in Europe to the status of a diplomatic pawn used by major European powers. France, Austria, Britain, and Russia alternately allied with and opposed the Ottoman Empire as they managed their conflicts with each other. The Europeans also looked to the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph, the world leader of all Sunni Muslims, as the West's key interlocutor with Muslims to the East. It was during this period that the empire reinvented a new strategic role for itself as a bridge between East and West, supplanting its previous status as an Eastern power anchored to the West. Thus, Islam again grew in importance as a determinant of the empire's identity.
The Ottoman sultans of the early nineteenth century quickly checked the temptation to rely on Islam as their crutch for sustaining strategic relevance. As the doctrines of the French Revolution spread through their European holdings, the sultans recognized the vulnerability of their empire to exploitation by European powers and to disintegration under pressure from independence movements. To forestall those eventualities, Ottoman leaders realized they would need to attract Western technologies and modernize state institutions by secularizing them through Westernizing reforms. Mahmut II, who assumed the throne in 1808, emerged as one of the greatest reformers in Ottoman history. He eliminated the dangerously scheming janissary corps, which had repeatedly led religious uprisings against previous sultans, and developed a Western-trained standing army. Mahmut also sought to curtail the influence of the empire's leading Islamic authority, the Seyhülislam, over the leadership of the Ottoman state. He began to secularize education by founding state schools specializing in technical and scientific studies, that functioned alongside the madrassas(Islamic schools) providing religious education.
Mahmut's reforms launched the Westernization of the Ottoman identity and–during the Tanzimat period, under his son and successor, Sultan Abdülmecit II — led to even more dramatic reforms. The new Tanzimat policies reflected an understanding that, as Greeks won their independence in 1832 and other nationalist movements gained momentum, existing religious, military, and civil institutions were no longer adequate to maintain the empire's territorial integrity. In an attempt to reintegrate these diverse nationalities into the empire, the Ottoman government provided greater rights to the sultan's non-Muslim subjects, who suffered second-class status under the millet system.
The Tanzimat period also produced a dramatic effort to secularize and modernize the empire's state institutions and thereby restrain Islam's societal role. That effort had a major impact on all aspects of life, leading to criminal and civil codes, a financial system based on that of France, the building of railroads and canals, the launching of the first universities and academies, and, in 1876, the codification of the first Ottoman constitution, which checked the authority of the sultan. The secular schools opened in the Tanzimat period were instrumental in the rise of free thinkers who, toward the end of the nineteenth century, led a new wave of modernization that would catalyze the re-emergence of a Turkish identity. The most famous graduate of these schools was Atatürk.
European diplomatic intervention undercut the ability of the Tanzimat reforms to stem the centrifugal forces of the empire's European minorities. At the end of the Crimean War, in the Charter of 1856, the Great Powers demanded and secured greater autonomy for ethnic communities than the Ottoman rulers had envisioned. The empire's Muslim population became convinced that Christian minorities enjoyed special privileges allowing them to prosper at the expense of the Muslims' economic well-being. That led to resentment culminating in a nationalist awakening of a Turkish identity and eventually to the "Young Turks" movement.
Excerpted from Torn Country: Turkey between by Zeyno Baran. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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