The trip to Turkey for college honors students will not include the Harts this year — a seminar in Rome conflicts with the Turkey trip. But I continue to follow Turkish developments while finding Ottoman and Turkish history fascinating for teaching and reflection on the West and the relations between religion and secularity. (Have I mentioned that Orhan Pamuk is a gifted writer?)
Turkey is the place where East meets West. For many centuries East stood for Islam and West for Christianity (first Eastern then Roman). For the last century East has stood for Turkishness (a secular construct thanks to Ataturk and the Kemalists, who borrowed freely from the French Revolution’s laïcité) and West has stood for post-Christian secularism. The latest wrinkle in East-West Turkisk relations is an Islamic ruling party that is pro-development in a way that would make the Cato Institute happy and has led journalists to coin the term Islamo-Calvinist, a party in addition that has also sought admission to the European Union after how many decades of being a good ally in NATO. But for all of these ties between Turkey and the West, Islam apparently continues to be the stumbling block. A recent op-ed from the Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet Daily News, put it this way:
At the end of the day, being a practicing Muslim and using religion for political gains may not be mutually exclusive for some politicians. It all depends on how you look at religion and politics. But this type of questioning among Europeans demonstrates the state of confusion about Erdoğan.
In the early days of his prime ministry, he was welcomed by European leaders and applauded as the great reformer of Turkey. At one stage, even U.S. president Barack Obama said Erdoğan was among the three of four leaders he kept talking on the phone.
Nowadays, Erdoğan’s popularity has taken a dive among Western leaders. “When there is a problem in Europe, one leader takes up the phone and calls the other one and has a frank discussion. But with Erdoğan, there is no leader willing to talk to him directly about issues of concern,” a European diplomat told me. . . . What had separated Turkey from Middle Eastern, Arab, Muslim countries, despite living in the same geography as them, was the fact that we had a leadership that – as a NATO and Council of Europe member and as an EU candidate – at least tried to talk the same language as Europe. Now we have a leadership that increasingly talks a different language than Europeans. It’s no wonder that it was Rusian President Vladimir Putin who was the only one rushing to congratulate Erdoğan after his local election victory in March.
And yet, Erdoğan’s Islamic outlook (at least an Ottomanian version thereof) may actually be responsible for his unthinkable outreach to Armenians. Here is how Mustafa Akyol explained Erdoğan’s almost-apology:
. . . let me also note that this relatively more open-minded stance on “the Armenian issue” by Erdoğan and his party, compared to the rigidity of former political elites of Turkey, has some ideological roots as well. In a nutshell, Erdoğan’s “Ottomanism” simply gives him more room to be reformist vis-a-vis the Armenians (and the Kurds, for that matter), than the “Turkish nationalism” that the former elites subscribed to.
The reason is “Ottomanism” implies a broad umbrella under which Turks co-existed peacefully with other peoples of the empire, including the Armenians and the Kurds. The tragic expulsion of Armenians in 1915 was not an outcome of this pluralist Ottoman paradigm. It was an outcome of the fall of that paradigm. The Young Turks, who decided on the exodus, were subscribers of a new ideology called “Turkish nationalism,” which was, as one must see, a response to the Serbian, Greek and Bulgarian nationalisms of the Balkans.
Soon after the foundation of the Republic, the more secularist version of the Young Turk ideology evolved into Kemalism and became the official creed. Today, Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), which had defeated the Kemalist establishment, is building a post-Kemalist Turkey. In this view, the expulsion of Armenians and the forced assimilation of the Kurds are historic mistakes that should be corrected.
In short, the very ideology of the AKP allows itself to take formerly unthinkable steps to reconcile with the Kurds and Armenians.
In other words, Turkey’s Islamic past, seasoned as it was with encounters with the West, is capable of magnanimity that Europeans still find difficult (at least when it comes to Muslims).
I’m not pretending to be an expert on any of this, but when it comes to thinking about Christianity and the West, America as a “Christian nation,” religion in the public square, and the “forces” of secularization, throwing Islam and the Turks into the discussion always complicates categories. And recognizing the complexity of the world and humans’ experience of it should be a welcome priority for all those who measure life in square inches.