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Looking West? Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey
Looking West? Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey
Ayse Hur

ISTANBUL — The Republican era of Turkey began with the rejection of the Ottoman past by those destined to fill the ranks of the civilian and military cadres under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This new establishment was keen on modernization and Westernization, with the ultimate goal of creating a modern nation-state from the remnants of an empire.

One of their key requirements to see their goal succeed was to transform the mindset of the people. They believed that the masses could learn what is “good,” “true” and “necessary” only under the leadership of a new elite. The founding cadres therefore believed that modernity could only be achieved by having absolute custody over the whole of the society — and were prepared to practice radical methods to see this through: Any form of opposition was crushed; democracy was never allowed to truly flourish.

This new Turkish national identity was thus taking form with a conflicting attitude vis-à-vis the West: On the one hand, it looked upon it as a role model; yet it also felt a sense of rejection and uneasiness brought on by an awareness that it could not attain the levels of advancement already achieved in Western Europe and the United States.

Hostility against the West was nurtured during the first years of the republic with the "Independence War won against the great powers" propaganda. At the same time, efforts were made to create a new state, a new order with Western foundations and terminology — such as nation, secularity and republic.

In the end, the solution was found in the discourse of Ziya Gokalp: “Civilization is universal while culture is local. Let us preserve our culture; there is nothing wrong with sharing the civilization from one side.” And yet we now know that “civilization” and “culture” or “Western Civilization” and “Western Culture” have taken shape by interacting with each other.

Turning inward

While political relations with the West were downgraded to a minimum after 1925, major moves to westernize the country were taken in terms of clothing, law, women’s rights, education, history, geography, archeology, language —with the implementation of a Latin alphabet — and architecture. With Turkey’s love-hate relationship since the Ottoman times, the goal was both to catch up with the West and severe all ties with the East. In the end, the establishment was to strive for the goal, as summed up in Ataturk’s famous quote: “We are like us.”

Kemalism, the driving ideology of the new nation, tried to overcome these inherent contradictions with odd claims such as the Turkish History Thesis (claiming all civilizations were founded by Turks who migrated from Central Asia) and the Sun Language Theory (claiming all languages originated from Turkish). In the end, the hostility felt toward the West and the extreme caution not to be drawn to the East forced Turkey to turn inward, spurred farther by the worldwide effects of the Great Depression.

A new era with the West

The cultural revolutions lost momentum with the death of Ataturk in 1938, but the true change came from foreign factors. Turkey chose to be a part of the Western Block after World War II, joining NATO in 1952, contributing to the Korean War and receiving aid by way of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan within the strategy of fortifying Europe against the Soviet Block.

The lack of national self-confidence grew less apparent as Turkey transformed from a largely agrarian nation to one of expanding industry. Debates over identity largely died down, and a growing bond with the United States began to develop. At the same time, however, the Turkish identity started to clash with Third World interests because good relations with the West demanded turning a deaf ear to the voices of its old colonies.

After 1955, the rightist conservative Democrat Party (DP) founded the Baghdad Pact which divided the Arab world into two — ending relations with the Third World at the Bandung Conference and siding with France against Algeria. This heightened the Turkish leftists’ criticism towards Ankara and the Western World. The conservative and Islamist intellectuals were already critical of the West since they recognized the “Jacobean republic” as a project of the West. The rude Johnson Letter from the U.S. President to Turkey in 1964, as the country was preparing to intervene with the Greek oppression of Turks in Cyprus, added fuel to the fire. In the end, the political elite, the intellectuals and the Turkish street were all left angry at the West.

The discovery of Orientalism

The spirit of the “national struggle” from the days of the independence war resurfaced in 1968 with the political atmosphere provided by the student protests that shook Europe, the Vietnam War and the U.S.’s growing lack of respect towards Turkey.

Events like the 1973 oil crisis and the U.S. banning Turkey from growing opium further added to the disaffection with the West. In the eyes of both right and left-leaning movements, the West was a “superior” but “hostile” antagonist. The bloody 1980 coup increased the hostility for the alleged American role.

Hostility against the West peaked in the 1990s, this time toward the European Union. The EU was perceived negatively in Turkey, as it was seen as constantly changing its mind about Turkey joining the Union, while favoring Greece in the dispute over Cyprus, and alleged support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The 1978 book Orientalism by Edward Said, which criticized the Western perspective of the East, influenced Turkish intellectuals deeply across the political spectrum, from Islamists to the liberals.

Philosophy Professor Hassan Hanafi of Cairo University, author of Introduction to the Science of Occidentalism, delivered an influential talk in 2002 in Turkey. “While we are busy looking toward the West in search of a solution, the West continues to surpass us. In the end, what we get is low self-opinion.”

Today, we are trying to join the EU even if we do it halfheartedly. We try to be the country that the U.S. can count on the most. In short, we are still trying to secure a position in the Western World. On the other hand, whenever we hear the word “West,” we imagine an eternal enemy who tries to divide, shatter and destroy us. We say that "the Westerners do not like us," but we have yet to answer the question of whether or not we like the West.

It is clear that the historic crimes of the West and its current questionable politics play a role in this, but the anti-Western propaganda used throughout the republican history of Turkey is an even more important factor. If we cannot ask ourselves the questions of who we are, what is the West and who is the Westerner, we will maintain this schizophrenic status for years to come.

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