ANKARA: Is Turkey A ‘Mistaken Republic?’


Turkish Daily News
July 19 2008

According to Sevan NiÅ~_anyan, Turks need to face and question their
history. ‘Unlike Portugal or Spain,’ he says, ‘Turkey has not come
to terms with its totalitarian past’

Mustafa AKYOL

You should meet Sevan NiÅ~_anyan. 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. NiÅ~_anyan, with all his boldness, argues that
Kemalism is, in essence, what we commonly know as fascism.

The book I am speaking about is titled "YanlıÅ~_ Cumhuriyet: Ataturk
ve Kemalizm Hakkında 51 Soru" (The Mistaken Republic: 51 Questions
about Ataturk and Kemalism). Throughout its 440 pages, Mr. NiÅ~_anyan
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 Ataturk,
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.

Historical revisionism:

Mr. NiÅ~_anyan’s book became famous especially after he gave a
full-page interview about a month ago to journalist NeÅ~_e Duzel of
daily Taraf, whose work has always been thought provoking and news
making. "In Turkey, the Republic was a transition from the Sultanate
to modern dictatorship," he said to Ms. Duzel, "and it had nothing
to do with democracy." In fact, a democratic system had started to
evolve in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, whose parliament
welcomed different ideas, identities and political parties. What the
Kemalist regime did was to get rid of not just the Sultan, but also
all sorts of political opposition, and establish one-man rule.

"I have read all the speeches and interviews Ataturk gave after
establishing his power," Mr. NiÅ~_anyan 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

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?

That is the standard argument you hear from the Kemalists, including
some fellow commentators who write in these pages. But Mr. NiÅ~_anyan
disagrees. "Turkey had been the most developed, strong, and
Western-influenced part of the Islamic world since the 14th century,"
he notes. And he points to the impressive achievements of the Ottoman,
i.e. pre-Kemalist, reforms during the 19th and early 20th centuries:
>From the feminist movement to the incorporation of Western science,
technology and law, "80 to 90 percent of the reforms that modernized
Turkey were rooted in the Ottoman era."

Of course, Ataturk aimed at and pushed for further modernization, but
some of the steps he took, according to Mr. NiÅ~_anyan, 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. NiÅ~_anyan also criticizes the despotic nature of the self-styled
secularism that Ataturk 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. NiÅ~_anyan argues, "It was the achievement and consolidation of
absolute political power."

The same goal led the Kemalist regime to what Mr. NiÅ~_anyan defines
as the grounding of citizenship on the acceptance of a political credo:

"Those who accepted the Kemalist credo were embraced as citizens,
others were deemed traitors. This approach, also known as ‘Ataturk’s
nationalism,’ is in fact the classical fascism of the 1920s. The regime
in Italy in those years was very similar … Ataturk’s nationalism
also lies behind the usurpation of the properties of non-Muslims and
their expulsion from Turkey. In the 1930s even biological racism was
added to this nationalism."

Then perhaps it is not an accident that the most Kemalist party in
today’s Turkey, the main opposition People’s Republican Party, or
CHP, is also a fierce opponent of any reform toward granting broader
rights to Turkey’s non-Muslim communities. Many people consider this
xenophobia of the CHP a deviation from Ataturk’s "modern" way. But
if Mr. NiÅ~_anyan is right, then not just today’s CHP but also the
very political tradition it refers to is problematic.

Facing up to the past:

But if that is the case, then how can Turkey evolve? How can she head
toward liberal democracy? According to NiÅ~_anyan, we Turks first need
to face and question our history. "Unlike Portugal, Spain or Greece,
Turkey has not come to terms with its totalitarian past," he reminds
us. "That totalitarian past, perpetuated by the cult of Mustafa Kemal,
still lives on."

Yes, it is still alive and very much kicking. Political parties that
dare to deviate from the mistaken roots are closed down, and the
intellectuals who question these taboos are slandered. Mr. NiÅ~_anyan,
for example, has become the target of ad hominem attacks in the
Turkish media since his book came out. Kemalist pundits focus not on
his arguments but on unpleasant things they discovered in his family
life. The same pundits depict other critics of Kemalism as traitors,
"Soros-funded" provocateurs, servants of "imperialism," and anything
you can imagine.

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.