The Empire Strikes Back

Forget just shutting down Twitter, now Turkey's embattled prime minster has taken to denouncing Ottoman sultans.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Casual followers of Turkish politics might have been surprised to read that among the long list of things Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced of late — the international interest rate lobby, porn lobby, and robot lobby — he also found time to condemn the popular soap opera "Magnificent Century," which dramatizes the life of the 16th-century Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. After all, for almost a decade it seems, every news article about Turkey has reminded us that Erdogan and his fellow Islamists love their country’s Ottoman past — and that Turkish secularists, like their hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, reject the Ottoman Empire for its backwards and fanatical religiosity.

So why was Erdogan, who has since resorted to shutting down Twitter and YouTube in the face of a potentially career-ending corruption scandal, so preoccupied with distancing himself from a televised depiction of Sultan Suleiman? The answer, it turns out, has less to do with the facts of Ottoman history and more to do with Turkey’s long-running battle to appropriate them for political gain.

Like the country’s other Lonely Planet clichés — torn between East and West, still caught on the cusp of tradition and modernity — "neo-Ottomanism" has become an almost universal reference point for interpreting Turkey’s foreign and domestic policy. But this glib and misleading version of Turkey’s Ottomania, in which pro-Ottoman Islamists are pitted against anti-Ottoman secularists, has made it all too easy to misunderstand the country’s already complex politics. Prior to the outbreak of war in Syria, for example, Erdogan’s rapprochement with President Bashar al-Assad was regularly cited as proof of his neo-Ottoman ambitions. Now it’s the Turkish prime minister’s support for Syria’s Sunni rebels that supposedly telegraphs his neo-Ottoman inclinations. More recently, Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism has led many to portray him as an old-school sultan, despite the fact that his longstanding, decidedly non-Ottoman, friendships with the likes of Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin suddenly seem to explain a lot more than his religiosity.

A quick look back at the last century shows that there is not much neo about neo-Ottomanism. People in Turkey have always loved the Ottoman Empire — they just keep changing what they love about it. More to the point, Turkish political movements have long manipulated — or even invented — versions of the past that suited their political needs. Many Turkish secularists imagine a secular Ottoman past, complete with Western-looking Ottoman sultans who drank scotch, enjoyed Renaissance art, and listened to classical music. Liberals, meanwhile, have imagined a tolerant, multi-cultural Ottoman Empire and sought to use this model to help solve Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Turkish hipsters, for their part, have embraced a version of Ottoman nostalgia that revolves around hookah bars, Balkan folk music, ridiculous mustaches, and shirts emblazoned with slogans like "The Empire Strikes Back," in faux Arabic script.

The pious Ottoman Empire that Erdogan and his followers in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrate is just one version of the past among many, a fact that at least partly explains why they are so quick to defend it. When Erdogan objected to the on-screen Suleiman, he was questioning whether a man portrayed as spending more time in the bedroom than on horseback could be suitable role model for a new generation of Turkish children. Where once historians were forced to insist that the Ottoman Empire was not all harems and dancing girls, many now feel compelled to point out that some of the sultans actually slept with their many concubines.

When founding the modern Turkish state in the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used the "oriental" and "decadent" Ottoman regime as a foil for his secular, republican government. He colorfully denounced the Ottoman royal family as madmen and spendthrifts, while trying to wrest power from the last of the sultans. But after the Ottomans’ ouster in 1923, the animus against them began to fade, making room for a newly secular, Western, and proudly Turkish version of the Ottoman Empire.

By the 1950s, the exploits of Ottoman sultans were the subject of salacious bio-pics, novels, and comic strips whose genre might best be described as Otto-erotic. Turkey celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1953 with poetry-readings, military parades, fashion shows, garden parties, operas, and soccer matches. Even the diaspora got in on the celebration, with Turkish Americans reportedly gathering in the Empire State Building to sip a drink called "Istanbul Magic," made from aniseed liquor, lemon juice, and crème de menthe.

With Turkish and American soldiers fighting side-by-side in Korea, rumors spread that Turkish units trapped behind Communist lines had been visited and inspired by the spirits of Ottoman warriors. NATO, the Turkish press declared, was defending Ottoman ideals of peace, tolerance, and freedom while fighting against Russia, the Ottomans’ traditional foe. American diplomats, for their part, were only worried lest all this talk of the Ottoman past upset Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors. The State Department hoped Turkey would take the lead in organizing an anti-Soviet alliance among the Arabs states, many of which remembered the Ottoman era as a time of Turkish oppression rather than tolerance or Islamic brotherhood.

The very fact that today talk of "neo-Ottomanism" is automatically associated with Islamic politics is a tribute to just how successful the AKP has been at putting its stamp on the empire’s past. As impressive is the fact that the ruling party has managed to promote an Ottoman empire that is at once multi-cultural, tolerant, and pluralistic — while still being appropriately Muslim. While most discussions of neo-Ottomanism revolve around religion, the image of Ottoman tolerance proved a crucial but often-overlooked part of the regional outreach that was one of the AKP’s earliest and most profitable foreign policies. For increasingly dynamic Turkish businesses looking to sell biscuits or build houses in nearby states, from Macedonia to Iraq, it helped to be able to talk about a shared history defined by cooperation rather than conflict. And following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American journalists, academics, and policymakers, as well as at least a few EU leaders, were happy to have an example, however romanticized, of an era when Muslims, Christians, and Jews did something besides kill each other.

There was always a degree of tension between the images of Ottoman tolerance and Ottoman piety. In 2010, for example, the AKP won Istanbul the EU designation of "European Capital of Culture" by playing up its unique multi-faith heritage. Then, with the money that accompanied the award, city administration set about restoring historic mosques while ignoring crumbling churches. More recently, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinç became one of the most prominent politicians to voice the long-time Islamist dream that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia — a Greek orthodox basilica that in 1453 was converted into a mosque, and later, under Ataturk, a museum — be reverted back into a mosque.

Yet despite the AKP’s best efforts, others have succeeded in celebrating different versions of the city’s past. A growing number of Istanbul’s bars and fish restaurants, for example, use Greek names and Greek music to lure customers with a nostalgic evocation of wine-soaked, cosmopolitan life in the Ottoman capital. For patrons of these establishments, Istanbul’s lost multi-cultural sophistication serves as a foil to the seemingly oppressive and homogenized vision of the country shared by nationalists and Islamists alike.

For many of the AKP’s high-brow critics, the party’s corruption and crony capitalism now appear to be the true threat to Istanbul’s Ottoman heritage. In response to the government’s proposal to transform Gezi Park into a shopping mall housed in a replica Ottoman barracks, protestors insisted that ersatz Ottoman architecture was no replacement for the real historic structures being lost or turned into hotels. A series of fake campaign posters appeared on Facebook mocking the AKP’s zeal for tacky urban redevelopment with images of the party paving Venetian canals, straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and painting the pyramids with rainbow stripes.

One area in which the AKP’s appeal to a more tolerant Ottoman legacy has won the support of Turkish liberals, however, is the party’s ongoing search for a political solution to the country’s Kurdish question. In contrast to the intolerant nationalism that defined previous approaches to the Kurdish issue, Erdogan has sought, if somewhat inconsistently, a more inclusive approach that has often succeeded in marrying religion and pluralism. As early as 2009, for example, he spoke about the tragedy of Turkish and Kurdish mothers reciting the same prayers over the bodies of their fallen sons.

Such rhetoric has led some observers to draw a contrast between Erdogan’s post-national Ottoman-Islamic identity and the secular nationalism of Ataturk. Yet there are plenty of people in Turkey for whom religion and nationalism go hand in hand. One of the first public rifts between Erdogan and the powerful spiritual and social movement led by the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gulen occurred when Gulenists challenged the AKP’s Kurdish policy, even suggesting it was treasonous, by investigating Erdogan’s intelligence chief for negotiating with Kurdish militants.

So while the Turkish prime minister faces nationalist opposition to what remains of the most liberal part of his agenda, he seeks to silence dissenting voices and soap-operas alike. As a result, it seems less and less likely that the Turkish people, faced with rival visions of their country’s past and future, will get to choose among them democratically. And whether your preferred Turkish history begins with the enlightened 20th-century Westernization of Ataturk or the enlightened 15th-century tolerance of the Sultans, this grim development can only be seen as a betrayal.

Nicholas Danforth is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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