'Neo-Ottomanism', pluralism, and economic development in Turkey

It’s naive to think that Turkey has become less nationalistic in recent years; the only change has been in the nature and context of this nationalism.

William Armstrong
10 March 2012

An extraordinary exhibition closed today (March 10) in Istanbul. Titled “Eski Diyarbakır’da Kültürel Çeşitlilik” (Cultural Diversity in Old Diyarbakır), it was held at the Tütün Deposu Gallery in Tophane, a ten-minute walk from the central transport hub of Taksim Square on the European side of the city. A small and apparently simple affair, housed in just two rooms of one floor of the gallery, it mainly featured enlarged photograph reproductions of the south-eastern city of Diyarbakır around the turn of the last century. Despite the apparent modesty of size however, it was perhaps one of the most brazenly - even recklessly - rhetorical exhibitions I’ve ever seen here in Istanbul. It perfectly demonstrated some of the enormous changes that have been taking place in Turkey in recent years, and also some of the tensions.

Accompanying the photos, collected from over 40 different sources, were maps and documents showing demographic data of the area at the time the photos were taken. These illustrated the remarkable ethnic and religious diversity of this part of south-eastern Anatolia at the time: Kurds, Armenians, Yezidis, Syriacs, Jews, Greeks, Chaldeans. According to a census, the population of the city of Diyarbakır in 1914 was 35,000; almost all of which was non-Turkish, and almost half of which was non-Muslim. The photos themselves showed portraits of these minorities: families, groups of musicians, actors, merchants, artisans, clerical figures. Descriptions were written beside each in Turkish, English, and Kurdish. A panoply of cultural richness was thus on display, interesting largely because it doesn’t exist anymore. After being walked through this hymn to lost cultural diversity, the last piece on display was a deliberately provocative, unanswerable full stop. Hanging unspectacularly on the wall was a typed reproduction of a succinct 1915 telegram sent by the province’s governor of the time, reporting to his superiors in Istanbul that the entire Armenian population had, as requested, been “deported” from the town and the surrounding area. The reported total of individuals “deported” in the area was estimated by the governor to be 120,000. Needless to say, you don’t need to be a detective to work out the curator’s thesis.

Just twenty years ago in Turkey, even to have suggested such ideas would have been to risk arrest. Now an openly advertised exhibition, however modest in size, can be held right in the heart of Istanbul (and despite recent gentrification, still one of the more conservative areas of the city) saying - showing - exactly such things. The facts offered weren’t so surprising in themselves, (they’re readily available for anyone who wants to find them online), but the fact that they were being displayed and talked about so openly is. It’s an astonishing shift. There is, however, good reason to be sceptical, even wary, of such ostensibly welcome change.

It bears repeating: so called “neo-Ottomanism” – latest example being the massive recent (native) box office success of “Fetih 1453”, an epic film glorifying the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 – isn’t inspired by a newly-discovered affection for those aspects of Ottoman history that liberal-minded westerners find attractive. Rather, it’s perhaps more realistic to see the phenomenon as fuelled by a deeply-felt desire to regain what is considered to be a lost national glory, power, and prestige. It’s naive to think that Turkey has become less nationalistic in recent years; the only change has been in the nature and context of this nationalism. My impression is that the country’s increased international assertiveness and breakneck economic development have only diverted some of the less savoury impulses of Turkish nationalism from their more traditional spheres; the cracks have merely been papered over.

Recent moves towards greater freedom and tolerance for minorities are heartening and necessary. But it’s worth asking: what will happen - once all these cats have been let out of the bag - if the national economy tanks? With Turkey’s growing current account deficit and increasing levels of private debt, there are signs that the country’s breakneck development of recent years may well be slowing down. What will happen if the economic success story is no longer there, providing an effective balm to distract a still-nationalistic population from some of the less nationally popular aspects of Turkey’s recent development?

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