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Rethinking Turkey: Politics of Method and Analysis of the Republic’s First Century

Panel V-13, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Political plans to engage 2023, the centennial of the Republic of Turkey, as the celebration of a “new Türkiye” have been brutally interrupted by the 6 February 2023 earthquakes. The detrimental impact of the earthquakes not only marked the centennial with rubble and tremendous loss of lives and heritage sites, but also exposed the shortcomings of the state and its ideological, securitarian, and humanitarian apparatus. Government sponsored narratives mobilized to celebrate Turkey’s new century (including but not confined to neo-Ottoman narratives of a glorious past projected to the future; Turkish leadership of Islamic civilization; claims of championing humanitarianism; showcasing infrastructure and construction business as signs of modernity; national security; or anti-colonialism and anti-Islamophobia) have long been circulating in the public domain. Over the last two decades, such narratives and accompanying policies have informed numerous academic works that deployed critical categories to address them, such as populism, authoritarianism, alt-right, securitarianism, modernization, soft power, or civilizationism. Turkey’s ruling party AKP’s 20 years of power, of course, constitute only one fifth of the Republic’s lifespan. Given how different aspects of the history, culture, demographic composition, and politics of the country have been rewritten, commemorated, enshrined, muted, selectively amplified, or omitted through different paradigms across the first century of the Republic, how can we rethink the analysis of Turkey, its connected histories, topographies, and peoples? Considering how different methods generate their “epistemological others,” to quote from sociologist George Steinmetz, what dominant paradigms need to be reconsidered? From nationalism to denialism, from Kemalism to Islamism, from secularism to anti-Orientalism, from Kemalist interpretation of Lausanne and minorities to liberal human rights, from imperial models of co-existence to the notion of republic, from claims of liminality to “millet system,” there are multiple categories that have long been deployed to explain different dynamics associated with Turkey, such as debates on secularism, nationalist historical paradigms, or imperial histories. Granted, such categories are also not carved into stone and their meanings are subject to change across time and space. This interdisciplinary panel revisits a selection of such categories, paradigms, and/or sites, including but not confined to Kemalism(s), national and/or foundational narratives, national configurations of sexuality, and Turkey's policies of “Civilization,” to reconsider their methodological and epistemological implications and address the afterlives of these notions, related policies, and material culture sites.
Political Science
  • Popularized after the 9/11 attacks, Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” has marked political debates on the Middle East and Islam in the new millenium, and informed institutional attempts to offer an antidote, such as country and regional branding initiatives facilitated by the World Economic Forum, or the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations initiative. Turkey was at the heart of these initiatives, and government officials cooperated with brand image consultants to rebrand Turkey, advertised as a bridge between civilizations. Neo-Ottomanism increasingly grew as a project projecting an “authentic” image, with the Ottoman Empire depicted as a great model of the rule of Islam, where multi-confessional groups co-existed. Within this framework, AKP officials appear to have anachronistically rediscovered “liberal multiculturalism” as a history of “tolerance” in the Ottoman past, and used this notion to demonstrate a positive aspect of Ottomans configured as natural leaders of Islamic heritage. While neo-Ottomanism already existed as a political thought and ideology, this kind of interpretation became more salient especially in the contemporary context. Recently, liberal claims of neo-Ottomanism are abandoned to transnationally promote Islamic civilizationism, which coincides with the rise of white supremacist civilizationism in Europe and beyond. Responding to these dynamics, recent scholarship engaged the notion of civilization critically, while others proposed “civilization” as a useful category of analysis. My presentation is situated against this backdrop and focuses on the interwar-era Turkish historical and intellectual narratives on “Civilization” and their translation to material-culture sites. Rather than considering civilization as an analytical lens, which I argue is a methodological question, I examine different practices revolving around this notion and identify the broader implications of “civilization” accordingly. Specifically for this presentation, I combine textual and visual culture analysis with archival research, and examine the Turkish participation to the 1939 New York World Fair, the tropes deployed in this process, and situate this participation within a broader context. The first World Exhibition that the Turkish government participated after the declaration of the Republic, the Turkish partaking in the 1939 World Fair crystallizes how narratives of Civilization and nation are intertwined. Further, while promoting commodity culture, the World Exhibition sites offer earlier forms of country branding initiatives with civilizationist undertones. Drawing from this research, I contend that contemporary narratives of civilization extract concepts and mechanisms from earlier parochial nationalist projects (including but not confined to Turkey), and feeding them into the larger narratives of civilizationism taking hold today.
  • Co-Authors: Gunes Murat Tezcur
    For the centennial of the Republic, we offer a novel reading of Turkey’s past and present focusing on its most iconic space: Anıtkabir, the Mausoleum of Atatürk, the founder of the polity. Taking the Mausoleum as our lodestar, we map how the notion of sacredness traverses secular and Islamic faultlines and acts as a force both fostering and mediating conflict. Completed in 1953, the Mausoleum mirrors the ascendancy of a secular and republican nationalism and citizenship over an Ottoman and Islamic public sphere. Despite widespread transformations taking place in Turkey in the last two decades, it is still the most important political space in the country. However, the meanings associated with Anıtkabir have evolved considerably as Islam has gained significant public visibility. Our novel conceptualization of Anıtkabir has two core elements. First, we define Anıtkabir as a sacred space; a location profoundly valued by a large number of people for paying their respects to the Republican founder, expressing their commitment to the political entity he inaugurated, and taking a stance against perceived threats to his legacy. In addition to being a space for official ceremonies involving both Turkish leaders and foreign dignitaries, it continues to attract ordinary people. Next, we define the Mausoleum as a megaproject, which is a highly symbolic and massive public undertaking involving major time, labor, and resource commitments as well as coordinated and long-term, at times intergenerational, efforts to complete. Anıtkabir’s construction spanned a good decade that were also transitional years between the single-party regime and multiparty politics, each with their distinct governing ethos. Studying Anıtkabir enables us to offer an original account of how political power was crafted, how national identity was constructed and reconfigured, and how the republic was imagined shortly after its founding. To make these points, we examine prominent newspapers with opposing ideological orientations, such as Cumhuriyet, Tan, Ulus, and Zafer during intense public debates around Anitkabir’s construction, the architectural competition and the different visions of the public implied in competing projects, and finally, the shifts in choices that accompanied the transition from a single-party regime to a multi-party democracy. We argue that, as a sacred space and a megaproject, the Mausoleum is not only a hegemonic symbol of secular-nationalism, but it also continues to represent controversy and resistance about Turkey’s identity. Overall, our paper brings to light how the politics of Anıtkabir fits within a critical assessment of Turkey’s republican centennial.
  • In this paper, I will interrogate traditional/modern and East(ern)/West(ern) as central categories that have been employed in scholarship on Turkey. Unlike most of this scholarship, however, I will center sexuality as a vector through which such categories are animated. From the Republic’s management of uncivilized savage sexualities, such as polygamy and arranged marriages, to the recent and explicit uptake of LGBTI+ politics as one of the key sites through which the AKP government seeks to mobilize a voter base, sexuality clearly sits at the heart of the Turkish nation-state, as it does for most nation-states. What sites are opened up for interrogation and how are our categories of thought reworked when we place the regulation of sexuality at the center of violent nation-making, civilization-making, and contemporary governance? I suggest that understanding sexuality not (just) as a matter of recognition but also redistribution reveals its work as a mode of nation-making, land-settling, labor-power producing but also as a way to racialize and minoritize. The paper will conclude with a discussion of recent “anti-LGBTI+” marches organized around the country that work to push sexuality into a narrow matter of “perversity” that would trigger responses of rights and recognition. I will suggest that continuing to tell a materialist story of the work of sexuality despite these political moves is vital for true social transformation towards a different co-existence in the second century of the Republic. In order to make these points I will be bringing various materials on the two seemingly divergent points of analysis together: polygamy and LGBTI+ politics. Through an analysis of news media coverage of two sexual sites, "traditional" polygamy and "modern" LGBTI+, as well as of interviews with women in polygamous marriages and LGBTI+ activists I will show that sex is a central concern for the Republic as much for its ideological as it is for its distributive challenges.
  • This paper focuses on the theoretical purchase of “paranoia” in analyzing the Turkish state and its persecution anxieties. Departing from its colloquial uses, I mobilize “paranoia” as a psychoanalytic category to examine the recurrent authority crisis of the Turkish state since its foundation which simultaneously produces and castrates the nation’s “fathers.” Why did Mustafa Kemal never have a biological child? What happened to his adoptees? Did Turgut Ozal really have a heart attack or was the first Kurdish president of Turkey killed by the “deep” state? Has the son of Turgut Ozal afflicted by persecution delusions about his father? Does Recep T. Erdogan have a secret terminal illness that makes him falter when he gives public speech? Why have both of his sons wiped out of politics? These rumors circulate time and again on mainstream and social media at the moments of political crisis. The previous literature has examined the relationship between political leaders and their supporters through the lens of desire for a father in the symbolic order. This paper expands on this literature by focusing on the rumors that surface on traditional and social media outlets. It asks how the sovereign authority these “fathers” assume in the symbolic order is undermined by anxieties originating in the real and fantasies produced in the imaginary register. If the fiction of nationalism draws on kinship ideologies, this paper examines the plots that undermine the Turkish nationalist fiction. The aim is to explore the slippery ground on which national sovereignty moves in the ostensibly secular politics. I use the term “secular” in a limited way to imply that the nation’s fathers do not derive their authority from a transcendental force. But what is the source of their authority? What fills the lack left by the evacuation of God from politics since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire? What if we read the first one hundred years of the Turkish state through the lens of an unfillable gap that mass produces enemies to cover what it lacks — legitimacy.