Reenchantment of Turkish Politics by Historical Metaphors

Published as "Secularism, and inventing history, is just a convenient tool in Turkish politics" in Turkish Daily News, 19 May 2007

Re-Published in French by Collectif Van as Le laïcisme et l'invention de l'histoire, sont juste un outil commode dans la politique turque

Politics has always been a mundane human exercise that has needed a little bit of imaginative help to get it going. The quest for sovereignty and its legitimization that once could have easily been done by sheer muscular power had to evolve into sophisticated tools that used cosmic frameworks or higher values. Gods, in their various mono or poly forms, have proven to be great transcendental aids that made sure a certain leader had an unquestionable power. Thus what was at stake, or what was being rebelled against, was not just the finite moment and its actors, but eternity.

Myth making in modern times:

The 19th and 20th centuries may have done a good job in providing different explanations of the universe, yet their aspirations too had supra-contextual appeals, at times almost religious, albeit without a god. Utopias, in their raw Enlightenment kinds, or Socialist, Communist and various other ‘ist' kinds were helpful to fill in the gap left by the death of God, by providing grand interpretations and end goals. Similarly, the Cold War was able to bring in clear meaning to an era that was characterized by bureaucracy, effective and mechanic solutions, and unpoetic scientificism. It presented a cosmic picture, a Manichean battle between dark and light, depending on from which side of the fence you looked. And once the wall collapsed, what emerged on the other side was the mundane politics of power and money again. It appears that the seduction of the neat worldwide separations is now finding an increasing appeal in the language of ‘civilizations'. Alas, we, the 21st century folks too do not have to face the fear of being bored to death while watching politicians sweating from their pulpits!

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Nationalism and religion in competition:

In full contradiction to what social scientists (primarily European and north American) have forecasted during the last century, religion and nationalism are still the main actors of ‘re-enchantment' in the Middle East today. Not so surprisingly, re-vitalization of religion and nationalism are intrinsically linked to each other. The failures of secular Arab and Persian nationalisms and socialisms have fertilized the ground in which various Islamisms flourished. Since then, Islamism proved to be much more successful in providing imaginative readings of the imminent painful reality as well as millenarian promises to the masses burdened under the secular elite, who have not been able to give them a stronger hope. Each group's appeal and the commitment of their followers are continually strengthened by the presence and sharpness of the other. However, there is now a new twist to the old story: a memory boom we are witnessing globally. It is often noted that 95 percent of existing museums today have been opened after World War II. Today, more people visit exhibitions and enroll in civil societies that seek to preserve the past more than ever before. We now have memory tourists who travel to the places where their ancestors were from or where they fought. More movies are produced about past eras, and, books with a historical flavor, fictional or non-fictional, dominate the best sellers lists.

The past is the best playground:

Turkey too is not spared from this memory boom. Any visit to a bookshop, a quick online check of the best sellers, or a quick glimpse of soap operas on the TV or movies that are produced should give you enough evidence. In short, we are now witnessing an increasing popular interest in the past that is different from official controls of the past for nation building. On one hand, we observe the continuing difficulty nations and individuals face in promoting monolithic, homogenized narratives and thus identities, which are challenged by the localized experience of globalization. On the other hand, the same breakdown of the comfort of a clear imagination of who we are brings with itself a stronger desire to locate ourselves within smaller groups that form the larger society, or extra-territorial global groups defined on ethnic, religious, political or sexual grounds. When the fast speed of change in information, materials, living spaces and postal address are added to this breakdown, together with the sour taste the future oriented utopias of the modern era left in our mouths, the need for an anchoring becomes much more significant for individuals than the macro projects of the 19th or 20th centuries were. The past is always the best playground for anyone seeking to find a ‘golden age' to hold on to in the contemporary cacophony for a relatively clear sense of who ‘we' are.

De-politicized post 1970s Turkish generations, to which I belong, by and large do not have the same political zeal and thought-through ideals that our abis and ablas (older brothers and sisters) had. We are immune to a lot of the discourses that got their attention. But unlike their future looking ideologies, our eyes are on the constant lookout for a way of understanding the extremely complex present tense. In the world-risk society and instant consumption age in which we live, the future looks dim and far away if not irrelevant. The only relatively stable reference point left for us is the past, which has been nicely trimmed and beautified by the growing history industry. As we feel trapped in the dynamics of East versus West, as our image and identity is continually challenged by the criteria and critical eyes of the European Union, growing calls to accept the Armenian deaths as genocide, challenge our moral standing and self understanding and as economic uncertainty and global competition no longer allows the same expectation to “make it” that our parents had, we are truly vulnerable of being seduced and manipulated by historical languages for a momentary ecstasy.

Çanakkale and Ankara:

Thus, it is really no surprise that Deniz Baykal, head of the opposition party CHP, the old wolf of Turkish politics who is probably entering his final round for a chance to take the much-coveted seat, has been using a historical rhetoric against AKP in addition to the discourses of keeping the legacy of the secular republic that Atatürk established. Before the presidential elections, he declared that ‘Çanakkale cannot be crossed! Ankara too should not be crossed!' Çanakkale is the strait that connects the Aegean Sea with the Bosporus, where the Anzac troops suffered a heavy loss under Turkish resistance during World War I. The battle, which has given a sense of ‘nation' for Australians and New Zealanders, has also been a symbol of heroic Turkish resistance to invading forces. In Mr. Baykal's declaration Ankara clearly refers to the contemporary tensions of the AKP's Islamic roots and possibility of having a president of the republic from their ranks. In a sweeping sentence, two different contexts are melted into one. Its poetics may be catchy, but its actuality is far from charming. The battle in Çanakkale was against foreign nations trying to invade Anatolia, not against ‘Islamists' and its descriptions in Turkey have always been full of Islamic imagery and language. The civil cooperation, which the post WW I setting demanded against invading armies, is not the civil cooperation we need today in 2007 partaking in the elections or showing democratic discontent with the AKP government. With the highly emotive appeal to ‘saving our country against the enemy', Mr. Baykal, of course, is not asking for an armed conflict, but rather votes for his party to come into office. When the glamorous dress falls what is shown once again is good old politics.

‘Occupation and Resistance':

Mr. Baykal's rhetoric is not without its ‘intellectual' and sophisticated supporters. The book, Occupation and Resistance: 1919 and Today by Hulki Cevizoğlu, a popular writer and TV producer now boasts a third print run of 101,000 copies. Its concluding chapter, as well as the emotive sentences on the back cover of the book lead the reader to the intellectual and volitional response that was demanded by the people of the past who were committed to saving their country and who took up arms against the ‘invasion.' No doubt, the book is working well both for the financial and social standing of Mr. Cevizoglu in the eyes of certain segments of society. Yet, its long term cost to our country, which cannot be quantified, is much more than any positive contribution the book can ever make. With the wise help of hindsight, it does not take too long to realize that history is full of preventable conflicts that seemed inescapable at the time. The danger with the productions of historical similes, metaphors and poetries for contemporary problems is that the emotional response they create, which is the primary reason they are used in the first place, leads to their internalization by individuals for whom they become the non-negotiable lenses through which they interpret the world. And, since we have never managed to adopt a more pragmatic sense of time and past events, say unlike Americans, resurgence of historical discourses run the risk of awakening long dead animosities against enemies who do not exist anymore! As the history of racial and ethnic violence shows, when such feelings are awakened carelessly, sooner or later a substitute enemy will be found, who probably has nothing to do with the perceived danger. ……