[Marxism] Two new books on Turkey

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 21 11:30:12 MDT 2006

Nation Magazine May 8, 2006

East West


The Turks in World History
by Carter Vaughn Findley

Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World
by Hugh Pope

Between the world wars, Turkish schoolchildren imbibed a version of their 
nation's past drawn up under the close supervision of Kemal Atatürk, the 
Father of the Nation himself. Their four-volume history unambiguously 
asserted the Turks' central role in the development of world civilization; 
its maps displayed a fantastic array of bold red lines that snaked outward 
in all directions from their original home in the Inner Asia heartlands, 
tracing their peregrinations as far afield as China and Scotland, not to 
mention the Iberian Peninsula, Morocco, Sudan, India and Java. Had the 
Turks really left nowhere or nothing untouched? The Hittites were claimed 
as theirs; so were the Macedonians, Germans, Etruscans--and even for a time 
the Prophet Muhammad.

Today the Turkish History Thesis looks like another case study in 
twentieth-century nationalist myth-making, like Himmler's Tibetan Aryans, 
French Gauls or King Fuad's Pharaonism. Yet there was a truth at its core. 
As those school maps implied, Anatolia--the home of the Turkish 
Republic--was just one of the Turks' numerous destinations: But if so, what 
really was the relationship between modern Turkey and what its 
intellectuals once called the "Outer Turks" of Central Asia?

Until recently, this was merely a matter of antiquarian interest for most 
people west of Istanbul. No longer. Last year, London's Royal Academy 
hosted a blockbuster of a show titled "The Turks: A Journey of a Thousand 
Years, 600-1600." Beginning on the borders of seventh-century China, with 
Buddhist cave paintings from Xinjiang, home today to the Turkic Uyghurs, 
placed next to massive Kyrgyz stone cupbearers from Central Asia, the 
exhibition offered a magnificent panorama of cultures and demonstrated 
through carpets, ceramics, carvings and miniatures how Turkic-speaking 
peoples acted as the intermediaries for a fusion of Chinese, Persian, 
Arabic and European traditions. The exhibition ended in 1600, at the summit 
of Ottoman power, as if to suggest that the Ottoman sultans, Europe's own 
Turks, were where this Eurasian world-historical process reached its 
culmination. But this display of Ottomania--a craze, currently sweeping 
Istanbul, that has branded everything from Sufi jazz bands to tourist gift 
shops--was very much a reflection of the present moment. A new generation 
of Turks is again knocking at Europe's door, and the show was obviously 
designed to assert--just as Atatürk's History Thesis did in the 
1930s--Turkey's civilizational credentials, in a spirit simultaneously 
defiant and hopeful.

What the exhibition also underscored is that Europe is not the Turks' only 
option. Indeed, as the negotiations over European Union membership finally 
sputtered into life, the country announced the opening of the new 
billion-dollar oil pipeline from Baku to the Mediterranean, with an equally 
important gas pipeline not far behind. Turning itself into the hub for the 
vast fuel reserves of the Caspian basin, it is also looking eastward--to 
Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics--and rediscovering its past. 
Turkish membership is the single most important issue likely to confront 
the EU over the next decade, and the two books reviewed here provide plenty 
of help in understanding what this transformation of Turkey's place in the 
world implies for international affairs. Carter Vaughn Findley's The Turks 
in World History is a panoramic and scholarly survey of the Eurasian longue 
durée, written by a well-respected American historian of the Ottoman 
Empire; Sons of the Conquerors by Hugh Pope, an experienced correspondent 
who runs the Istanbul bureau for the Wall Street Journal, contains incisive 
political and cultural reportage of the same area over the past decade. 
Between them, they allow us to explore the complex connection between 
Turkey and the Turks, and in the process to see more clearly where Europe 
fits in.

Who is a Turk? worried Turkish nationalists a century ago as the Ottoman 
Empire's European provinces slipped from the Porte's grasp. To counter 
Russian pan-Slavism and the weak Ottoman response, some of them came up 
with a new ideology: pan-Turkism. Their raw material was the hundreds of 
thousands of refugees who had been forced to make their way into Anatolia 
from the Caucasus, the Crimea and the Balkans. Racially, socially and 
linguistically diverse, they mainly shared their faith, and many might well 
have empathized with Sultan Abdul Hamid II's vision of pan-Islamic 
solidarity. But after World War I, with the empire on its deathbed and even 
its Arab provinces lost, religion was not the common denominator to which 
Atatürk and his fellow republicans would appeal. On the contrary, they 
abolished the caliphate, dissolved most of the Sufi orders and brought the 
ulema under close control. Seeing in secularism and state supervision of 
religion the route to modernity, they took their civil code from 
Switzerland and their criminal law from Italy, and defined belonging in the 
new Turkish nation-state through language--stripping Ottoman Turkish of its 
Arabic and Persian accretions, and writing it in the Latin script. Many 
refugees found themselves and their children learning a new tongue.

New to them, perhaps, but Turkish was and had long been a kind of lingua 
franca for merchants, political agitators and pilgrims across much of 
Central Asia and western China. Ironically, however, as the Turkish 
Republic rose from the ashes of the old empire, the simultaneous triumph of 
Soviet Communism curtailed such contacts. Atatürk concentrated on 
preserving Turkish sovereignty in Anatolia itself. And when his rival and 
former commander, Enver Pasha, died in battle in 1922, hopes of a 
pan-Turkish uprising against the Bolshevik regime died with him. Its 
external boundaries patrolled more rigorously than they ever had been by 
the tsars, the Soviet Union encompassed the Turkic-speaking peoples of 
Central Asia and cut them off from their neighbors. Later, Chinese 
Communist rule in Xinjiang had a similarly isolating effect so far as the 
Uyghurs were concerned. The twentieth century thus marked both the rise of 
modern Turkey and the fragmentation of a Turkic oikumene (homeland) that 
had existed for more than a millennium.

Among the chief creators of that Turkic Eurasia had been the Mongol khans, 
whose world empire rested on the twin pillars of Turkish and Islam. In 1401 
the historian Ibn Khaldun was brought to meet their last great leader, 
Tamerlane, outside the walls of Damascus. In his works on world history, 
the scholar had argued that the key determinant of civilization was the 
endless cyclical struggle between nomadic and sedentary peoples; one could, 
he argued, see that process at work among the Arabs in the seventh century, 
for instance, or in the clash between the Berbers of North Africa and the 
cities of the Iberian Peninsula. Tamerlane, of course, whose conquests 
extended from Moscow to Delhi, provided the clearest possible illustration 
of the military power of a nomadic polity. Although neither of the two men 
could have known it, as they conversed about history, religion and 
business, Tamerlane was also its last major representative. In the great 
Mongol eruption of the early fifteenth century, the first phase of Turkic 
history ended and a second began. Ibn Khaldun's cycle of history was 
broken, and the age of Turkic wanderings was replaced by the consolidation 
of highly organized Turkic empires.

It had all begun, as Findley makes clear in The Turks in World History, 
about eight centuries earlier. Turks were in demand for their military 
skills, and many became mercenaries in the Arab armies of the Middle East. 
In the tenth century, they started to settle in significant numbers in Iran 
and Syria; soon they were pressing upon the borders of Byzantine Anatolia. 
In 1071 the Seljuk Turks succeeded where Arab armies had failed, and by 
defeating a Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert, they gradually 
conquered the Anatolian highlands, pushing the zone of Christendom back to 
the coast. Since these Turkic invaders had adopted Islam, their victory 
opened Anatolia to Muslim settlement as well. In fact, Islam was the 
overwhelmingly favored religion of those tribes that moved south and west, 
though some Turkic tribes adopted Christianity and others Judaism and 
Buddhism. (One eighth-century Uyghur ruler became Manichean, testimony to 
the enduring influence of Persian culture.) But religious conversion was 
only part of the transition from a nomadic, pastoralist, tribal-based 
polity to a more sedentary urban state. As groups of tribes made this 
transition, they allied their own military skills with the bureaucratic and 
administrative techniques of those they conquered--whether Chinese, Persian 
or Byzantine. Far from destroying the states they overran, in other words, 
the Turks were in some respects if not conquered then deeply influenced by 
those they had defeated. The Mamluk rulers of Egypt ended up speaking 
Arabic; the Moghuls, Persian and later Urdu.

For nomad dynasties, as Ibn Khaldun stressed, the challenge was not so much 
conquest as managing to hold on to power for more than one or two 
generations. Turkish settlement in Anatolia did not immediately bring 
political stability, and the Seljuks themselves were soon pushed aside as 
the region was carved up among powerful emirs. The family that became known 
as the Ottomans was one of the lesser of these dynasties, stationed on the 
northwestern border with the Byzantines. Starting in the early fourteenth 
century, they pushed westward, taking over Christian lands in Anatolia and 
then moving to the European shore. Among their allies were disillusioned 
Byzantine generals, Catholic-hating Orthodox bishops and Balkan princes, 
while dynastic marriages brought Christian princesses into imperial harems. 
 From the start, therefore, the Ottoman state was associated, to an extent 
unmatched by any other Turkic polity, with the world of Eastern 
Christendom. Even if we do not go as far as the Romanian historian Nicolae 
Iorga, who claimed that the Ottoman Empire was a kind of "Byzantium after 
Byzantium," it certainly owed much to its predecessor. Following the 
conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed's proud claim to be the emperor 
of the Romans reflected this European orientation.

Tamerlane had nearly put an end to the Ottomans' dizzying ascent to world 
power. Shortly after his meeting with Ibn Khaldun, his Turkic-speaking 
Mongol army inflicted the worst defeat in Ottoman history, plunging the 
empire into a two-decade succession crisis. When the empire re-emerged, it 
was into a very different era. Gunpowder now gave the upper hand to highly 
organized imperial polities and doomed nomadic dynasties like Tamerlane's 
that were unable to adjust. As his successors argued among themselves, the 
steppe peoples lost their lethality and fell under the control of the 
empires of Russia and China; the last to go were the picturesque khanates 
of Bukhara and Khiva in the mid-nineteenth century. Where Turkic states 
survived, it was because they made the transition to a different form of 
imperial government--in the Ottoman lands but also in Safavid Persia and 
Moghul India.

Findley's lucid exposition mines a rich vein of historical comparison. 
Although all three dynasties were of Turkic origin, only under the Ottomans 
were Turkish speakers sufficiently numerous to preserve their tongue as the 
linguistic foundation of the empire. The fate of Islam in the three empires 
was very different too: In India, the Moghuls quickly stretched the letter 
of the religious law in order to come to terms with a predominantly Hindu 
population; in Safavid Persia, at the other extreme, the dynasty forced 
Twelver Shiism upon the largely Sunni population. The Ottomans, who 
conquered Syria, Egypt and the holy places of the Hijaz as their Safavid 
rivals seized power to their east, reacted by emphasizing the Sunni 
character of the state and claimed the caliphate for further legitimacy. Of 
these three dominant powers of southern Eurasia, the Ottomans were the 
oldest and most successful, easily outlasting the others before finally 
succumbing in the aftermath of World War I.

Findley leaves no doubt as to the massive impact of Turkic tribes on the 
history of Eurasia, whether in the earlier phase of nomadic raiding empires 
or in the later transition to settled dynastic and bureaucratic states. But 
what--aside from language--did the Turks have in common? Sometimes it seems 
as if both authors are searching for a set of special racial 
characteristics of one kind or another. Pope talks a trifle unnervingly 
about "a universal Turkic look," a certain recognizable physical type, and 
he even suggests, buying perhaps a little too readily into the mythology of 
the Atatürkist military, that the Turks have a special genius for war. For 
his part, Findley sees a metaphorical carpet being woven on the loom of 
Turkish historical experience, binding the Turkic world together. But does 
it really hold? A language of quasi-racial unity that would be shouted down 
if applied to any European people--who spends much time pondering the unity 
of the Slavs?--still, it seems, holds an appeal for Turkish specialists.

Not surprisingly, given today's obsessions, another way of identifying what 
makes the Turks special involves highlighting their attitude to Islam. Both 
Pope and Findley, like other contemporary commentators, want to suggest 
that there is a Turkic form of Islam, more flexible, tolerant and adaptable 
to the modern world than its Arab counterparts. They see the roots of this 
in Central Asian shamanism, Mongol religious syncretism and Sufi 
traditions, and find its political expression in Prime Minister Recep 
Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, his moderate Islamist Justice and Development 
Party. To my ears this explanation is unconvincing. If we are interested in 
the differences between Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, it is 
probably neither necessary nor accurate to talk in terms of some benign 
syncretism--as though external influences are required to drain an 
essentially belligerent faith of its venom. Such an approach involves a 
question-begging definition of what Islam "really" is. History and politics 
are surely more relevant. By preserving Turkish independence and preventing 
Anatolia from being carved up after 1918, Atatürk marked Turkey out from 
the less fortunate Arab provinces to the south and gave his successors a 
unique legacy in the Middle East and fewer grievances vis-à-vis the West. 
More recently too, as Pope observes, the Turkish regimes and states of the 
post-cold war era have found that unlike the Arabs, their interests have 
largely coincided with the policies of the United States. As so often, what 
we pose as a question of religion is really a matter of geopolitical fortunes.

The truth is that religious and linguistic kinship binds Turks together 
about as much as it does the Slavs, which is to say not at all. Pope's 
adventures around the Turkic world chart its--and his--gradual 
disenchantment with the vision of a common cultural and political space 
that briefly seized hold of Turkish politicians after the collapse of the 
Soviet Union. For a moment, the end of the cold war made it look as though 
the legacies of Atatürk and Enver could be combined. In the early 1990s, 
President Ozal tried to persuade the rulers of the newly independent 
Central Asian republics of the benefits of Turkey's hegemony. But their new 
political elites were keen to enjoy their newfound freedom. They wanted 
Turkish know-how and capital; the Azeris wanted Turkish arms in 
Nagorno-Karabakh. But none wanted to sacrifice independence for a 
pan-Turkish dream. Since 1993 the pan-Turkish summits have gone nowhere. 
The Eastern option, driven as late as 1997 from Ankara after the 
humiliation of being rebuffed for early membership by Brussels, now looks 

In a sequence of superbly reported episodes, Pope explains why. New despots 
rule most of the Central Asian republics with an iron hand and try to buy 
off the populace with the proceeds of oil, gas and mineral exploitation. 
Meanwhile, the legacy of Soviet-era pollution and ecological devastation 
continues to haunt the region. Despite its vast natural wealth, Azerbaijan 
has been unable to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh from the equally impoverished 
Armenians--so much for Turkic military prowess. Turkey itself keeps aloof, 
providing the Azeris with a lesson in the difference between the rhetoric 
of racial solidarity and the reality of national interest; Pope describes 
an Enver Pasha garage that stands forlornly on the way to Moscow Prospekt. 
As a result, the prospect of Moscow, weakened beyond what anyone could have 
imagined in 1989, is paradoxically less frightening to the Central Asian 
republics: After a lot of talk about introducing the Latin alphabet, 
Cyrillic still rules.

If Pope's picture of the stagnation of life in Central Asia is deeply 
depressing, Turkey itself seems to be a country transformed. Starting with 
the economic liberalization of the 1980s and accelerating with the move 
toward Europe in the past decade, the country appears galvanized by new 
energy. Pope hails the provincial entrepreneurs whose goods are Turkey's 
chief influence eastward and a powerful reason why Turkey still outweighs 
Iran as a regional power. This group underpins the rise of Prime Minister 
Erdogan's AKP and shows, he argues, the compatibility of Islam with 
capitalism and democracy. Meanwhile, the old state apparatus fights 
anything more than cosmetic change: At the Aydin police station--whose 
chief is an honorary mayor of Baton Rouge--they are playing Leonard Cohen 
through the public address system, but Pope is still kept away from the 
antiterrorist cells.

And what of Europe, accustomed for so long to see itself as the Turks' 
opposite? The historical irony that leaps out of Findley's invigorating 
survey in particular is that the inhabitants of present-day Turkey and of 
its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, were and are in fact the most 
Europeanized of the Turks, as deeply marked by their proximity to 
Christendom as Khublai Khan was by China. Indeed, today's second-generation 
Turkish immigrants in Germany and the Netherlands, interviewed by Pope, 
feel more at home there than in Anatolia. They have no difficulty 
accommodating their religious views--in fact, they find the atmosphere 
freer in some ways than it was back home, and as the generations pass, the 
clash between village ways and the new habits of urban life is attenuated. 
There are thus many reasons to welcome the EU's recent decision to open 
negotiations with Turkey. But as Austria's resistance to this suggests, old 
stereotypes die hard: It is not only the Turkish History Thesis that needs 



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