The Reverse Orientalism of the Turkish Left

The Reverse Orientalism of the Turkish Left

from Informed Comment: Global Affairs by Murat Cem Menguc
by Murat Cem Mengüç

During a recent workshop entitled “Violence in Ottoman Anatolia” at New York University, Christine Philliou summed up the emergence of the Turkish Republic and its leading architect Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with an allusion to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. She rightfully suggested that Atatürk resembled Hobbes’ Leviathan, who was in search of bringing order to a chaotic environment. The richness of this allusion is obvious to all of us who are familiar with the history of late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Hobbes’ prominence in European Enlightenment literature and his usefulness for the intellectual construction of Western imperialism make it an even more captivating metaphor.

As we all know, Hobbes’ description of the human political realm as a chaotic environment sprang from not just his belief that human beings were evil by nature, but also from the fact that he was writing during the English Civil War (1642-1651). Similar ideas and similar epochs of history furnished many other intellectuals to cut clean slates for their favorite authoritarian rulers. But, in the Turkish case, depicting the early Turkish Republican regime and particularly Atatürk as legitimate leviathans of their people also helps generate, what I will call for the lack of a better term, a reverse orientalism. This reverse orientalism, especially, helps official Turkish historiography to depict Atatürk and his people as the subjects of a chaotic environment, which resulted from the evil nature of other people and argues that they were rightfully fighting to create a zone of order, stability and self-expression. Most primary and secondary schoolbooks in Turkey to date narrate the Turkish Independence War (1919-1923) accordingly.

The most convenient aspect of this reverse Orientalist narrative is the fact that it transforms the Ottoman Turks into subjects of Western imperialism, making them a part of the so-called Third World, which lost its sovereignty and had to fight for its freedom from the yoke of Western Imperialism. In doing so, the Ottoman Turkish genocide of the Armenians, as well as the prosecution of other civilian masses like Kurds, Greeks and Arabs, become either fabrications of Western imperialism, or isolated episodes of an Hobbsian chaos that was about to swallow the Turkish nation.

On another level, the same reverse orientalism also allows the Turkish intellectuals to comfortably navigate diverse ideologies. In fact, some of the expressions encountered in the Turkish media regarding the recent Middle Eastern revolutions suggest that the old camps of the Turkish progressive left and the Turkish republican left can be easily altered in the radius of this reverse orientalism. For example, a leading columnists of the progressive left, Ahmet Altan, from whom we would expect a more careful language and a deeper sympathy towards the developments in the Middle East, openly writes that “Turkey is not like the other countries in the Middle Eastern garbage heap.”[1] This statement indicates that the status of Turkey is somewhat different than its underdeveloped neighbors who continue to live in political slums. Similarly, a leading columnist of the republican left, Banu Avar, argues that the recent NATO supervised war on Gaddafi is nothing less than a European imperialist project designed to subjugate the innocent Muslim masses.[2] Avar is outrageous enough to quote the Lybian state television as a viable source for her claims and show that her heart beats for the Muslim masses of the world, as long as they do not run for the government in her country. It seems that Hobbsian expressions of chaos not only speak about the absence of clear ideas and ideologies, but also may lack clear ideas and ideologies in themselves. Ignoring the legacy of the Ottoman Turkish imperialism in the Middle East, Turkish opinion makers of the progressive and republican left carve special statuses for themselves, whether hiding behind fake statuses of oppressed masses or distancing themselves from these masses by thinking that they have achieved something better already.

Interestingly enough, the Turkish Islamist political camp, the camp that is most deeply dedicated to the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, does not suffer from such an identity crisis. Not only that it openly supports the NATO actions against Gaddafi, but also it keeps winning elections.


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