Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Misreading of Mid-Century Turkey

Nicholas Danforth

How complicit is the field of Middle East studies in helping Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidate his authoritarian rule? It’s a completely unfair question, of course. But, having lobbed similar accusations at a previous generation of scholars, we should perhaps give it some thought.

Over the past several decades there has been a proliferation of research exploring the way our predecessors’ assumptions about the desirability of modernity, westernization, secularism and state power helped justify authoritarian rule across the Middle East. For historians of modern Turkey, the regime and ideology of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made a particularly easy target. Kemalism appeared the chief culprit behind the oppressive political policies that prevented Turkey’s healthy democratization. As a result, contemporary historians were eager to attack the intellectual foundations of Kemalism, pointing out how men like Bernard Lewis had helped lay the historiographical groundwork for a half century of coups.

As historians condemned the ‘radical’ and ‘Jacobin’ nature of Ataturk’s ‘high-modernism,’ ‘hyper-Westernization’ and ‘heavy-handed secularism,’ they made it easier to present Erdogan’s vision as a more ‘authentic’ form of ‘alternative modernity.’ Where Ataturk created a ‘rupture’ by ‘rejecting’ Turkey’s Ottoman history and Islamic identity, Erdogan was ‘reconnecting’ the people with the imperial past and popular piety they longed for. As a result, Western observers gave undue credence to Erdogan’s own wild reimaging of Ottoman history, as well as his insistence that the Turkish people shared a deep attachment to his particular version of Islam.

At a politically charged moment, these much-needed and long-overdue critiques of Kemalism spilled over into justifications of Erdogan’s political project. In 2008, amidst growing criticism of Erdogan’s authoritarianism, the New York Times offered its readers a history lesson: Turkey was “still suffering the consequences” of its “painful birth” when Atatürk and his successors made “religious Turks” into “second-class citizens,” and “imposed Western values onto the conservative Anatolian heartland below.” Erdogan, they implied, was righting this wrong.

Eventually the New York Times lost faith in Erdogan, writing in 2014 that his authoritarian behavior was distancing Turkey from the West. But some historians were still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Writing in the notoriously pro-Erdogan outlet Sabah, Princeton’s Şükrü Hanio˘glu responded that the problem was less with Turkey’s “deviation” than with the Western model itself. Turkey was not a “disobedient child” for rejecting a flawed and impossible vision of Westernization. Rather, it was seeking “new syntheses” that “could more harmoniously accommodate social realities and values.”

Against this backdrop, The Remaking of Republican Turkey is an effort to revisit the debates over history and modernity that took place in 1950s Turkey and rescue their participants from being reduced to foils in our own contemporary political battles. It turns out Turkey’s Westernizers had plenty of doubts about the West, and its most committed high-modernists had their own reservations about modernity. Rather than simply condemn mid-century intellectuals, recognizing the complex and nuanced ways were wrong will make us less likely to repeat their mistakes.

The Remaking of Republican Turkey By Nicholas Danforth
The Remaking of Republican Turkey By Nicholas Danforth

About The Author

Nicholas Danforth

Nicholas L. Danforth has written widely about Turkey, U.S. foreign policy, and the Middle East for publications including The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Yor...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!