What Makes Turkey Different? – and why Turks love Atatürk

There are perhaps reasons why Turkey today might be just as happy not to join the European Union. However, membership of that club is less important than gaining moral acceptance as a people to be taken seriously and accorded equal status in the modern world. Why should this be such a problem? Because clearly, in the minds of many in the West, it assuredly is.
In the first place, Turkey’s population is predominantly Muslim – a fact that sits uncomfortably in the European mindset, in spite of shrinking congregations in mainstream Christian churches. At the same time, Turks are not Arabs. Their brand of Islam is far removed from the bullying, female oppressing, adulterer stoning, alcohol prohibiting joyless world of the Wahhabi Saudis and others of their ilk. Nevertheless, however much, or little, Western Europeans identify with Christianity, the very word Muslimcategorises Turks as ‘other’.
Another aspect of their ‘other’-ness is the origin of the Turkic people in Central Asia. Their language is linguistically problematic in the sense that it belongs to the Ural-Altaic family – i.e. neither Indo-European nor of the Afro-Asian group that includes Arabic and Hebrew. The average tourist to Turkey, wishing to say ‘Thank you’ to his waiter or bellhop, on learning that it requires a six-syllable phrase, rarely recovers his initial enthusiasm for learning the language, and consequently never discovers the later joys of suffix agglutination, vowel harmony and reverse syntax that bedevil the more persistent student.
Getting back to religion, the European Dark Ages coincided with the spread of Arabic Islam. There wasn’t really a major clash until Catholic Christendom began to seek temporal power from the 10th and 11thcenturies, which also coincided with the beginnings of Seljuk Turkish incursion into Asia Minor. Turks were not historically Muslim. Their original religion was shamanism, and they fell under the influence of Buddhism on their westward journeying. Islam was a later adoption, and Turkish Islam bears the stamp of earlier cultural influences. Nevertheless, it was the Turks who were the target of crusading Christian knights.
Those Crusades (the four main ones, from 1096 to 1204 CE) pose problems of interpretation. The traditional Western view is of Christendom fighting to free the Holy Lands (read ChristianHoly Lands) from the grip of infidel Muslims (Saracens or Turks). The implication here is that Christians had some right of ownership to those Middle East territories that in fact contain sites sacred to all three of the great monotheistic faiths. Well, first let’s be clear about one thing: at the time of Christ those Holy Lands were in the hands of the pagan Roman Empire (and to a lesser extent, the Jews). Second, from the 7th century they were under the sway of the Muslim Arabs, as was all of North Africa and much of the Spanish Iberian Peninsula. Some historians suggest that, had it not been for the existence at that time of the Eastern Christian Roman/Byzantine Empire centred on the impregnable fortress city of Constantinople, Europe itself might have been overrun and Islamicised. Third, and in spite of the foregoing, as we have noted before, the Fourth Crusade in 1204 never actually made it to the Holy Land, detouring instead to Constantinople, besieging, conquering and pillaging it, and subjecting it to sixty years of Latin rule from which it never fully recovered.
Subsequently the Byzantines reconquered their imperial capital and held it for a further two centuries. Their territories, however, gradually shrank as the power of the Seljuks and then the Ottomans grew – until the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II hammered the final nail into their coffin with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Again, though, there are problems of interpretation here. Who exactly were those people that the Ottomans defeated? In their own view, they and their empire were Roman, having existed continuously since the Roman Emperor Constantine in 330 CE founded the city as capital of the Eastern Empire. Their claim was strengthened after the fall of Rome itself to the ‘barbarians’ in the 5th century. However, from the viewpoint of Western Christendom, there were several difficulties with this. First, with Rome gone, how could you continue to have a Roman Empire?  Second, somewhere along the way, their language had ceased to be Latin, and become Greek. Third, although the fall of Constantinople has been seen as a tremendous blow struck against Christendom by Turkish Muslim infidels, Catholic Christendom at the time barely lifted the littlest finger to help their Eastern cousins. Some historians have even suggested that the Muslim/Turkish conquest actually saved the Greek Orthodox Church from being subsumed into the Western monster, since the Ottomans permitted the Greek Patriarch to continue his tenure in Istanbul and minister to his flock pretty much unmolested.
Then there is the question of who those Ottomans were. The so-called Ottoman ‘Turks’ had been in Anatolia for four centuries, intermarrying and mixing with the Greek-speaking Christian inhabitants and others, and adapting their culture to those influences, as well as Persian and Arabic – so how Turkish were they?  After conquering Constantinople and finishing off the Eastern Roman Empire (which had lasted for eleven centuries), their Sultans began to consider themselves heirs of Rome and call themselves Emperors thereof. At the height of Ottoman power, the Empire extended as far as the gates of Vienna, some 1100 kilometres from the present border of Turkey – greater than the distance from Vienna to Paris. In terms of longitude, Istanbul is marginally further east than Moscow (around 200 kilometres) but there doesn’t seem to be a problem considering Russia part of Europe – despite wide ideological differences, not to mention forty years of Cold War hostilities.
According to Daniel Goffman[1], by the late 17th century, the Ottoman Empire had become increasingly integrated into Europe as Europeans lost their fear of it, and greater numbers of them visited for one reason or another. Certainly, it played an important role in European politics until its dissolution in 1923. One can’t help wondering, if the Greeks had been successful in forcibly annexing Aegean Anatolia at that time, would that have precluded Greece from joining Europe, or rather, conferred honorary status on Asia Minor?
Undoubtedly, since becoming an independent, democratic, secular republic, Turkey has played its part in the defence of Europe, as the second largest military contributor to NATO during the Cold War, even allowing the USA to site on its territory nuclear missiles targeting the USSR.
Still the problem of Turkey’s identity persists, and Europe continues to find reasons for excluding Turkey from its club. After the First World War, the victorious Entente Powers attempted to force on the Ottoman Empire the ‘peace’ Treaty of Sevres. Under this treaty, much of the Middle East was taken over by Britain and France and a large independent Armenia was established in the east of Anatolia. The Italians were to inherit the Mediterranean coast, the Greeks, the Aegean and its hinterland – and the Ottoman government would retain a more or less landlocked rump in Asia Minor. Shortly afterwards (and unauthorised by the treaty), the Entente Powers occupied the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, where they remained for five years, taking over control of the Empire’s finances, ordering the disbanding of its army, and reducing its government to little more than puppet status.
The occupation of Istanbul, and the Entente-sponsored Greek military invasion of Anatolia were the spark that ignited the flame of national resistance. After a four-year war, led by the charismatic leader Mustafa Kemal, the Republic of Turkey was established on 29 October 1923, and soon after, despite bluff and bluster by the British Government, the occupying forces quietly left Istanbul, taking with them the now pretty much irrelevant Ottoman Sultan.
Well, one point I want to make here is that Britain and France were undoubtedly immensely upset at having their plans for the eastern Mediterranean so frustrated. Not only had a new independent state established itself, in defiance of the Sevres treaty, on that geopolitically crucial patch of earth, but also those Entente Powers, particularly Great Britain, had been badly humiliated by having to quit Istanbul without firing a shot. Perhaps that’s another reason for continuing to keep Turkey at arm’s length.
Now you may or may not have noticed that I took pains to avoid using the words Turks and Turkish in the preceding three paragraphs, and I want to explain why. First, as discussed above, it was now almost nine hundred years since Turkic invaders won the Battle of Manzikert and entered Anatolia – a similar period to Anglo-Saxon residency in the British Isles at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and even the hardest-headed Gaelic nationalist must have given up hope of their ever returning to Germany whence they came.
Second, Turkishness was a latecomer to the stage of militant nationalist movements. Gossman notes that after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453,  ‘. . . Armenian, Greek, Jewish, foreign and Muslim Turkish settlers soon had constructed a polylingual, polyethnic, and polyreligious metropolis that existed and thrived in striking contrast to non-Ottoman cities in the Mediterranean and European worlds.’ Some of these groups during the 19th century, encouraged and assisted by the European powers, broke away and established their own nationalist states. The Ottomans, however, despite earlier European use of the term, did not consider themselves Turks. It was Mustafa Kemal, later to become Atatürk, who fostered and then exploited the concept of Turkish nationalism in order to unite opposition to post-World War I invaders, and lay the foundation of a new nation-state.
This is the first reason, then, that modern Turks love Atatürk. It was he who gave them a national identity, bonded them together and led them in the fight to establish a free and independent state in their long-standing historical heartland. Without him, the present-day Republic of Turkey would not exist.
Definitely worth a look!
Another reason is that, in his second role as political leader and statesman of the republic he had founded, Atatürk established the ground rules of, pointed the way to, and gave his people the tools to build a state which could take a proud place in the modern world. At the same time as he encouraged pride in Turkishness, Atatürk did away with the Arabic alphabet for writing the Turkish language, established a secular constitution and laid down guidelines for dress which would allow Turks more easily to integrate into the European world.
Turkey continues to have problems of identity, not only with the outside world but also within itself. As a modern secular democratic republic, its Muslim religion sets it apart from its potential peers in terms of political constitution. On the other hand, its very status as a secular democratic republic makes it an outsider and a threat to other members of the international Muslim community, whose governments, for the most part, incline towards paternalistic autocratic governments based on religion.

Turks, free to dress as they like, walk hand in hand in public with their girl or boyfriend, attend or not attend prayers at the mosque, drink alcohol or not as they choose, and vote for the political party of their choice in well-organised transparent elections, are grateful to their first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who devoted his life to making these rights possible. Foreign visitors, free to drink without danger of whipping, to visit Muslim mosques out of interest, Christian churches for worship, and protected historical sites from a rainbow spectrum of ancient cultures and religions, should also be aware that they owe these freedoms to that Father of the Turkish Nation.
On 29 October, Turks will celebrate with parades and fireworks the 89thyear of their republic – and twelve days later, on 10 November, at 9.05 am, a Saturday this year, stop whatever they are doing to remember his passing – and give thanks for his life.

PS – A very nice thing about Republic Day this year (2012) is that it falls just as the Islamic Kurban Bayram (Sacrificial Feast) ends, which means a six-day holiday combining the secular and the religious. This is Turkey!


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