A look to Turkey’s past, from the New York Times

Nick Danforth
4 min readJun 5, 2019

In October 2008, the New York Times Turkey correspondent took a boat tour along the Bosporus with historian Murat Belge. “History can be slippery in Turkey,” the reporter explained: “The official version is kept under lock and key, and writers can be punished for trying to open it.” Over fish and raki, Belge explained “We have a very unhealthy relation with our history… It’s basically a collection of lies.” Turkey experienced a “painful birth” and, as Belge observed, “We are still suffering the consequences.”

2007 and 2008 saw a series of dramatic political developments in Turkey. Abdullah Gul was elected president, the AKP survived a closure case and the now notorious Ergenekon trials began. To help American readers make sense of it all, the New York Times offered a steady stream of historical context, presumably an antidote to the “collection of lies” Turks had been fed. I have tried to compile bits and pieces of it spread across several articles into a relatively coherent narrative. The results serve as an elegant distillation what Ilker Ayturk has called the Post-Kemalist Paradigm. It’s not that it’s all completely wrong, but then that’s what made it so dangerous:

“[A] look to Turkey’s past is useful to understand its complicated present.

“Turkey’s current struggle is the latest chapter in a remarkable history that began in the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, looking toward Europe, destroyed all connections to the East, changing the alphabet into Latin letters, placing mosques under state control and crushing the religious hierarchy…. In Turkey’s painful birth… Ataturk, disassembled the structure of the Ottoman state, which had been in place for 600 years. Instead of forging a national identity based on the Ottomans, he emphasized “Turkishness,” reaching back to the Hittites in 2600 B.C.

“The model for a new Turkish state, Ataturk believed, was to be found in the nations of Europe and the West, where modern thought and reason had made the societies rich. Religion, he concluded, was a major hindrance to becoming modern…. In a wrenching effort to forge a national identity in the 1920s, the education system fed a heavy diet of nationalism…. Religious Turks, always on the periphery, sought ways around the state.…

“In the country as a whole, religious Turks have felt like second-class citizens for generations…. For most of Turkey’s history, upper-class Turks have occupied the presidency and imposed Western values onto the conservative Anatolian heartland below…. A powerful elite of military officers, judges and senior bureaucrats has steered the country from behind the scenes since its inception in 1923 and has overthrown the government four times.

“While Europe redefined its ideas of modernity in ways that emphasized democracy, tolerance and human rights, Turkey’s leaders continued down a path of rigid, corrupt and sometimes harshly repressive rule.… [T]he secularists who founded the state out of the Ottoman Empire’s remains are now lagging behind religious Turks in efforts to modernize it…. Nationalists are more likely than Islamists to be suspicious of the West, and also more likely to be violent….

“Mr. Erdogan’s party has been the most flexible and open of all parties that consider Islam an important part of Turkish society…. Still, secular, urban Turks are suspicious. The worldview of much of the senior leadership of [Erdogan’s] party differs substantially from their own. But some of that concern stems from a deep-rooted class divide.

“The merchant class [President Abdullah] Gul comes from was kept out of power by the elite, and its backer, the military, which has ousted four elected governments since 1960.… [H]is success... marks the first time in Turkish history that a party had prevailed against the military. It also upsets the power hierarchy in Turkey… by opening up the presidency — an elite secular post that was first occupied by this country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — to a new class of reform-minded leaders, who are from Turkey’s provinces, for decades considered backward by the elite.

“Turkey is a NATO member and a strong American ally in a troubled region, and its stability is crucial. Its current political soul-searching attempts to find answers to the very questions that Americans have been asking since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Can an Islamic-oriented government that is popularly elected be democratic and westward-looking?

“Today, Turkey is poised to join Europe — if the continent will have it — in what would be the fulfillment of Ataturk’s vision. But in an irony of history, it is a group of politicians who value Islam who are hoisting Turkey up toward the club, which Ataturk’s secular contemporaries never were able to do.