Is Turkey a 'mistaken republic?'
By Mustafa Aykol
Saturday, July 19, 2008
According to Sevan Nişanyan, Turks need to face and question their history. 'Unlike Portugal or Spain,' he says, 'Turkey has not come to terms with its totalitarian past'.
You should meet Sevan Nişanyan. A Turkish citizen of Armenian decent, he studied philosophy at Yale, political science at Columbia, and now teaches Turkish language and history at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. In the past he has written several books about tourism in Turkey that were all well received by everyone who read them, but his recent title made him a public enemy in the eyes of Turkey's staunch Kemalists. Mr. Nişanyan, with all his boldness, argues that Kemalism is, in essence, what we commonly know as fascism.
The book I am speaking about is titled "Yanlış Cumhuriyet: Atatürk ve Kemalizm Hakkında 51 Soru" (The Mistaken Republic: 51 Questions about Atatürk and Kemalism). Throughout its 440 pages, Mr. Nişanyan deconstructs and refutes many commonly accepted and hardly unquestioned maxims in Turkey. At the very core of his historical revisionism lies the shivering argument that Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, willingly established a dictatorship and never aimed at building a democracy. The Republic of Turkey, in other words, was a “mistaken” one right from the very beginning.
“I have read all the speeches and interviews Atatürk gave after establishing his power,” Mr. Nişanyan notes, “in those thousands of pages, democracy is mentioned only six times: two are in his statements to foreigners and others are ‘democracy is good, but…’ type of comments.”
But was Turkey ready for democracy at that time? Wasn’t the nation an ignorant, backward, “unenlightened” one that needed an autocratic modernizer? Wouldn’t Turkey be something like Afghanistan had it not been “saved” by the Kemalist revolution?
Of course, Atatürk aimed at and pushed for further modernization, but some of the steps he took, according to Mr. Nişanyan, were wrong. The “language revolution,” for example, impoverished Turkish culture. The Ottoman language, thanks to its imports from Arabic and Persian into nomadic Turkish, was very sophisticated and complex. The Kemalist effort to “cleanse” the language from these “foreign” elements soon led to the shrinking of vocabulary – and thus the shrinking of minds.
Mr. Nişanyan also criticizes the despotic nature of the self-styled secularism that Atatürk and his followers established in Turkey. He thinks that in one sense it is similar to the Soviet model because it uprooted all religious institutions. But the Kemalists also wanted to use religion for the state’s purposes; therefore they enacted a state-controlled religion. “The real purpose was not secularity,” Mr. Nişanyan argues, “It was the achievement and consolidation of absolute political power.”
Alas, if the republic was really a “mistaken” one, then one could well say that its “children” are on the “correct” track. They just live up to their father’s legacy.
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