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Out with the fez and into the EU

12 April 2011

How deep-rooted are Turkey’s hopes, asks Michael Wheeler


Invocation: a Naksibendi calligraphic picture in the form of a dervish cap, 1833-34, by Mustafa Hilmi, is used to suggest why pious Muslims were slow to see the advantages of printing, in Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity 


Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity: A history, 1789-2007
Carter Vaughn Findley
Yale University Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

A COUPLE of centuries covered, and a couple of decades in the making: the Humanities Distin­guished Professor of History at Ohio State University has produced a monumental work.

Several of the photographs reproduced were taken by Carter Vaughn Findley himself, whose energy and commit­ment are infec­tious, encouraging the reader to reflect on one of the most complex stories in modern history.

These days we think of Turkey as a petitioner, an aspirant to member­ship of the European Union. Expert opinion tends to interpret this aspiration as a “continuation of the Westward orientation defined under Atatürk and consolidated when Turkey joined NATO in 1952”.

Findley offers a more interesting argument: “deeper his­torical perspec­tive shows that Turkey’s hopes about the EU are the latest flowering of Ottoman states­men’s desire, already in the late 1700s, to gain admission to the European state system”.

Hitherto, the Ottoman Empire has been a subject for historians, whereas the Turkish republic be­longs to the social scientists. Findley challenges this bifurcation and provides us with an overarching historical narrative.

A further innovation: in order to understand all this, he argues, we need to engage with the imaginative literature that has come down to us since 1789. In a country in which the printing press has wielded great power, and the word “poet” used to be virtually synonymous with “intellectual”, political and literary discourses have often been con­flated. So this history of Turkey of­fers readings of key literary works at the end of chapters, a strategy that proves to be moderately suc­cessful.

Findley guides us from the days of a largely agricultural Ottoman Empire, with its dominant warlords and small scattered towns, to the upheavals of the 19th century and the activities of first the Young Ottomans and then the Young Turks. The Young Turk Revolution of 1908 was followed by the war years and the Ottoman-German alliance, and subsequently by the “Turkish National Struggle” (1919-22).

The Armenian massacres of 1915 ended centuries of what Findley describes as “symbiosis under the banner of a multiethnic Islamic state”. By the time that the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, Gazi Mustafa Kemal (“Atatürk” from 1935) presided over a ravaged land. Two years later, a revolt by the Kurds, who made up about one fifth of the population, was “vigorously” suppressed.

How did Islam fare on the march towards modernity? Religion, Findley suggests, came to be re­garded as a cultural phenomenon, while science reigned supreme. West­ern table settings replaced the age-long tradition of eating from a common dish. The international clock and calendar were introduced in 1925, along with Western-style hats. The veiling of women was discouraged.

Following the story through to the second republic (1960-80) and the (largely welcomed) military intervention that followed, we approach the Turkey that currently knocks on Europe’s door, the nation portrayed in Snow, an important novel by the Nobel Prizewinner Orhan Pamuk. Whether the Otto­man “sick man” is ever to be truly “of Europe” remains to be seen.

Professor Wheeler is curating the summer exhibition “Reading the Book of Books, Then and Now: The King James Bible 1611-2011” at Winchester Cathedral.

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