The state of Turkey, 100 years on

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

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Welcome to This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s big news story.

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The Big Story:

Turkey is marking its hundredth birthday as a secular republic, but rather quietly. Some say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to undermine the secular legacy of the republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, because his Justice and Development (AK) party is of an Islamist bent. Such suspicions matter as the Turkish republic begins its second century with a bloody conflict raging in the Middle East and Erdogan trying to present himself as leader of the Muslim world.

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The Backstory:

  • Erdogan’s Turkey, ruled by his AK party for 20 years, is very different from the secular republic founded by Ataturk. Islam has a bigger place in public life than at any time since the Ottoman empire, which Ataturk abolished. Ottoman sultans had laid claim to the title of caliph, spiritual head of Islam, since the early 16th century, ruling a religiously and ethnically diverse empire that extended across today’s Middle East, southeastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa.
  • In Turkey today, official events often begin with prayers and the religious affairs directorate has a bigger budget than most other ministries, in line with Erdogan’s stated goal of creating a “pious generation”. Ataturk dismantled religious schools and replaced shariah law with the Swiss civil code and the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet. Turkish women won the right to vote in national elections in 1934, a decade before their sisters in France.
  • In 2020, Erdogan turned Istanbul’s Byzantine-era church Hagia Sophia into a functioning mosque, reversing Ataturk’s decision to make it a museum that noted both Christian and Muslim legacies.
  • Erdogan has spoken of Ataturk as gazi or war hero who saved Turkey from foreign powers, says Johns Hopkins’ academic Lisel Hintz, but played down his role as a secular reformer.

This Week, Those Books:

  • A funny and tragic novel about 21st century life in an ancient land.
  • An overview of the messy birth of the modern Turkish state.

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  • The Flea Palace
  • By: Elif Shafak
  • Publisher Marion Boyars
  • Year: 2004 (English translation)

Bonbon Palace, a once stately Istanbul residence built by a Russian nobleman, is dilapidated, flea-infested and occupied by 10 families. In Flat 1, there is superstitious Meryem, her husband Muhammet and their son Musa. In Flat 2, Sidar and his St. Bernard dog Gaba. In Flat 3, a hair salon owned by twin brothers Cemal and Celal. And so on, until Flat 10, which has an elderly Armenian woman with a penchant for collecting garbage. With its range of characters from different communities, Elif Shafak’s multi-storey apartment block becomes a manifestation of Turkey’s layered history.

This delightful romp through Turkey’s past and present starts with the visit to Bonbon Palace of a pest controller, then wanders back in time. When the authorities try to relocate two ancient cemeteries — one Armenian, the other Muslim — in order to build a new road, we see the co-existence in Istanbul of old and new, Christianity and Islam.

Choice quote:

“In the Turkey of the 1950s in particular, the moment a rich Muslim bumped into a poor one, what he would see on the latter’s face would be ‘someone so very unlike him,’ whereas a rich minority member running into a poor one would encounter on the latter’s face ‘someone so very unlike him and yet treated alike’.”

  • The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire
  • By: Ryan Gingeras
  • Publisher: Allen Lane
  • Year: 2022

An impressive account of how 600 years of Ottoman imperial history ended and Ataturk’s secular nation state came into being. Professor Ryan Gingeras of California’s Naval Postgraduate School uses many Turkish sources and voices to tell a complex story. The Ottoman empire — the sick man of Europe — draws its last breath and the new Turkey has to reckon with testy issues of identity and belonging. Who, for instance, should count as a Turk? What would a narrow Turkish nationalism mean for communities such as the Kurds and refugees from the Caucasus? That storyline still has resonance in Erdogan’s Turkey.

Choice quote:

“Since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan…popular interest in Ottoman history has surged to unprecedented levels…the empire no longer invokes the sort of negativity or condemnation often heard during the time of Ataturk.”

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Writer. My novel 'Pomegranate Peace' is about my year in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at university in London