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About the Author
Taner Akçam is Visiting Professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
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From Empire to Republic
Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide
By Taner Akçam
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2004 Zoryan Institute
All rights reserved.
What Are Turkey's Fundamental Problems? A Model for Understanding Turkey Today
For any Western society today, it is possible to give an answer to the question 'What are this country's fundamental problems' by focusing on several basic points. But if we were to pose a similar question in regard to Turkey, we would not know when to stop counting. Yet for all of Turkey's current problems, it is possible to speak of a main body of problems which we can describe as common to all.
Regarding Turkey, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have struggled with the following fundamental problem, which has gained currency among sociologists: 'What is it that keeps a society together and/or leads to its collapse and dissolution?' Emile Durkheim's concept of 'anomie' would appear to have again gained importance. What Durkheim was trying to explain by this term was the condition wherein the relationship between the behavior of individuals (and groups) and social ties is severed. When the ties between the individual and society are severed it creates a situation wherein the society's very continuation is put into question. But the problematic aspect of the concept of anomie is that it presupposes the existence within societies of a normal condition, from which anomie represents a deviation. With regard to Turkey, however, our problem is our inability to define any single period, from the founding of the Republic until now, as a normal condition. Approaching past events in Turkey as a deviation from some sort of normal condition, which we would be able to accept as an ideal, is not a method that will aid us in understanding Turkey and its problems.
The roots of the problems with which Turkey grapples today stretch back to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in the early 1920s. We can, without hesitation, formulate the problem thus: the roots of Turkey's current problems derive from its Ottoman inheritance. Such a formulation stresses the search for an answer to the question of what exactly that inheritance was, and this in turn opens the door to the debate on questions of continuity and discontinuity in the transition from Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic. This question has not only been confined to academic debate in Turkey, but has also been the subject of heated polemics. Nevertheless, it is a question outside my field of interest here. I know that the questions which I will take up here can be explained within the framework of a 'continuity of mentality' which survived the empire-to-republic transition, and which fundamentally explains the behavioral worlds of both ruler and ruled in the Turkish Republic. But I would like to limit myself here to the period directly after the establishment of the Republic.
From the ancient Greece of Aristotle and Plato until today, there is a venerable tradition of considering the factors which hold political collectives together and those which pave the way for their breakup. It claims that ... for political collectives to be able to possess stability, there must be a clear agreement between the institutions which have an objective existence, and the subjective behavior of individuals toward these institutions.
This means that the precondition for a stable political structure is an agreement between the institutions in society and the norms that form their basis, and between the norms and value judgments that order individuals' relationships with one another. This relationship can, in very general terms, be defined as 'political culture.' If the value judgments, norms, conscious and unconscious mental worlds and psychological makeup that determine the relationships between individuals and different groups in a society are not in harmony with its institutional world or its political culture, then there exists a serious systemic problem. This is the situation in Turkey.
The Fundamental Problem: the Failure to Decide on a System
We can formulate Turkey's most basic problem in the following way. Turkish society has yet to answer the question of whether or not it lives or wishes to live within the same political borders. And if different segments of Turkish society do wish to live together as individuals and groups, they have not yet been able to achieve an understanding among themselves as to what foundations, what conditions to impose upon this political entity called the Turkish Republic. The questions of what shared sense of belonging should bind them together within the borders of the Republic, and on what consensus it should rest, remain unanswered. An overarching identity, one that would assist in conceptualizing their reasons for living together and tie both individuals and groups to one another, remains as yet unformed.
If this assertion appears too harsh, let me stress this point: the various collectives that live within Turkey appear to be still far from making a fundamental decision on whether or not it is actually necessary to live together, as a society, within the current political borders. In other words they, both as individuals and as groups, have not yet truly decided to live together. While there may indeed be certain signs that might hint at a decision having been taken in practice, they have not yet been identified as a social consensus, a 'social contract.' The people of Turkey have not formulated the necessary conditions for living together as one common society. In other words, they are at present casting about for these conditions. This can be observed in the daily political debates occurring in Turkey today. Almost every problem is characterized as being fundamental to the political system, and is thus debated as a problem concerned with the very foundations of that system. A good many features that in Western societies are accepted without question are still hotly debated in Turkey. When viewed from the outside, the picture that emerges is this: the Republic and the framework of a democratic state based on laws that are believed to hold the society together or at least appear to have been accepted by all of the country's political forces do not actually carry any meaning beyond being a platform that allows the political forces to carry on their struggles. Concepts like the democratic state based on laws and the Republic have not been internalized, either by society or by its political representatives.
In their current form, the Republic and the democratic state of laws are today nothing but a façade, to be used by the various political currents while searching for an alternative socio-political system as a means to further their own ends. These institutions, which must form the basis of coexistence for the entire society, do not currently provide a sound foundation, and instead are merely used by the various political forces, all of which regard one other as enemies to be excluded or eliminated. It is as if these groups and collectives, whether they describe themselves as political, ethno-cultural or religious, are all struggling for a different system, one outside of the existing democratic state based on laws.
For these groups, it is as if the Republic is equated with a transitional stage to be endured for the present. Tayyip Erdogan succinctly summed up this sentiment when he was the mayor of Istanbul: 'Democracy is like a streetcar that will carry us to the final destination. When we get there, we'll get off.' Erdogan, since February 2003 chairman of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP), and since March 2003 President of Turkey, made this statement in the mid-1990s, when he was still a member of the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, or RP).
That the current political system is only a transitional device to be used for developing a new system is a belief found in all political currents and groups within Turkey. Viewed from the outside, it appears as if there is not a serious political group, except for the armed forces, that sincerely desires the continuation of the Republic. The armed forces act as the true owners of present-day Turkey. From the point of view of the large collective forces within society, today's Republic, and the democratic state based on laws by whose power it exists, are outside of society, existing somewhere else, like a strange, unfamiliar garment. There is a poor fit, an incompatibility between the state, with its existing structures, and society, with its social groups. What we are talking about here is alienation between the state and society. The relationship between state and society is in the manner of relations not between 'us,' but between 'us' and the 'other.' And perhaps the armed forces also act as they do because they are profoundly conscious that no one other than themselves has claimed ownership of the Republic in the true sense of the phrase.
It appears as if there is such a paradox at work. The moment the armed forces would withdraw their protective hand from the state the various groups in Turkey would strangle themselves as a society. All the groups would do everything in their power to eliminate the 'others,' whom they see as opposed to them, and to whom they have assigned no place in the new system they hope to establish. Whether we speak of the Turkish ultranationalists, or the Kurds, or the radical secularists who view the headscarf as a symbol of reaction, or the Islamists who seek to establish a social and political order on the basis of Islamic values, none would be able to tolerate the others' existence in the idealized societies that they hope to establish. Thus, the current situation in Turkey is comparable to that of Germany in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. In that period, all of the then-current political movements aspired not to protect existing democratic institutions, but rather to use these institutions to destroy the system and to establish their own in its place. The ultimate success of the Nazis derived in large part from the general lack of interest displayed by other parts of society for democratic institutions. The gap between the mentality that prevailed in German society and the attitude of indifference toward democratic institutions brought the system to a collapse. In such a situation, the indifference of the German army, in particular with regard to the choice of either a democratic or an authoritarian regime, helped accelerate this process of collapse. A similar situation, I would assert, exists today in Turkey. Between the veneer of the Republic and a democratic, law-based state on one side, and the political currents' imaginings of an ideal future on the other, there exists a tear in the social fabric which has yet to be mended, a broad gap that remains unbridged. The fact that the system continues to function despite this mental divide is largely due to the armed forces' insistence that it do so.
It goes without saying that the existing institutions in Turkish society present an image that cannot easily be described as democratic. The existence on one hand of the basic principles of a law-based state, and, on the other, of seriously anti-democratic institutions, allows broad sections of society to perceive the system as one of repression. This perception is very keen among the Islamists, Alevis and Kurds, in particular, as well as among other groups who see themselves as bound by common linguistic, ethnic or religious characteristics and who feel that no measures have been taken in order to defend or preserve these characteristics. Not infrequently, these groups or their individual members have experienced oppression on account of these characteristics.
Furthermore, there is another, more important dimension than this. As the inheritors of the Herrschaftsmentalitat, or 'ruling mentality' of the Ottomans, the current ruling elite possesses no such tradition of adapting itself to legal regulations, or of basing its governance on law. One reason for the widespread mistrust that exists in Turkey toward the legitimizing principles of the democratic law-based state is the fact that the ruling class itself does not comply with them. In other words, the rulers themselves lack the mindset to administer the country according to the obligations of the existing legal system. This can be illustrated with two examples: the Susurluk scandal and the prohibition on torture.
The Susurluk scandal was exposed by a car accident in that city in 1997. A mafia leader, a police chief, and a parliamentary deputy were all found dead together in the same car. It was thus revealed that the criminal element, the police and politicians had been working together for some time in the organization and running of death squads, heroin trafficking, extortion and murder. The death squads had been secretly formed to eliminate supporters of the Kurdish separatist organization, the PKK. This cooperation of criminals, the police, politicians and also the military expanded, with the aim of personal enrichment, into heroin trafficking and even the murder of Turkish businessmen who had no political involvement, simply in order to control their businesses, mostly hotels and casinos (useful for laundering drug money). When a commission of inquiry was established by parliament to investigate this situation, members of the military refused to testify. Even though the activities under investigation are completely illegal, the legal system has no power to proceed against the military. While the other elements in this criminal conspiracy did appear before the commission, there were no serious consequences for them.
Torture and the mistreatment of detainees have been outlawed in the legal system since 1854, and punishment is indicated for those committing such acts. Yet, we know that such sanctions are not carried out systematically. On the contrary, in open opposition to existing laws, those who carry out such deeds are generally rewarded. In other words, the ruling class considers it natural and normal not to comply with the rules that legitimize their own positions, and for whose proper operation they are responsible. The most important characteristic of the mindset of Turkey's ruling elite is its transformation of arbitrariness into accepted practice, if not a set of formal rules. This is the primary cause of Turkey's 'societal schizophrenia.'
Hypocritical Behavior: Societal Schizophrenia
What is meant here by societal schizophrenia is the enormous gap between the current modus operandi of the state structure in Turkey on one hand, and Turkish social reality on the other. Detachment between the state and the individual or collective groups is our present reality. A consequence of this detachment, over many years a strange mode of behavior has ordered the relations between the various individuals and groups, as well as those between these groups and the state. On one side there exists an order we might refer to as 'the everyday world of real life,' and on the other side there is the 'official world,' which is outside of the everyday world and in serious conflict with it.
On one hand, the legal system, with all its claims to order relations between individuals and between the state and its citizens, is fundamentally responsible for society's functioning. But on the other hand, neither the state itself nor citizens order their behavior according to the legal system, its values and institutions. There are, however, other value systems and models of behavior which everyone uses to order their relations. All of the internal social forces, including those that administer the state, are conscious of the fact that their own value systems are in conflict with those of the legal system, and that they are either secretly or openly different from it.
We may describe this as a product of the ruling tradition that harks back to the Ottomans. The inefficiency of the theocratic laws of the Ottoman state, which did not provide for all aspects of social life, created a situation whereby the ruling elite was required to exercise its discretion in the exercise of justice. This application of discretion led to abuses, and discretion became arbitrariness. Max Weber described the extraordinary insecurity in law as a basic characteristic of patrimonial Ottoman society. In consequence of this Ottoman legacy, similarly a schizophrenic attitude of accepting the dichotomies between official state requirements and actual social norms developed among individuals and collectives within society. Over centuries, a culture of not speaking one's true opinion took root, particularly among the ruled classes. Individuals even have their official views and their private views with which to explain ideas. They express these different views, which are often diametrically opposed to one another, according to the time and the place. In official venues and in public, the ruled classes speak the official views in order to preserve their positions and not to create problems. As for their true opinions, they express these through their private views, which are only expressed in the private sphere. The true relations within the society may be determined by those things that are said off the record, when the microphone is turned off. The public sphere is like the stage of a theater upon which it is known that a good number of contradictory lies are spoken. Thus, there is no trust among groups in Turkish political culture.
Excerpted from From Empire to Republic by Taner Akçam. Copyright © 2004 Zoryan Institute. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1. What Are Turkey's Fundamental Problems? A Model for Understanding Turkey Today
2. A Theoretical Approach to Understanding Turkish National Identity
3. Some Aspects of Turkish National Identity and the Armenian Genocide
4. The Homogenizing and Ethnic Cleansing of Anatolia
5. The Decision for Genocide in Light of Ottoman-Turkish Documents
6. The Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne: An Alternative Perspective
7. The Causes and Effects of Making Turkish History Taboo
8. The Genocide and Turkey
9. Some Theoretical Thoughts on the Obstacles to Armenian-Turkish Reconciliation